Around New England

Rhode Island’s First Slave Ship Was Cover for Biggest Pirate Haul of All Time, Local Amateur Historian Says

July 6, 2019

The discovery of a small 1693 silver coin from Yemen in a field in Middletown, Rhode Island has helped an amateur historian determine that Rhode Island’s first slave ship was a cover for the biggest pirate heist of all time.

James Bailey, 52, of Warwick, who works in security for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, took his metal detector to the site of a former colonial home and came upon the rare coin, known as a comassee. It was taken from a ship from an Islamic empire in India that was attacked by English pirates in August 1695 under the command of a former British Royal Navy officer, Henry Every.

Every got away with what is believed to be the largest fortune ever gotten by piracy, but he quickly became a highly wanted man. He needed a cover story for why he was sailing the seas, and he found one on the French island of Reunion by buying slaves from Madagascar, Bailey told The Providence Journal.

Every sailed to the Bahamas and changed ships, and then sailed to Newport, Rhode Island, which during colonial times had a reputation for being soft on pirates. He sold some of the slaves there – the first to come to Rhode Island – and had others taken to Boston, while he himself sailed to Ireland and into oblivion.

One of the pirates involved, William Mayes Jr., returned permanently to Rhode Island and took over his father’s business in Newport, which today is one of the most famous restaurants in the state, the White Horse Tavern, according to the Providence Journal.

Other 17th century Islamic coins have turned up elsewhere in Rhode Island and in Connecticut. Bailey has used maps, court records, and other historical documents to supplement archaeological findings to put together the story.

The pirate attack resulted not just in plunder but also in the rape of women on board the major Indian ship and the torture and deaths of many of the passengers. It undermined the English government’s trading interests in India, leading King William III to issue a proclamation seeking to bring the pirates to justice. When Rhode Island authorities effectively sidestepped the all points bulletin, royal officials discussed yanking the colony’s charter, although they didn’t do it.

Every is known as the King of Pirates, but what happened to him isn’t clear. After he sailed to Ireland, he disappeared from history. Multiple claimed sightings in England and elsewhere proved inaccurate.

His pirate treasure has never been found.

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