The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 20, Number 45, November 5, 2017, Article 29


John Lupia writes:

I wish to congratulate James Bailey for finding a late 17th century Arabic coin in Rhode Island and for his wonderful research and article in The Colonial Newsletter. I thought I had paid for the subscription to CNL as I always do when renewing at the ANS. Somehow I guess it fell between the proverbial cracks and I do not seem to be receiving it. I wish I had this issue since I too have a piece on a discovery of a hoard of Arabic coins in Medford, Massachusetts in 1787.

Anyway, I wish I had known about Mr. Bailey's research years ago since I had some useful information I wanted to publish but, sadly, deleted it from my manuscript American Numismatic Auctions, as entry No. 40. since it was not a coin auction and merely a splendid curiosity for this late period in colonial history.

I do not know if any of what I had been working on is found in the work of Mr. Bailey, but if none of it overlaps all the better. I hope readers will find this useful.

John's manuscript titled "Arabic coins in Medford Massachusetts 1787" is included below. I've done my best to replicate the formatting, and grouped the footnotes at the end. -Editor


DEAR SIR:—Permit me, through you, to make the following communication to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In the spring of the year 1787, as going from Cambridge to Maiden, I passed some people at work on the highway in Medford, who, in widening the road, had removed a large flat stone, under which they found a number of square copper coins, to the quantity, I should judge, of about two quarts. I took several of them myself, and on my return, mentioned the discovery to several of my friends, who procured more.

I had hoped that a circumstance so curious would have attracted more attention, and that some learned antiquarian would have communicated to the public his observations upon the coin. As this has not been done, and lest the fact itself should be quite forgotten, I make this statement.

The coins were mostly square, but some of them of the shape and size of Fig. 15. The others are represented in Fig. 16. Fig. 17 is the same magnified, with the exergue and the characters completed by a comparison of several coins, on which the stamp was more regular and central.

They all bear the same stamp, on thin copper plate, cut, or rather broken into square pieces, with rough edges, and are considerably corroded by rust.

I have searched all the books of coins and medals in the College Library, but can find none which contain any in the least resembling these. There is, however, in the "Histori-Geographical Description of Russia, Siberia, and Great Tartary, by Philip John Von Strahlenburg," page 406, Tab. XXI, letter A, the figure of a coin, which I have copied, Fig. 18, in size, shape, and impression so similar, as to demand some attention. He says, that " it was found in Great Tartary," that " the characters were presented to the public as a great rarity, by M. Bandelot," and that the print and description of it was first published in the German tongue, in a book entitled "Das eroeffnete Ritter Platz, (ine andern Theil des geoeffneten Antiquitaten Zimmers,") page 76.

If America was first peopled by emigrants from Siberia and Tartary, as may be inferred from the square and circular ramparts and conical sepulchral mounds, scattered through the whole Western Territory down to Mexico and Peru, exactly similar in form, dimensions and content, to those described by M. Pallas and other travellers into the northern parts of the Russian empire, raised by nations no longer known there, and evidences of their having inhabited and traversed regions now become immense forests; and from inscriptions on rocks on the banks of the Ohio, and at Taunton, very like to those on the Jenesei, delineated by Strahlenburg; may we not trace this ancient coin to the same source? But this I leave to further investigation, and subscribe myself with much respect,

Your friend and humble servant,

Arabic coin plated in von Strahlenberg book

The book cited by Morris is that of Philipp Johann von Strahlenberg (1676-1747), An Historico-Geographical Description of The North And Eastern Parts of Europe And Asia : But More Particularly of Russia, Siberia, And Great Tartary : Both In Their Ancient And Modern State : Together With An Entire New Polyglot-Table of The Dialects of 32 Tartarian Nations And A Vocabulary of The Kalmuck-Mungalian Tongue. (London, Printed for J. Brotherton, J. Hazard, W. Meadows, T. Cox, T. Astley, S. Austen, L. Gilliver, and C. Corbet, 1738)

Medal illustration in von Strahlenberg book

The illustration of the medal on Tab. XXI, letter A

Medford was first settled in 1630 as part of Charlestown (Boston).

