Tag Archives: colonial

A Correction to “Treasure (Rhode) Island”

On April 9, 2021, Pocket Change hosted a post of mine that took issue with the popularization of a theory originally published by Jim Bailey in the Colonial Newsletter in 2017. In Bailey’s article, it was argued that silver khamsiya coins of Qasimid Yemen (Fig. 1) found (increasingly, it seems) in North America—particularly in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island—are directly connected to the English pirate Henry Every and his crew after their plunder of the Mughal treasure ship Ganj-i-Sawai in 1695.

Figure 1. Qasimid silver khamsiya of al-Hadi Muhammad III dated AH 1105 (AD 1693/4) similar to coins found in New England. ANS 1971.229.3.

As part of my criticism of the theory that the coins must have come with Every’s men as they sought to escape the long arm of the embarrassed British authorities, I challenged the reading of the date on one of the find coins illustrated by Bailey in CNL—a khamsiya of the Qasimid imam Muhammad III using the laqab al-Hadi (“the Provider of Guidance”) (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Grayscale image of the Qasimid silver khamsiya of al-Hadi Muhammad III found by Jim Bailey. As published in the Colonial Newsletter 164 (August 2017), p. 4575, fig. 1.

In this greyscale image the vertical linear element in the final numeral of the date gave the impression to me and others that the date should be read as ١١٠٨ (AH 1108 or AD 1696/1697) rather than ١١٠٥ (AH 1105 or AD 1693/1694). If read as AH 1108, the coin must have been struck after the capture of the Ganj-i-Sawai and therefore could not have possibly been carried off by Every’s pirates in 1695.

Last week I was given the opportunity to see the original color images of the coin from the CNL article (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. High-quality digital image of the Qasimid silver khamsiya of al-Hadi Muhammad III found by Jim Bailey.

From these it is very clear and indisputable that the final digit of the date is actually ٥ as published by Bailey and not ٨ as I had suggested. Hopefully, it should be equally clear when comparing the final digit of this coin to the ANS specimen illustrated above how the erroneous reading came about (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. AH 1105 date comparison between the ANS specimen and Bailey’s specimen.

The linear element in the digit on Bailey’s find coin is by no means a regular feature of the Arabic numeral 5 on Qasimid coins and was the cause of the misreading of the date in the greyscale image. Indeed, it would be tempting to suggest that the numeral on Bailey’s coin might be an AH 1101 (١١٠١) date that has been recut as AH 1105 (١١٠٥) if not for the fact that khamsiyat struck by Muhammad III before AH 1105 feature the laqab al-Nasir (“the One Who Gives Victory”) rather than al-Hadi and employ a different arrangement of the Arabic legends. Coins with the al-Nasir laqab are presently known in North America from finds in Connecticut, Maine, and Rhode Island while those with the al-Hadi laqab have been reported from Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

In any case, due to this new revelation, I wish to withdraw the dating argument made in my original post and apologize to both Mr. Bailey and to readers for injecting an unfortunate chronological red herring into the discussion of khamsiyat in North American find contexts. At present, there are no known khamsiyat found in North America with Hijri dates that fall after AD 1695. The latest date on a khamsiya with a North American find context known to me at present is an al-Hadi Muhammad III issue of AH 1106 (AD 1694/1695) found in northern Massachusetts and reported in April 2021.

Despite the mistaken reading of AH 1108 for 1105, however, I still stand by my original position that we are still very much lacking in solid evidence to clearly tie the khamsiyat found in North America directly to the piratical exploits of Henry Every’s crew. At the moment, the case for Every’s men as the mechanism for the arrival of Qasimid coins in the American colonies still seems somewhat circumstantial and speculative. Unless the movement of the coins from Yemen to the New England via the slave and/or coffee trades can be entirely ruled out, or until specimens are found in an unambiguous piratical context connected to known associates of Henry Every, there must remain some element of doubt about his crew as the ultimate source of khamsiyat in North America. For the not infrequent confusion of trade and piracy and the tendency of the East India Company to paint all interlopers into its area of trade as pirates, see John Kleeberg, “The Circulation of Leeuwendaalders (Lion Dollars) in England’s North American Colonies,” CNL 152 (August 2013), 4042–4043.

Even if piracy was the sole possible means by which khamsiyat came to North America, it does not necessarily follow that the pirates responsible had to have been Every’s men. In 1980, a team of French archaeologists recovered the debris that remained of Speaker, an English pirate vessel that sank off the coast of Mauritius on January 7, 1702. Along with two gold bars and a variety of gold and silver coins, the archaeologists recovered several Qasimid khamsiyat of Muhammad III. Two of these were catalogued, but not illustrated, in Patrick Lizé, “The Wreck of the Pirate Ship Speaker on Mauritius in 1702,” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration 13.2 (1984), 129–130, nos. 11–12 (I am very grateful to Nancy Um for bringing this article to my attention). Coin 11 in Lizé’s catalogue is an al-Nasir issue that must date to the period AD 1686/1687-1693/1694 on the basis of the laqab, while coin 12 is an al-Hadi issue described as “minted in 1697” (in need of confirmation). All of this tends to suggest that Qasimid coins with legends and dates similar to those found in North America were still available to pirates in 1702 and therefore it cannot be certain that khamsiyat with North American find contexts must have been taken as plunder in 1695. Every’s men were not the only pirates to haunt the ports of New England.          

