The Virgin Islands is a paradise not only full of beauty but also an alluring history. Just below the surface of our ever changing sand and unbelievably blue waters is the story of square riggers battling for their crown, pirates trading goods and hiding in the protection of promises made by corrupt governors of St. Thomas. Pirate and maritime history is rich in the Virgin Islands, and while some records, wrecks and artifacts have been discovered, so much of this history is difficult to piece together. Never before has a maritime museum in the VI attempted to bring this era to life for visitors or locals – until now.
The Pirates Treasure Museum
The Pirates Treasure Museum is privately funded and is proud to work with Odyssey Marine Exploration to feature a diverse array of their recovered artifacts. Odyssey Marine Exploration is a leader in innovative deep sea exploration. While a shipwreck can be found in less than 10 feet of water, others are beyond the reach of scuba divers, even divers using special mixed air. Odyssey uses deep sea exploration robots controlled from the surface to recover artifacts from wrecks that have been discovered at depths beyond human reach.
Odyssey’s first recovery was the SS Republic, a Civil War ship found 1700 feet below the surface. Using their ROV, Odyssey recovered 51,000 coins as well as nearly 14,000 artifacts. Many of these artifacts, as well as a replica of the robot used to recover them, are on display in the museum. What is even cooler, you can actually use the replica of the robot to try your hand at picking up objects remotely! The Pirates Treasure Museum is highly interactive. Immerse yourself in the life of a pirate, a privateer or even a modern day salvage diver.
Beyond the Odyssey and SS Republic exhibits, the museum has researched and presented the lives of two of the most notorious names from the late 1600’s, Jean Hamlin, in command of the La Trompeuse, and Bartholemew Sharp, in command of the Trinity. Sharp was a privateer with no moral code, and Hamlin was a pirate, well known for his ruthless and violent nature.
Pirate Jean Hamlin enjoyed peaceful sanctuary in the harbor of St. Thomas aboard his ship La Trompeuse. With the governors easily bribed, the harbor of Charlotte Amalie was a well known safe haven for pirates throughout many years in the late 1600s to early 1700s.
Unfortunately for Hamlin, although Governor Esmitt (of Danish St. Thomas) had offered his protection, English naval officer Captain Carlile, in command of the HMS Francis, was hunting for Hamlin and the La Trompeuse. After arriving in St. Thomas, Captain Carlile confirmed the identity of La Trompeuse and asked governor Adolph Esmitt for permission to take possession of the ship.
Esmitt denied Carlile’s request, so under the cover of night, Captain Carlile’s men snuck aboard the La Trompeuse and set the vessel afire. On July 31, 1683, Hamlin’s ship sank. But before the La Trompeuse met her end, she drifted into the Trinity, Barthomlew Sharp’s ship, and caught her afire, sinking both vessels. Both Hamlin and Sharp are said to have escaped with the assistance of Governor Esmitt.
Fun Fact – There are accounts that La Trompeuse sank with a large cache of silver. To this day, neither the wrecks of the Trompeuse or the Trinity have been confirmed to be found.
The Pirates Treasure Museum brings this story to life in a vivid way with a large painting of Hamlin and other reconstructions of his life and the burning of his ship. It is fascinating to think of this fire fight happening right here in the Charlotte Amalie Harbor, where cruise ships dock all the time. In fact, right across from across from The Pirates Treasure Museum.
The Hurricane of 1867
At the museum, more incredible stories are told, like the hurricane of 1867. This November will be the 150 year anniversary of the hurricane which sunk the RMS Rhone, the RMS Conway (both in the BVI) and the Rhone’s sister ship which sank in USVI waters, the RMS Wye.
When hurricanes were unpredictable, before the time of modern forecasting and satellites, storms were an ominous threat to all ships and inhabitants of the Caribbean. When it became apparent that a hurricane was coming, the RMS Conway believed the RMS Rhone to be safer and offloaded many of their passengers to the Rhone. The captain of the Rhone tried to make for open water to ride out the storm, but did not make it, only reaching Salt Island.
Passengers were strapped to their bunks, in the belief it was safer, and many drowned. The Rhone, and the Wye sank but there are conflicting reports as to how the Conway fared. The Rhone and the Wye both had survivors. You can snorkel or dive these wrecks to this very day, and they are astounding to see. Schedule an underwater tour of the wreck of the Rhone with Low Key Watersports, available Thursdays during season.
Historical accounts from this time are horrifying – men clinging to masts of their sunken ship through the storm to survive, crew from the Wye desperately holding onto the rocks of Buck Island, corpses washing up on Tortola for weeks.
Another Royal Mail Steam Packet ship in the Rhone’s fleet assisted with rescue efforts. Ironically, after narrowly evading the tragedy of the hurricane, the Douro went on to sink on April 1, 1882, after colliding with a Spanish steamship. The Douro was loaded with treasure, coins and jewels, and over 28,000 coins have been recovered including British Gold Sovereigns. You will find many of these at the Pirates Treasure Museum, even some available for purchase.
These Stories Brought to Life
The Pirates Treasure Museum brings the maritime history of the Virgin Islands to life. I had the good fortune to observe the museum’s planning and installation, but I’m still floored every time I walk through the door. Each display gleams and begs to be seen. The opportunities to interact with the displays are incredible. Most amazing is the wealth of maritime history, right there in front of you!
Prior to the opening of the Pirates Treasure Museum, one of the favorite places on St. Thomas to go for shipwreck coin necklaces and other historical pieces was the Pirate’s Chest, owned by Sean Loughman. The Pirates Treasure Museum has absorbed the Pirate’s Chest and all of Sean’s inventory. You will even find Sean himself at the museum. He has joined the team as their Sales Manager. Sean is packed full of information about everything in the museum and he’s ready and able to explain the historical context of a given piece.
“It’s very exciting to bring awareness to the fact we had two notorious pirates, both Jean Hamlin and Bartholomew Sharp, who essentially called the USVI their home. Before the museum, this was virtually an unknown fact to many and this is such an interesting part of our maritime history.” – Sean Loughman
The assortment of artifacts featured in the museum and the wealth of information is absolutely fascinating. There are even several artifacts which have been found in the waters of the Virgin Islands and are on loan from private collectors.
The Pirates Treasure Museum is a welcomed addition to the attractions of the USVI and should not be missed by locals or visitors alike. Before this, the maritime history of the USVI was dug out of archives, old letters, journals, newspaper articles and countless other sources. Now, all that information has been brought to life in the appropriate context with timelines and historical accounts for you to marvel at.
So, what are you waiting for? Head on over to The Pirates Treasure Museum and tell Sean that Leah, Colin, and Scuppers sent you!
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About Leah Randall
I have been going back and forth to this beloved rock since 2004. When my Dad bought a scuba diving charter business in 2005, I made my move from off-island-local to for-real-local. Just as everyone does down here, I dabble in many things.