“March 5, 1787, the town voted, “That Benjamin Hall, Esq., Gen. John Brooks, and Thomas Brooks, Esq., be a Committee to petition the Court of Sessions to obtain a new road through a part of Col. Royall’s and Capt. Nicholson’s farms.” this was never obtained.”
Charles Brooks, History of the Town of Medford, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, From its First Settlement, in 1630, to the Present Time, 1855. (Boston: James M. Usher, 1855) : 54

“After the completion of the Charlestown Bridge some of the gentlemen interested became identified with a project to build a bridge from Charlestown Neck to the Malden shore near Sweetser's Point. Thomas Russell, Richard Devens, Samuel Swan, Junior, Jonathan Simpson and William Tudor, were granted by the legislature this privilege, 11 March, 1787.” 2

Although the Court of Sessions did not grant the easements through the two farms the widening of the road that already existed was undertaken as Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris recollected. In March 1787 a hoard of copper coins were discovered buried under a flat stone. Perhaps the widening of the road was associated with the construction of the bridge “from Charlestown Neck to the Malden shore near Sweetser's Point, also begun in March 1787.”

The drawings of the copper coin differ from that published by Strahlenberg in Tab. XXI, letter A and Morris’ supposed copy. He did not copy this plate with exactitude leaving us to surmise that he also did not render the discovery coins in the copper exactly as they appeared. Furthermore, Morris tells us that the basis of the drawing of the coin and its inscription has “the characters completed by a comparison of several coins”. Since Morris did not know what he was looking at and was unfamiliar with this alphabet and could not read the inscription or recognize it the drawing he rendered most probably deviates from the original. The inscription certainly looks Arabic and not Siberian, Russian, or from the Tartary as Morris suggested. The square shapes of the coins found suggest hammered copper mintage with the wedge shaped pieces being fractions cut from a whole coin. 3 The accountability for Islamic coins in Medford, Massachusetts is not as puzzling as it at first appears. There are at least six salient solutions to this seemingly insoluble find.

First, there has been proposed an Arab Pre-Columbian transatlantic landing at a port in North America by an Asian scholar Hui-lin Li. 4 Although this is tenable it is not the exclusive explanation for the discovery of Arab coins in Medford deposited there before 1787. 5

Second, in 1695, infamous pirate captain Henry Evory or Avery (1659-1696), sometimes known as John Avery (perhaps his alias) of Plymouth, England captured an Arab Mughal merchant ship Ganj-i- sawai. This was a villainous act that put England’s mercantile relations with the Mughals in peril. Avery captured £600,000 in precious metals and jewels, making him both the most infamous and the richest pirate in the world. He and his crew fled to the Bahamas since a bounty of £1,000 was on their heads by the English crown. Some of the crew went into the British colonies of North America bringing their coins into New England.

Third, the British guinea was introduced in 1663 as a gold coin, whose name is derived from Guinea in West Africa. England imported the gold from Guinea to mint these coins by the African Company. England and Spain were the dominant traders in the Arab countries of North Africa at this time.

Fourth, we have the English and North African trade. The influences of social interactions between England and the Ottomans in North African region developed cultural changes in artist expression in the form of Orientalizing in what is known as Turquerie.

“In the early sixteenth century, there were more Englishman living in Muslim North Africa than Massachusetts and Virginia together. England had signed a trade treaty with Morocco in 1580, there was a Muslim community in London and Plymouth, and it was not unusual for Englishmen to “turn Turk” and take up residence in North Africa in the service of some Muslim potentate, even converting to Islam. The Caribbean trade triangle is familiar to most students of colonial history, but it is not generally known that ”the most dominant triangle linked England to Moorish North Africa and North America.” 6

The Levant Company chartered in 1581 regulated trade between England and Turkey and the Levant. Four members of the Levant Company were also members of the Massachusetts Bay Company. Barbary Ducats were hand hammered square gold coins with Arabic inscriptions on both sides. These were traded with the English and also circulated in trade among the British colonies of North America. These ducats were traded with the more popularly known so- called Arabian Chequin or Sequin. A table of current coins published on May 4, 1784 gives the New England value for a Chequin at 14s d. Since Arabian coins circulated it is equally possible that not only gold specie but silver and copper as well also entered into transactions not listed in the table of May 4,1784.

Fifth, the English pilgrims who arrived in British North America to establish colonies and the later immigrants that followed were not exclusively English by heritage but in some cases merely by nationality having become Anglophonic and their names Anglicized to blend and to some extent homogenized into English culture. Among these English pilgrims were Jews from the diaspora and Moors from those regions in which the English traded.

