A handful of coins unearthed from a pick-your-own-fruit orchard in the US state of Rhode Island and other random corners of New England may help solve a centuries-old cold case.

The villain in this tale: a murderous English pirate who became the world’s most-wanted criminal after plundering a ship carrying Muslim pilgrims home to India from Mecca, then eluded capture by posing as a slave trader.

Jim Bailey, an amateur historian and metal detectorist, found the first intact 17th-century Arabian coin in a meadow in Middletown. That ancient pocket change – the oldest ever found in North America – could explain how pirate Capt Henry Every vanished.

On 7 September 1695, the pirate ship Fancy, commanded by Every, ambushed and captured the Ganj-i-Sawai, a royal vessel owned by the Indian emperor Aurangzeb, then one of the world’s most powerful men. Onboard were not only the worshippers returning from their pilgrimage but tens of millions of dollars’ worth of gold and silver.

What followed was one of the most lucrative and heinous robberies of all time. Historical accounts say Every’s band tortured and killed the men onboard the Indian ship and raped the women before escaping to the Bahamas. Word of their crimes spread quickly, and King William III of England – under enormous pressure from a scandalised India and the East India Company trading giant – put a large bounty on their heads. “Everybody was looking for these guys,” said Bailey

Until now, historians knew only that Every eventually sailed to Ireland in 1696, where the trail went cold. But Bailey says the coins he and others have found are evidence that the notorious pirate first made his way to the American colonies, where he and his crew used the plunder for day-to-day expenses while on the run.

The first complete coin surfaced in 2014 at Sweet Berry farm in Middletown, a spot 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 over the soil, he got a signal, dug down and found a darkened silver coin he initially assumed was either Spanish or money minted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Peering closer, the Arabic text on the coin got his pulse racing.

Research confirmed that the exotic coin was minted in 1693 in Yemen. That raised questions, Bailey said, since there was no evidence that American colonists struggling to eke out a living in the New World travelled to anywhere in the Middle East to trade until decades later. Since then, other detectorists have unearthed 15 additional Arabian coins from the same era – 10 in Massachusetts, three in Rhode Island and two in Connecticut. Another was found in North Carolina, where records show some of Every’s men first came ashore.

“It seems like some of his crew were able to settle in New England and integrate,” said Sarah Sportman, the state archaeologist for Connecticut, where one of the coins was found in 2018 in the ongoing excavation of a 17th-century farm site. “It was almost like a money laundering scheme,” she said.

Although it sounds unthinkable now, Every was able to hide in plain sight by posing as a slave trader – an emerging profession in 1690s New England. On his way to the Bahamas, he even stopped at the French island of Réunion to get some Black captives so he would look the part, Bailey said.

Obscure records show that a ship called the Sea Flower, used by the pirates after they ditched the Fancy, sailed along the eastern seaboard. It arrived with nearly four dozen slaves in 1696 in Newport, Rhode Island, which became a major hub of the North American slave trade in the 18th century.

“There’s extensive primary source documentation to show the American colonies were bases of operation 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 of the Wydah Gally pirate ship wreck off Cape Cod in the late 1980s.

Source: the guardian.com