World Coins

Arabian coin in Rhode Island possible pirate loot

A Rhode Island metal detectorist’s chance discovery of a small silver coin, and his research into the find, offer a compelling look into the world of Red Sea piracy late in the 1600s, and its connections to the economic well-being of early American colonial cities.

James Bailey’s persistent searches of a field at a farm market in Middletown, Rhode Island, led to a discovery in May 2014 that sent him searching for answers for more than three years. His quest delved into the history of the Red Sea pirates who were ultimately emboldened by and who helped enrich New England colonists.

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Bailey’s research is presented in the August 2017 edition of The Colonial Newsletter, published by the American Numismatic Society.

Bailey located the coin 8 inches below the ground, but could not identify it even after dirt was no longer caking the coin. He struggled with identifying the coin until by chance viewing Diggers, a metal detecting show on National Geographic, featuring an account of a similar Arabian coin (only partially complete) that had been discovered, also in New England. Despite its poor condition, the coin fragment featured on the program was identified as a 17th century khums kabir from Yemen.

The Yemeni coin, dated to 1693, is historically referred to as a comassee, a piece then valued at 80 to one dollar. It is of the same kind as the example found by Bailey, and is one of nine Arabian coins including eight comassee (five confirmed and three suspected examples) found in southern New England, in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

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Bailey makes a persuasive argument that the coin he found, and others like it, can be traced to piracy, given the date of the coins, their slight wear consistent with “brief, intermittent, yet far-reaching circulation,” and the connections between where the famed trade vessel Gunsway traveled and where pirates with the Gunsway’s booty fled from capture.

Nearly two dozen pirate vessels sailed between America and the East Indies from 1689 to 1708, and likely many more made the trip without being recorded by history.

Specifically, Bailey offers convincing — though not conclusive — evidence that the coin he found indicates the presence of famed pirate Henry Every in Rhode Island in May 1696.

The American colonies engaged in piracy in the distant Red Sea during the late 17th century, specifically targeting rich Muslim shipping from the Mughal Empire (modern day India).

Capturing the loot

The ship Fancy, led by Every, captured the Mughal trade ship known as the Gunsway, which was owned by Emperor Aurangzeb himself. The September 1695 episode has been described as one of the greatest heists in the history of piracy, according to Bailey.

When taken by Every and his crew, the Gunsway was carrying an enormous quantity of gold and silver coins from the sale of Indian goods along the Red Sea.

The ship was in trade with the East India Company, and the attack on the Gunsway “was viewed as an attack on trade itself — the foundation of England’s growing ambitions for empire,” Bailey writes.

The English crown responded with the first worldwide manhunt, and King William III issued a proclamation about the desperadoes.

In June of 1696, some of the villains arrived in Ireland in two different groups, drawing attention to themselves by their unrestrained spending and the presence of small silver coinage that locals found unfamiliar — comassee coins like those found more than 300 years later.

Bailey shares evidence for the first time of Every’s covert landing in the American colonies (Newport, Rhode Island) aboard a slave ship, the Sea Flower, after which he sailed for England and soon after vanished from the pages of history. Every’s exploits ushered in the golden age of piracy from the early 18th century.

The Sea Flower’s arrival quickly drew attention, because it featured a cargo of African slaves, demand for which was weak in Newport.

Slaves were rare in Rhode Island, and especially so from Africa, brokers preferring to place in bondage those from the Caribbean. But the fact that these slaves realized little profit was of no consequence to the pirates, who were using them as a decoy to hide the fact they were spiriting in with them small fortunes in looted gold and silver.

Politicians in Rhode Island willingly assisted several pirates to gain their charter for the initial trip, and deflected attention from their arrival post-plunder that would threaten the colonial charter.

Piracy was good business for colonial America. According to Bailey, three of the top five largest cities in colonial America provided the most support to pirates.

But while the colonists happily engaged in or supported piracy, they also took pains to conceal their participation.

The scarcity of these coins in American records may be explained by the taint that they carried as artifacts of piracy.

“With a wink and a nod, rough melted slabs of silver or an occasional sack of coins were left in the care of a local silversmith,” Bailey writes. “In the hands of a skilled craftsman, ill-gotten silver plunder taken by the sword was transformed into attractive silver plate that graced the dinner tables of good and God-fearing American colonists.”

Bailey’s research is exhaustive, totalling 43 pages and citing numerous firsthand records, and is convincing circumstantial evidence of the connections he asserts.

“These facts in total make for a persuasive argument, yet exact attribution for the 1693 specimen or any of the recovered coins in this study to a single pirate ship or voyage can never be fully determined.”

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