It is hoped that ongoing study of Qasimid coins, Yemeni trade, and Indian Ocean piracy in the seventeenth century, as well as new finds in controlled archaeological excavations will together provide a more unequivocal explanation for finds of khamsiyat in North America.

Counterfeiting Continental Currency

The Irish-American printer John Dunlap of Philadelphia produced this broadside in 1778/1779 at the direction of John Gibson, the auditor general for the Continental Congress. Dunlap’s most famous printing job was undoubtedly the Declaration of Independence, the first copies of which are colloquially known today as ‘Dunlap broadsides,’ but he was also the general printing contractor for the Continental Congress. This broadside is a single sheet measuring 8″ x 16″ and its heading gives a fairly precise indication of its purpose:


Which were done in Imitation of the True Ones ordered by the Honorable


Bearing Date 20th May, 1777, and 11th April, 1778. 

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Financing the war against the British was a tricky proposition for the cash-strapped colonists, who ultimately simply printed their own paper money and embraced the convenient fiction that all of it was backed by specie. The market of course knew better, and the value of notes issued by the Continental Congress depreciated rapidly as more and more currency entered circulation. The relatively modest initial printing in May 1775 of $3,000,000 in Continental Currency was dwarfed by later emissions, like the $25,000,000 authorized by the Resolution of April 11, 1778. Continental Currency was also being devalued through the work of counterfeiters, who saw an opportunity to take advantage of the unprecedented volume of paper money circulating. For British forces and their Loyalist allies, counterfeiting was also seen as a weapon of war, as this infamous advertisement published in a newspaper from British-occupied New York City makes clear.

New York Gazette, April 14, 18777
New York Gazette, April 14, 1777

The advertisement promised “exactly executed” counterfeit “Congress notes” to any person traveling into the colonies, observing that a large amount had already been circulated and that there was “no Risque in getting them off.” To be fair, there were a variety of opportunists on both sides who were successfully counterfeiting Continental Currency, but British efforts were certainly more organized and systemic. How effective this was at undermining the currency and the larger American war effort remains an open question.

Part of the problem was not just how much paper money was being produced, but that it was so often poorly printed. The broadside mentions circulating counterfeits of a $6 bill dated May 20, 1777, and as you can see in the two specimens below, the genuine versions of this note were not exactly masterpieces in either design or execution. This was, notably, the first emission on which the appellation “UNITED STATES” appeared.

The so-called “nature printing” on these notes was a security feature based on the idea that the delicate lines of an impressed leaf were difficult to replicate, but here the effect is almost undetectable in the square block of ink on the reverses. The overall inconsistency of the print runs necessarily made counterfeits that much harder to detect. As the final paragraph of the broadside alludes to, letterforms were broken during the printing process, which raised alarms when comparing even genuine notes with one another. Adding quality counterfeits to the mix only sowed more confusion. Below is an animation of a transition between a genuine and counterfeit $8 note of May 20, 1777 mentioned in the broadside:


The broadside details how this counterfeit, which was engraved on a copper plate, was not quite able to replicate the quality and regularity of the letterforms in the genuine note, which was set by a printer using type. Still, as you can see, the counterfeit was certainly a reasonable facsimile of the original. While faking an eight dollar note was all well and good, a more attractive target were the higher denominations.

The $40 bill was the largest denomination of what are known as the Yorktown notes, since they were authorized by an April 11, 1778 resolution and printed in York, Pennsylvania, where the Continental Congress was temporarily residing. The broadside enumerates three separate fraudulent versions of the $40 note, which might have been the most counterfeited of the Revolutionary era. The problem was so serious that large numbers of these Yorktown notes were simply destroyed, and this is what makes them the rarest and most expensive notes for collectors today. The fiasco only further depreciated the already shaky Continental Currency, which at this point was worth only between a quarter to a third of its nominal value, i.e. one dollar of silver was worth three or four dollars of paper money. It only went downhill from there, and by the end of the war, “not worth a continental” had entered the lexicon for something regarded as worthless.

The handwritten annotation at the bottom of the broadside reads: “Permit no copy of these descriptions to be taken unless at the request of the Executive Authority of the State to be placed in confidential hands.” It was also singed by the auditor general of the Continental Congress, John Gibson, for whom counterfeit bills were clearly a pressing issue, but it’s unclear how great of an aid this rather simple but detailed descriptive list was in combating the problem. Still it does offer a fascinating window into the financial schemes that the American colonists relied on to fund the war and the machinations with which the British tried to thwart them.

For more on the paper money of the revolutionary period, see Eric P. Newman, The Early Paper Money of America (5th ed., 2008); Kenneth Scott, Counterfeiting in Colonial America (1957, reprint 2000); Philip L. Mossman, From Crime to Punishment: Counterfeit and Debased Currencies in Colonial and Pre-Federal America (2013).

Matthew Wittmann