In the new North American colonies beginning to take shape in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, piracy at sea—our classic notion of a “pirate”—played a surprisingly important role in sustaining the New World economy. The period from the middle of the 17th century to 1730 is actually known as the Golden Age of piracy, or privateering, in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.¹
In fact, these pirates of the Atlantic sometimes intercepted vessels that had ventured from as far as the Indian Ocean, which brought them into contact with Arab peoples of the Mughal Empire near the East Indies. We know this to be very likely thanks to some incredible discoveries of coins in New England.
Small silver coins known as khums kabir (or often called comassee by Westerners) have occasionally surfaced in parts of the northeastern United States. Struck by Mughal emperors, only a handful of khums kabir have been found in the U.S., mainly in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. This is fairly strong circumstantial evidence for a connection to Atlantic piracy.
In fact, in reporting this story, Coin World cites the most recent finder of an Arabian silver commassee, James Bailey, who makes a compelling argument that the presence of the coins in North America speak to colonists’ support for pirate activity.
“Piracy was good business for colonial America. According to Bailey, three of the top five largest cities in colonial America provided the most support to pirates,” the article notes.
Many Atlantic pirates were former members of the British navy who were aided by successful businessmen in the colonies. The great wealth that they looted from British, Spanish, and Muslim ships would be spent in the colonies, and thereby shared in part with American colonists. This provided a boon for the colonial economy—but less so for the emerging British Empire.
Many of the Arab traders who were victimized by opportunistic privateers were in regular trade with the East India Company, one of the key vehicles of Britain’s growing commercial clout in far-away lands. While all who did business across the seas were potential targets for pirates, the British Crown had by far the most at stake to lose with piracy taking over international trade and shipping routes. (The bitter irony is that the British had relied on mercenary privateers to do the navy’s bidding during the 16th and 17th centuries.)
This age of piracy came to an abrupt end in the 1730s, as the British Empire systematically stamped out such disruptions to its dominance over global trade. However, artifacts that like the 1693 Yemeni silver coin discovered by Mr. Bailey serve as an indelible reminder of our own history.
- Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. 2004.
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