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These Recently Unearthed Coins May Have Solved a 17th-Century Mystery

Some unexpected treasure may have pinned down the whereabouts of notorious pirate Henry Every.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The first clue to an enduring historical mystery fell into place in 2014, when a metal detectorist uncovered an interesting find in a Rhode Island orchard. The shocking treasure was an Arabian coin that dated back to the 17th century—and it wouldn't be the last discovery of its kind. In the following years, New England treasure hunters found additional coins of a similar nature.

What made this discovery so baffling is the fact that early European settlers aren't thought to have traded with Arabian merchants until decades later. So how could these distinct coins have found their way to the colonies? That's precisely what Jim Bailey, an amateur historian, aimed to resolve with his newly published research.

It was Bailey himself that unearthed the first coin in the fruit grove in Rhode Island, two years after having uncovered other colonial-era coins in the same area. This one, however, was inscribed with Arabic, and turned out to be minted in Yemen in 1693. The coins are among some of the oldest change excavated from North American soil. And if that weren't interesting enough, they may provide proof that the notorious pirate captain Henry Every, who vanished from the historical record in 1696, fled to the New World.

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Henry Every was born in England around 1653. After serving in the Royal Navy and working on buccaneer and slave ships, he changed course to a life of piracy in 1691. Though today he is one of the most well-known pirates of 17th-century England, he had relatively humble beginnings. Every and his crew got their start by scouring a trio of ships off the Cape Verde Islands—but they soon set their sights on bigger schemes.

In September of 1695, Every led his ship—the Fancy—to the Red Sea. His goal there was to rob Indian emperor Aurangzeb's ship, the Gang-i-Sawai. The vessel was transporting Muslim pilgrims from Mecca back to India. But it also held millions of dollars' worth of gold and silver. 

After successfully invading the ship and terrorizing its passengers, Every fled to the Bahamas. As for the fate of his ship at this juncture, it's unclear whether it was sold or destroyed.

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In retaliation for the theft, Aurangzeb closed a great portion of the English East India Company's trading posts in India. In answer to the closures, William III offered impressive bounties for the capture of Every and his crew—which led to many of the notorious pirate's accomplices being either hanged or banished. Every himself was never found by authorities, leaving his remaining exploits a mystery.

However, Jim Bailey's paper, published in a research journal of the American Numismatic Society, may fill in all the intriguing details of this historical cold case.

Following Bailey's discovery of the first coin, other treasure hunters found three more in Rhode Island, 10 in Massachusetts, and two in Connecticut. Additionally, another coin was unearthed in North Carolina, which is where many have come to believe that Every landed with his crewmen after posing as slave traders.

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Bailey's findings support that theory, further fleshing it out by offering evidence that, to disguise himself as a slave trader, Every kidnapped black captives on the French island of Reunion. There are also documents which suggest that Every acquired a new ship, which he called the Sea Flower. Incidentally, this vessel was docked in Newport, Rhode Island.

At the very least, the scattering of Arabian coins throughout New England suggest that Every and his crew managed to integrate into the colonies. It's certainly an intriguing theory, and it would manage to explain both Every's eventual whereabouts and the presence of 17th-century Arabic coins in the New World.