17th-century pirates might have stashed Middle Eastern coins in New England

Extreme close-up photo of centuries-old coins on blue velvet.
Enlarge / A Yemeni khamsiyat (top left), a Spanish real (top right), and an English shilling (bottom) from the 17th century.

According to historian and metal-detector enthusiast Jim Bailey, the handful of 17th-century Arabic coins unearthed at sites across New England could be remnants of an infamous pirate’s last big score—or, to put it another way, money stolen from a ship full of religious pilgrims during a horrific mass murder at sea.

“It’s a new history of a nearly perfect crime,” Bailey told the Associated Press.

Bailey found a handful of Colonial-era coins and musket balls, along with a shoe buckle, buried beneath a fruit orchard in Middletown, Rhode Island in 2014. Amid the English and Colonial-issued coins, Bailey noticed something unusual: a coin as weathered and tarnished as the rest but engraved in Arabic. It turned out to be a Yemeni coin called a khamsiyat, minted in 1693.

Over the next few years, archaeologists and metal-detector users in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and North Carolina found 16 more Yemeni coins at 17th-century sites. And in a 2017 paper in The Colonial Newsletter (which is not a peer-reviewed academic journal), Bailey suggested that the coins may have arrived in the future United States in the pockets of a desperate, violent band of pirates under Captain Henry Every (or Avery).

The Associated Press reported on the story earlier this week, and the American Numismatic Society responded with counterpoints.

The Dread Pirate Every

After just four years of pirating, Every and his crew had earned a notorious reputation by 1695—and to give the pirates due credit, that was probably a hard thing to accomplish in a ship with a not-at-all-intimidating name like the Fancy. But Every and his crew were, by all accounts, the hardest and cruelest people in a generally hard and cruel profession. Every makes Blackbeard look like a teddy bear.

Fancy sailed into the Red Sea in September 1695, just in time to capture the Mughal Emperor’s ship Ganj-i-Sawai (a far more evocative name, meaning “Exceeding Treasure”). The Ganj-i-Sawai was sailing back to India full of devout Muslims returning from their pilgrimage to Mecca—and thousands of gold and silver coins. The treasure aboard, said to have belonged mostly to “Turkish merchants,” would be worth tens of millions of dollars today. Every and his crew made off with the loot, but not before torturing and killing most of the passengers and crew.

Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was understandably outraged. An English pirate had just attacked a ship carrying pilgrims home from Mecca, slaughtered innocent civilians, and then stolen a king’s ransom in gold and silver. In response, Aurangzeb shut down the British East India Company’s ports along the coast of India, cutting off incredibly valuable trade access for the British.

King William III of England offered a substantial bounty for Every and his crew. Six of the pirates were caught the following year off the coast of Ireland, with small fortunes in their pockets or sewn into their coats, but Every himself and at least 72 of his men apparently vanished into thin air. Some historical documents suggest that Every probably fled to the Bahamas and disposed of the Fancy, then bought a new ship called Sea Flower (another deeply unmenacing name). Every’s plan, it seems, was to pass himself off as a slave trader and then settle into obscurity with his ill-gotten gains.

“It was almost like a money-laundering scheme,” Connecticut state archaeologist Sarah Sportman told the Associated Press. Some of the pirates had evidently managed to convert their Yemeni silver into gold or into European currency; of the six that were caught and hanged, one carried mostly higher-denomination gold coins, and one carried mostly Spanish silver reals.

This may explain why one of the Yemeni coins turned up at a 17th-century Connecticut farm site excavated in 2018. Records show that the Sea Flower docked in Newport, Rhode Island in 1696 with 48 enslaved people aboard—perhaps some of the crew still had the original loot in hand at the time.

Bailey argues that is how a handful of Yemeni silver coins ended up in New England and North Carolina. “The story of Captain Every is one of global significance,” University of California, San Diego historian Mark Hanna told the Associated Press. “This material object—this little [coin]—can help me explain that.”

Not so fast, evildoers!

The evidence seems to line up; 13 of the coins were so weathered that they couldn’t be read, but four still had readable dates—and all of them were minted before 1695, according to Bailey.

The American Numismatic Society’s Oliver Hoover, however, says the coins may actually date to a few years after the attack on the Ganj-i-Sawai. First, the dates are written in Arabic, and they describe dates on the Muslim calendar, not the Julian calendar (England would not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752). So the year 1693 CE would span parts of Hijri year 1104 and 1105. According to Hoover, at least one of the coins appears to have been minted in Hijri year 1108, which would be late 1696 or early 1697. If Hoover is right, that coin couldn’t have been stolen from Ganj-i-Sawai by Every and his pirate crew in 1695 because it wouldn’t have existed yet.

That’s a subject for debate among people equipped with microscopes and a working knowledge of Arabic script. In the meantime, Hoover raises another, more important point: Bailey has proposed one possible way a bunch of Yemeni coins could have gotten to New England in the 17th century. But there’s not enough evidence to demonstrate that’s definitely what happened. At this point, there’s really only enough evidence to say that the pirate story can’t be ruled out.

“Global networks”

“Whatever contextual evidence there may be for any of the found Yemeni coins cannot tell us precisely when they arrived in New England or in whose pockets,” wrote Hoover in a recent blog post.

Part of Bailey’s argument for the pirate story is that people in New England didn’t have direct trade links to the Middle East in the 1690s. On the other hand, Bailey mentions at least two other East African slaving ships and occasional pirates docking in New England in 1699. European merchants also traded for coffee in Yemen and would have brought goods and possibly coins to the Colonies. The Yemeni coin in the Rhode Island orchard may have been pirate treasure, but it could also have been pocket change from a coffee merchant or slave trader.

“The early American colonies did not exist in a vacuum, but rather belonged to global networks of trade and cultural interaction (and piracy),” wrote Hoover.