The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 22, Number 27, July 7, 2019, Article 12


Readers may recall Jim Bailey, the metal-detecting historian from Rhode Island who reached out to us in 2016 while writing an article for The Colonial Newsletter about specimens of Arabian silver coins found by detectorists at Colonial Period sites in New England. An article this week in the Providence Journal profiles Jim, his finds, and his research. Here's an excerpt, but be sure to see the complete article online. -Editor

James Bailey holds a comassee, an Islamic coin minted in Yemen in 1693 The first documented arrival of a ship bringing enslaved people direct from Africa to Newport, in 1696, was not a scheme by a Rhode Islander seeking his fortune in the slave trade. It was a scheme by a pirate who already had a fortune — an emperor's fortune — that he needed to hide in plain sight while crossing the Atlantic.

An amateur historian from Warwick, James Bailey, 52, arrived at this conclusion by way of historical research and his metal detector, which helped him find Colonial buckles, pewter spoons, a 1-pound cannonball and one slim coin, about the size of a dime. It's a dime on which a part of accepted Rhode Island history turns.

The coin, he said, is proof that the ship carrying abducted Africans to be sold in Newport was not only a Rhode Island first, but also the getaway plan for a spectacular Red Sea pirate heist.

The unusual coin is inscribed in Arabic. It lay in a Middletown field for three centuries, passed over by livestock, plows, storms and seasons at what is now Sweet Berry Farm, a pick-your-own-fruit destination with specialty foods, a gift shop and dining areas indoors and out.

James Bailey holds a comassee, an Islamic coin minted in Yemen in 1693 The coin, dug up by Bailey in 2014, became the first dot in a line that led to the arrival in late May 1696 of a slave ship direct from Africa, and before that to the ransacking by pirates of the flagship of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, ruler of the entire Indian subcontinent. The attack jeopardized Britain's trade relationship with India, and Rhode Island officials were suspected of hiding pirates, which they were. British trade authorities discussed revoking the colony's charter.

The dots also connect to a mutiny in Spain, an entire ship and crew abandoned at sea, the deliberate sinking of the pirate ship that had plundered Aurangzeb's flagship, and the escape of the most wanted man on Earth, who disguised himself, his ship and his crew as slavers. The guise got Henry Every from an island east of Madagascar, around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, across the Atlantic, into the Bahamas, where he changed ships, and on to Newport without being captured.

Having carried off the plunder from one of the most successful, although brutal, pirate attacks in history, Every disappeared after he reached Ireland. Some say he lived out his life in luxury. Others say he was cheated and died penniless. The fates of at least five pirates, however, are known. They were hanged. Many others disappeared into Colonial landscapes, unloading their telltale coins, sometimes swapping them for land or asking silversmiths and artisans to transform them into statements of wealth.

Some of the small coins, however, entered circulation. In recent years, 12 silver coins like the one found in Middletown have turned up in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Hobbyists with metal detectors found most of them, but Connecticut's state archaeologist, Brian Jones, reported that one turned up in a dig last August at the Lt. John Hollister archaeological site, in Glastonbury. As Jones wrote in the September 2018 Newsletter of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut: "Many of these pirates used Newport, Rhode Island as a safe haven, and the coins were eagerly picked up by colonists for whom currency was in very short supply."

tems James Bailey has found in Rhode Island Bailey works in security at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, occasionally bringing his metal detector to scan the prison yard for weapons.

His hobby is hunting for artifacts. He studies early maps to find promising sites. In 2004, he saw on a map from the late 1700s where a house once stood in Middletown. He asked the Sweet Berry Farm owners, Jan and Michelle Eckhart, for permission to hunt there with his detector. They granted it.

"He's an amateur, but he's really professional, if you ask me," said Jan Eckhart, stopping by two tables where Bailey had spread out maps, photos and portable display cases to talk about his findings.

James Bailey displays the artifacts he has found

Bailey keeps his best coins in a safe deposit box. They include the comassee, an Oak Tree shilling and an Oak Tree two pence, both issued by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as well as a Spanish half real (a crude silver coin worth about 6.25 cents), issued in 1727. He found all four on the farm.

He also brought his article, published in August 2017 by The Colonial Newsletter, a numismatics research journal, about tracing the comassee, the oldest Arabic coin found in North America, and discovering that it linked the slave ship with pirates.

"This story could never have been told 30 years ago," Bailey said, referring to the rise of the internet and advances in metal detectors.

Bailey, who confines himself to primary source documents, painstakingly studied vital records, letters, court testimony and other digitized materials.

George Washington inaugural button found by James Bailey 1652 Oak Tree shilling, found by James Bailey
LEFT: George Washington inaugural button
RIGHT: Oak Tree shilling

To read the complete article, see:
Pirate tale unearthed by amateur historian from Warwick (

Jim Bailey adds:

• Four coins have been added to the initial population of nine coins detailed in the study for a total of 13 recovered coins. One coin was discovered in 2017, and the other three were found in the second half of 2018. The coins were recovered in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. All coins are typical of those noted in the 2017 study: the coins circulated in the Red Sea region; the majority came from Yemen where the Gunsway took aboard its immense cargo of gold and silver later captured by Henry Every (one coin was minted in Cairo, Egypt); and all the coins date through the 17th century but not later than 1695, i.e., the year the Gunsway was captured. Most of the coins were recovered by metal detecting hobbyists, but one of the specimens found last summer in 2018 was recovered in an archaeological excavation in Glastonbury, CT.

• Further research of primary source documents continues to offer evidence of pirates settling with their loot in New England after voyaging with Henry Every aboard the Fancy. Richard Smithsend was one such pirate. He came ashore in Connecticut after the Fancy's company broke up in the Bahamas and went their separate ways. Amazingly, he eventually ended up living the rest of his life in Glastonbury, CT, where one coin, a 1692 silver comassee from Yemen, was recovered last year.

Further coin recoveries are likely as this story becomes better known.

Many thanks to Jim for bringing this story to light and sharing his research with us. It's a fascinating chapter in American history. -Editor

To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:


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Wayne Homren, Editor

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