A bunch of coins dug up from a fruit orchard in rural Rhode Island and other corners of New England can help in the case of one of the oldest runaways of the planet.
The villain of this story: a English pirate assassin who became the world’s most wanted criminal after looting a ship carrying Muslim pilgrims to India from Mecca, then eluding capture by posing as a slave trader.
“It’s a new, near-perfect crime story,” said Jim Bailey, an amateur historian and metal detector who found the first intact Arab coin from the 17th century in a meadow in Middletown.
That ancient pocket change, one of the oldest ever found in North America, could explain how pirate captain Henry Every vanished into the wind.
On September 7, 1695, the pirate ship Fancy, commanded by Every, ambushed and captured the Ganj-i-Sawai, a royal ship owned by the Indian emperor Aurangzeb, then one of the most powerful men in the world. On board were not only the faithful returning from their pilgrimage, but also tens of millions of dollars in gold and silver.
What followed was one of the most lucrative and heinous robberies of all time.
Historical accounts say that his gang tortured and killed the men aboard the Indian ship and raped the women before escaping to The Bahamas, a haven for pirates. But word of their crimes quickly spread, and the English King William III, under enormous pressure from a scandalized India and the trading giant of the East India Company, offered them a huge bounty on their heads.
“If you Google the ‘world’s first chase,’ it comes up as Every,” Bailey said. “Everybody was looking for these guys.”
Until now, historians only knew that Every finally sailed to Ireland in 1696, where the road turned cold. But Bailey says the coins he and others have found are evidence that the famous pirate made his way to the American colonies for the first time, where he and his crew used the loot for daily expenses while on the run.
The first complete coin appeared in 2014 at Sweet Berry Farm in Middletown, a place that had piqued Bailey’s curiosity two years earlier after he found old colonial coins, an 18th-century shoe buckle, and some musket balls.
Waving a metal detector above the ground, he received a signal, dug, and literally hit paydirt: a darkened silver coin the size of a dime which he initially assumed was Spanish or money minted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Looking closer, the Arabic text on the coin quickened her pulse. “I thought, ‘Oh my God,'” he said.
Research confirmed that the exotic coin was minted in 1693 in Yemen. That immediately raised questions, Bailey said, as there is no evidence that American settlers struggling to make a living in the New World have traveled anywhere in the Middle East to trade for decades.
Since then, other detectorists have unearthed 15 additional Arab coins from the same era: 10 in Massachusetts, sixty-one Rhode Island and two in Connecticut. Another was found in North Carolina, where records show some of Every’s men made landfall for the first time.
“It appears that part of his crew was able to settle in New England and integrate,” said Sarah Sportman, a Connecticut state archaeologist, where one of the coins was found in 2018 in the ongoing excavation of a 17th-century farm.
“It was almost like a money laundering scheme,” he said.
Though it sounds unthinkable now, Every was able to hide in plain sight by posing as a slave trader, an emerging profession in 1690 New England. On his way to the Bahamas, he even stopped on the French island of Reunion to get some black captives for make it look good, Bailey said.
Dark records show that a ship called the Sea Flower, used by pirates after they left the Fancy, sailed along the east coast. He arrived with nearly four dozen slaves in 1696 in Newport, Rhode Island, which became a major center for the North American slave trade in the 18th century.
“There is extensive documentation from primary sources showing that the US colonies were bases of operations for pirates,” he said. Bailey, 53, who has a degree in anthropology from the University of Rhode Island and worked as an archaeological assistant on the explorations of the pirate ship Wydah Gally. wrecked off Cape Cod in the late 1980s.
Bailey, whose daily job is to analyze security at the state’s prison complex, has published his findings in a research journal of the American Numismatic Society, an organization dedicated to the study of coins and medals.
Archaeologists and historians familiar with, but not involved in, Bailey’s work say they are intrigued and believe that he is shedding new light on one of the world’s most enduring criminal mysteries.
“Jim’s research is flawless,” said Kevin McBride, a professor of archeology at the University of Connecticut. “It’s kind of cool. It’s really quite an interesting story.”
Mark Hanna, an associate professor of history at the University of California-San Diego and an expert on piracy in the early United States, said that when he first saw the photos of the Bailey coin, “I lost my mind.”
“Finding those coins, for me, was a huge thing,” said Hanna, author of the 2015 book, “Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire.” “Captain Every’s story is of global significance. This material object, this little thing, can help me explain that. “
All exploits have inspired a 2020 book by Steven Johnson, “Enemy of All Mankind”; The popular “Uncharted” video game series on PlayStation; and a Sony Pictures film version of “Uncharted,” starring Tom Holland, Mark Wahlberg and Antonio Banderas, due for release in early 2022.
Bailey, who keeps her most valuable finds not at home but in a safe deposit box, says she will continue to investigate.
“For me, it’s always been about the thrill of the hunt, not the money,” he said. “The only thing better than finding these objects is the lost stories behind them.”