”As LaBarre observes, and contrary to popular belief, most of the Massachusetts Bay colonists made no claim of being Puritans or religious adherents of any shape, sort or fashion. They had simply immigrated to make their fortunes in the New World. The Hutchinson family, for example, traded with the West Indies through their cousin, Peleg Sanford of Rhode Island. Other Boston-based merchants traded with the crypto-Jewish strongholds of Bilbao, Portugal, Malaga, Spain and the Marrano communities of the Canaries, Madeira and Fayal. Some had factors at converso-laden Nevis, Barbados, Antigua and Guadalupe for trading in rum, wine and sugar. By 1645 Boston vessels were transporting African slaves to Barbados for the sugar plantations. And by 1664 a man named John Leverette, bearing a Hebrew surname was governor of the colony, which in the meantime had outgrown and now overshadowed the earlier Plymouth Colony, leaving Massachusetts dominated politically and ideologically by Boston and its merchants.” 7

The English name Alger is Anglicization from the Moorish for Algeria referring to a person’s place of origin. Among the Massachusetts Bay settlers was one man named Andrew Alger. The Jews from Algeria, for example, were employed there as minters of coins including copper.

“We have very few details of Jewish life in Algeria from the 16th and 17th centuries, only what we have gleaned from the writings of missionaries, diplomats and European travelers made captive by the Algerian pirates. According to these writings, one can deduce that the Jews were mainly tradesmen, jewelers or tailors. They were responsible for minting coins of copper, silver and gold.” 8

Sixth, since Boston engaged with trade among the Arabic speaking regions of the world long before 1787 any number of explanations could account for these copper coins with Arabic inscriptions being deposited in Medford. In 1655, Abraham Browne (1630-) was held for ransom by the Barbary pirates. 9 The New England family name or surname Browne refers to his dark complexion signifying he was either Jewish or Moorish. 10 In 1778 Morocco invited the United States to enter into a peace treaty. 11 This concern prompted John Adams to advise the President of the Congress in a letter dated September 10, 1783, to negotiate a peace treaty with Morocco, Algeria, Tunis and Tripoli. 12 On October 11, 1784, Moroccan Barbary pirates seized the 300-ton brig, i.e., the American Brigantine Betsey. 13 This ship sailed from Boston to Tenerife Island, one of the seven Canary Islands off the coast of North-West Africa and was captured by the “Barbary Pirates” and held for ransom.

1 Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. III., No. I (1809) :195-196. Reprinted in American Journal of Numismatics, Volume IV, April (1872) : 79-80. See also Thaddeus Mason Harris, The Journal of a Tour into the Territory Northwest of the Alleghany Mountains; Made in the Spring of the Year 1803 (Boston, 1805): 153, where he discusses finding plates of copper in some mounds thought to be parts of armor.

2 The Medford Historical Register, Volume X, No. 1, January (1907) : 41

3 For a study on square Arab coins see H. Edmund Hohertz, Catalog of Square Islamic Coins of Spain, Portugal and North Africa 1130-1816 A.D. (Wooster Book Co., 2008)

4 Hui-lin Li, (1960–1961). "Mu-lan-p'i: A Case for Pre-Columbian Transatlantic Travel by Arab Ships," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Volume 23 (1960-1961) : 114-126

5 Needham and Ronan see the possibility of landing but not of a return. Joseph Needham and Colin A Ronan, The Shorter Science and Civilization in China (Cambridge University Press, 1986) : 120

6 Elizabeth Caldwell Hirschman and Donald N. Yates, Jews and Muslims in British Colonial America: A Genealogical History (McFarland Publishers, 2012) : 68

7 Caldwell and Yates, Jews and Muslims, 66

8 Sarah Taieb-Carlen, The Jews of North Africa from Dido to De Gaulle (University Press of America, 2010) : 32

9 Stephen T. Riley, “Abraham Browne’s Captivity by the Barbary Pirates, 1655,” Seafaring in Colonial Massachusetts (Boston: Colonial Society, 1980) : 31-42

10 Caldwell and Yates, Jews and Muslims, 67

11 Gregory Fremont-Barnes, The Wars of the Barbary Pirates. To the Shores of Tripoli: the Rise of the US Navy and Marines. (Osprey Publishing, 2006) : 13

12 Gardner Weld Allen, Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1905) : 28- 29

13 Michael B. Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010) : 22; Robert Battistini, “Glimpses of the Other Before Orientalism: The Muslim World in Early American Periodicals, 1785-1800,” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Volume 8, No. 2 (2010): 446-474

To read the earlier E-Sylum articles, see:


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