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A 17th-century Arabic coin discovered locally may be tied to pirate plunder

It may have been the greatest heist of all time, and it took place on the high seas. The royal ship Ganj-iSawai, property of Indian emperor Aurangzeb, had set sail from the port of Mocha on the Red Sea bound for Surat, India. Aboard were faithful Moslem passengers returning home from a recent Hadj, a sacred pilgrimage to Mecca.

Also on board were tens of millions of dollars in gold and silver belonging to the wealthy emperor.

A notorious English pirate by the name of Henry Every would see to it that that journey was never concluded. On Sept. 7, 1695, his pirate ship Fancy managed to intercept the royal vessel and disable its mainsail. Every’s crew swarmed over the sides.

In the words of an Indian historian, “The ship came under (pirate) control and they carried away the gold and silver. After having engaged for a week in search of (more) plunder, stripping the men of their clothes and dishonoring the old and young women, they left the ship and its passengers to their fate. Some of the women getting an opportunity threw themselves into the sea to save their honor while others committed suicide using knives and daggers.”

This event provoked an international crisis with the angry Indian emperor pointing his finger at the English. (Also, a female passenger happened to be one of his relatives!) Anxious to not lose the lucrative East India trade business, the English reimbursed the Emperor for the loss and joined with a host of others, placing a bounty on Henry Every’s head.

Despite the worldwide manhunt that followed, the majority of the pirates eluded capture, and the lion’s share of their treasure was never found.

It would be fair to say at this late date that Henry Every will not be turning up any time soon as not too many people live past the ripe old age of 300. But what about the treasure?

Recently, an AP article written by William J. Kole appeared in The Day paper about this story and the pirates’ ill-gotten gain.

The article mainly focuses on a metal detectorist fromRhode Island, a man by the name of Jim Bailey, who had unearthed some exotic Arabian coins from 300 years ago.

With Mr. Bailey’s 2014 find in a pick-your-own-fruit orchard in Rhode Island, the discovery of these rare coins now totaled 16, most of them found in southern New England.

Ten have been found in Massachusetts, three in Rhode Island, one in North Carolina and two in Connecticut.

But to set the record straight here, the number of these Arabian coins found in Connecticut is not two, as stated in the article. The actual number is three. That is because one of these rare coins was discovered in 1988 on the banks of the Niantic River!

Rob Cunningham was only 6 years old when he happened upon an unusual find at his grandparents’ home in East Lyme.

“I was looking for any hidden treasure I could find out in their backyard,” he recalled. “They were doing some major landscaping and a lot of earth was being moved around. I remember all of a sudden seeing a small silver object a little larger than a dime and maybe three times as thick. It had strange writing on it, something I had never seen before. I could not believe my luck!”

Being only 6, Robbie Cunningham never followed up on his discovery, admitting to putting the coin in with some baseball cards and other youthful mementos until his senior year of high school when he signed up for an anthropology class.

The course was a senior elective that had a six-week archaeological component, which allowed students to travel off-campus and participate in a local dig as part of the curriculum.

“That course was great because it not only gave students a chance to find something, it also made it possible to find out about things we already had,” Cunningham said. “I brought the coin into class one day and showed it to Mr. Littlefield. I thought he was going to have a heart attack!”

Rob Cunningham’s recollection of that day indeed matches my own. I remember thinking to myself “this young man has stumbled upon the ‘Holy Grail’ of local archaeology.”

My first reaction was that Rob Cunningham had found a Viking coin!

Now there had always been a strong suspicion, not necessarily backed by facts, that Norse explorers visited our area in pre-Columbian times. However, much of the “evidence” submitted over the years to make that case has generally been discredited.

But it was true that the Vikings were the official school mascot, and it also happened that I had been working on a wooden replica of the famous Oseberg Viking ship (found in Norway in 1904) to use as a discussion-starter for my history classes.

When Rob first showed me the coin, my impression was that the writing on it resembled the images carved into the centerboard of that famous ship.

Dr. John Pfeiffer, Old Lyme town historian and well-known local archaeologist, examined the coin with that same thought in mind. He was intrigued by it and sent it off to Yale University, where it could be studied more carefully. When the results came back, Pfeiffer shared them with Rob and the class.

“It is a coin and not of American or colonial manufacture. Its relatively uneven circular shape and thickness as well as the way it has been ‘clipped’ or ‘chopped’ to create the overall shape ... is quite unique. This suggests a pre-industrial method of manufacture where results are normally idiosyncratic, and each object has its own peculiar characteristics.” On this basis, Pfeiffer concluded, “this coin most likely dates from early to mid-1600’s, maybe even earlier.”

Pfeiffer added that he and his colleagues also believed it was of Arabic origin as they had found Arabic writing that matched certain images found on the Cunningham coin.

Now the question became…how did 17th century currency from Arabia makes its way to our shores?

This is where Jim Bailey’s exhaustive research would come into play.

I am very grateful to Dr. Kevin McBride, an archaeologist at the University of Connecticut,for sending me Jim Bailey’s August 2017 submission to “The Colonial Newsletter” where he details his investigation into the matter. Through primary documents and court testimony, Bailey was able to trace pirate movement after the heist.

Henry Every and his crew were well aware the crime they had committed was extremely high profile and, as a result, knew everyone would soon be searching for them. Not only had they stolen from one of the richest and most powerful rulers on earth, this theft was considered by many nations to be an attack on international trade itself, something that they considered essential to their existence and could not be tolerated.

The pirates reasoned that their best hope to escape justice lay in the American colonies, where their ill-gotten gain might be successfully fenced, and they could then possibly blend into those lessestablished communities.

A quick stop in Madagascar, however, was first deemed necessary.

Captain Every and 180 pirates aboard the Fancy slipped into a Madagascar port to provision the ship for the Atlantic crossing. They figured their first stop in the “New World” to be the Bahamas, where they planned to bribe the governor, come ashore and start melting down many of those tell-tale Islamic coins into less-identifiable gold and silver ingots.

Not long after landing in the Bahamas and successfully carrying out those plans, the Fancy was set afire, and shares of the plunder parceled out. Many of the original crew members now began to go their separate ways.

Sixteen members of the crew had stayed in Madagascar and did not make the Atlantic crossing. Seven decided to settle permanently in the Bahamas, while others began purchasing sloops and other craft to set out and find refuge elsewhere. Thirty-two headed for Carolina. Henry Avery, assuming the name of Henry Bridgman, set sail with 37 crewmen in the sloop Isaac, bound for Rhode Island.

Rhode Island was a known pirate haven at the time. Hard men of business, many officials and merchants there were known to often look the other way in order to acquire much-needed specie (gold and silver.)

Privateer charters (which basically legalized piracy) were liberally granted. Rhode Islanders were also not averse to defying the British crown. Henry Every had reasoned this all out very well in advance. Pirates and their plunder had found a suitable home.

The coin that prompted this research was discovered in Middletown, R.I. by metal detectorist Jim Bailey, and was most likely just crew “pocket change on the ship Every. Many of the remaining sacks and chests of silver coins were reportedly melted down in Portsmouth and Newport by skilled local silversmiths, with much of it hammered into attractive silver plate that would “grace the dinner tables of many good and God-fearing colonists.”

Those silver coins that did remain from this famous heist are most likely few and far between, and only a handful of people will ever be lucky enough find one.

Jim Bailey has found several with his metal detector. East Lyme resident Rob Cunningham found one when he was just 6 years old. I must admit his coin is a real beauty, even if it isn’t of Viking origin.

Jim Littlefield is a retired history teacher and author of two local history books and two Civil War novels. He lives in East Lyme. His articles can also be found in the Post Road Review.

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