Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Saint Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum

Walt Disney World is replete with pirates, from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and A Pirate's Adventure: Treasure of the Seven Seas interactive game, to Peter Pan's Flight and the Pirates and Pals Fireworks Voyage (not to mention the great Pirates of the Caribbean game in DisneyQuest). An approximate three-hour drive from Orlando, Florida brings visitors to the centre of a town bristling with a true-life legacy of pirates: Saint Augustine. 

Saint Augustine was the first town founded by the Spanish on the continent, thus making it the oldest city in the United States. After the town was established in 1565, work began on a series of forts, culminating in the stone Castillo de San Marcos. These forts frequently fended off attacks by English and French privateers, with varying degrees of success. One of the worst attacks was by Sir Francis Drake, whose crew managed to occupy and ransack the town for three days at the end of May, 1586. 

Given such a legacy, Saint Augustine was a natural place for entrepreneur Pat Croce to relocate his collection of authentic pirate artifacts. Right across the street from the Castillo de San Marcos, the Saint Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum is a marvellous institution to cap off a visit to a city with so many connections to historical scallywags and swashbucklers.   

After making millions in sports therapy, as president of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team, a television personality and motivational speaker, Croce indulged his passion for the Golden Age of Piracy. In addition to purchasing collections of artifacts, he has also financed and served on a number of marine archaeological expeditions. One of his great victories is having found the remains of Sir Francis Drake's fleet. "I think those pirates were the entrepreneurs of their day," Croce explains of his interest, with the panache of a salesman. "Because they were going after a dream, no different than I go after dreams today with different business schemes."

The Pirate and Treasure Museum displays a wide range of the pieces Croce has collected, as well as a number of items on loan from Florida's academic institutions. Adjacent to the museum is the Colonial Quarter living history museum, which is a project co-owned by Croce and the University of Florida. Among the artifacts on display are actual gold and silver bars from sunken wrecks, the only authentic pirate treasure chest in existence, an original wanted poster, and one of three remaining Jolly Roger flags. The chest belonged to Thomas Tew, a sailor from Rhode Island turned privateer in Bermuda turned pirate around Madagascar. After finding financial backers in Bermuda who equipped him with a ship and crew and letter of marque, he took off and sailed into the Red Sea and oceans around Madagascar, looting and pillaging the Indian and Arab ships rich in spices, silks, ivory, and gold. After that first voyage (and paying off his backers), he went out again to find that other pirates lit onto his success. Despite teaming up with them, he met his end by disembowelment from a stray cannonball. His chest, rather than something intended to be buried - which pirates were not actually in the habit of doing - was more like a safe that had a number of trick mechanisms protecting the booty inside.     

The "buried treasure" exhibit.

The original treasure chest owned by pirate Thomas Tew.
A Jolly Roger flag in the "Captain's Cabin" exhibit.
An original pirate wanted poster.
The occasional review on social media criticizes the museum for having many artifacts that are "from the time" or "like the ones" owned by pirates rather than those artifacts directly connected to one or another historic personality. This is actually a strength of a museum, as it is not merely a curiousity cabinet of coins and weapons. Instead, it tries to reconstruct the social context of pirates, including a number of archaeological finds from famous pirate-associated ports like Port Royal and Saint Augustine. There are also artifacts from shipwrecks like the Atocha, which went down near the Florida Keys in 1622.

Shop windows recreating old Saint Augustine.

Different varieties of cannonballs.
An interesting display on archaeology conducted in
Saint Augustine, including the layer of ash
left behind by Sir Francis Drake.

In keeping with the theme of archaeology, one of the most interesting pieces in the collection is a shard of wood recovered from one of Drake's ships. Though one of the most successful pirates of all time, enjoying the favour of Queen Elizabeth I and being the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, Drake could not escape the ravaging effects of disease. He died in 1596 of dysentery and was buried at sea in Panama's Portobelo Bay. After the burial, his crew emptied his two ships - the Elizabeth and the Delight - and scuttled them. In 2011, the remains of the two ships were found by Croce and his crew. Unfortunately the ships were denuded of anything of value, so there was no treasure, or artifacts, or even the ship's bell to positively identify it. However, the identity of the ships is fairly evident and now the hunt is on for Drake's lead coffin, which is presumed to be somewhere nearby.

A piece of a sunken pirate ship, preserved in water.
A model of one of Drake's ships.
Diorama of a clandestine meeting with Drake. 

Also distinguishing the Pirate and Treasure Museum from a mere curiousity cabinet is some excellent exhibit design. Inside the otherwise nondescript building teems the sights and sounds of the Caribbean. The centre part of the building recreates the deck of a pirate ship with exploding canons. Off the port side is a tavern in Saint Augustine where one can access multimedia terminals to learn about the lives of historical pirates. One chilling corner shows the fate of pirates, from the hangman's noose to a gibbet with a decaying corpse to Blackbeard's severed, animatronic head telling the tale of his demise. Off the starboard side is the island of buried treasure. At the conclusion of this delightfully imagineered experience is a collection of Hollywood pirate props including Jack Sparrow's sword, One-Eyed Willy, and several variations of Captain Hook's namesake appendage. 

The dreadful gibbet.
Ships ahoy!

Hook's hook from Peter Pan (2003, above) and Hook (below). 
One-Eyed Willy from Goonies.
Jack Sparrow's cutlass.

If one is looking for a brief but edifying respite from Walt Disney World, Saint Augustine is a prime choice. Between the Castillo de San Marcos, the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park, and the Saint Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum, this city steeped in pirate lore and Spanish conquest is a fascinating detour.Sometimes dead men do find a way to tell tales!

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