WARWICK, RI (AP) – A handful of coins unearthed from an orchard in rural Rhode Island and other random corners of New England can help solve one of the oldest cold cases on the planet.
The villain in this story: a murderous English pirate who became the world’s most wanted criminal after looting a ship that was bringing Muslim pilgrims to India from Mecca and then evading capture by posing as a slave trader.
“It’s a new story of a near-perfect crime,” said Jim Bailey, an amateur historian and metal detector who found the first intact 17th century Arab coin in a meadow in Middletown.
That old pocket money – the oldest ever found in North America – could explain how pirate captain Henry Every disappeared in the wind.
On September 7, 1695, the pirate ship Fancy, commanded by Every, attacked and captured the Ganj-i-Sawai, a royal ship of the Indian Emperor Aurangzeb, then one of the most powerful men in the world. On board were not only the worshipers returning from their pilgrimage, but also gold and silver worth tens of millions of dollars.
What followed was one of the most lucrative and heinous robberies of all time.
Historical reports state that his band tortured and killed the men aboard the Indian ship and raped the women before they fled to the Bahamas, a haven for pirates. But their crimes spread quickly, and the English King William III. – under enormous pressure from a scandalized trading giant from India and the East India Company – put a large bounty on their heads.
“If you google ‘first global manhunt’, it will show up as ‘everyone’,” said Bailey. “Everyone was looking for these guys.”
Until now, historians only knew that Every finally sailed to Ireland in 1696, where the trail turned cold. But Bailey says the coins he and others found are evidence that the infamous pirate first traveled to the American colonies, where he and his crew used the loot for daily expenses on the run.
The first full coin appeared in 2014 at Sweet Berry Farm in Middletown, a place that piqued Bailey’s curiosity two years earlier after finding old colonial coins, an 18th century shoe buckle, and some musket balls.
He waved a metal detector across the ground, received a signal, dug up, and literally ran into Paydirt: a dark dime-sized silver coin that he originally believed was either Spanish or minted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The Arabic text on the coin made his pulse race. “I thought, ‘Oh my god,'” he said.
Research confirmed that the exotic coin was minted in Yemen in 1693. That immediately raised questions, Bailey said, since there is no evidence that American colonists struggling for a living in the New World traveled somewhere in the Middle East to trade anywhere until decades later.
Since then, other detectors have found 15 more Arabic coins from the same period – 10 in Massachusetts, three in Rhode Island, and two in Connecticut. Another was found in North Carolina, where records show that some of Everyman’s men came ashore first.
“It seems like some of its crewmembers could settle and integrate in New England,” said Sarah Sportman, Connecticut state archaeologist, where one of the coins was found in 2018 during the ongoing excavation of a 17th century farm.
“It was almost like a money laundering system,” she said.
Though it sounds unthinkable now, Every could pose as a slave trader – a thriving profession in New England of the 1690s. On his way to the Bahamas, he even stopped on the French island of Reunion to bring in a couple of black prisoners so he could watch the role, Bailey said.
Obscure records show that a ship called the Sea Flower, used by the pirates after they left the Fancy, sailed along the east coast. It arrived in Newport, Rhode Island with nearly four dozen slaves in 1696, which became an important hub of the North American slave trade In the 18th century.
“There is extensive primary source documentation showing that the American colonies were bases for pirates,” said Bailey, 53, who holds a degree in anthropology from the University of Rhode Island and worked as an archaeological assistant on explorations on the pirate ship Wydah Gally Wreck Cape Cod in the late 1980s.
Bailey, whose day-to-day assignment is to analyze security in the state’s prison complex, published his findings in a research journal for the American Numismatic Society, an organization devoted 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 this shed new light on one of the world’s most enduring criminal mysteries.
“Jim’s research is flawless,” said Kevin McBride, professor of archeology at the University of Connecticut. “It’s cool stuff. It’s a pretty interesting story, really.”
Mark Hanna, associate professor of history at the University of California at San Diego and an expert on piracy in Early America, said when he first saw photos of Bailey’s coin, “I’ve lost my mind.”
“It was a big deal for me to find these coins,” said Hanna, author of the 2015 book “Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire”. “The story of Capt. Every is of global importance. This material object – this little thing – can help me explain that. “
All of the exploits inspired a 2020 book by Steven Johnson: Enemy of All Mankind. PlayStation’s popular “Uncharted” series of video games; 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 his most prized finds in a safe rather than at home, says he’ll keep digging.
“For me it was always about the thrill of the hunt, not the money,” he said. “The only thing better than finding these objects is the long-lost stories behind them.”