Captain John Ward II

According to Andrew Barker’s True and Certain Report, it was a wealthy Catholic who unwittingly offered Ward an escape route back to the days that had been. The man sold off his Hampshire estate with the intention of moving himself, his wife and children, and all his worldly goods (including £2,000 in ready money) to the more congenial religious climate of France. There was talk of this in the taverns and alleys of Portsmouth, and John Ward heard that the man had bought passage on a bark, a small merchant ship, which was currently at anchor in Portsmouth harbor. His valuables were already stowed aboard, although the passengers and most of the crew were lodging in the town, waiting for a fair wind for France.

That night, Ward persuaded about thirty of his comrades to desert from the Lion’s Whelp and join him in storming the bark, arguing that they would have no problem in neutralizing the two hands on watch and slipping out of the harbor with the Catholic’s fortune before anyone realized what was happening. Ward and his men duly crept aboard, overpowered the watch and “straight shut [them] under deck, and commanded them not to squeak like rats.” In the still darkness they piloted the little vessel out of Portsmouth harbor.

So far, so good. By dawn they were away from the guns of Portsmouth’s fort and out in the English Channel, and the time had come for Ward to take a look at his ill-gotten Catholic gold. He had the captives brought up on deck—and received an unpleasant surprise: “These poor wretches shaking for fear before this terrible thief, they replied, that his expectation was herein frustrate. Store of riches they must confess there was indeed, but upon what reason they knew not, it was the day before landed again.” In other words, Ward’s intended victim somehow had gotten wind of the plot to rob him, and his goods and money were sitting safe and secure back in his lodgings at the Red Lion Inn at Portsmouth.

Not quite knowing what to do or where to go, only that “we have proceeded so far into the thieves’ path, that to return back we shall be stopped with a halter,” the men got drunk on some wine they found in the hold and set off westward toward Land’s End in Cornwall.

Off the Isles of Scilly, about thirty miles from the southwest tip of Cornwall, they sighted a French merchant ship of seventy tons, fully laden and bound for Ireland. (Originally related to the number of tun casks of wine that a merchant ship could carry, tonnage refers to the internal volume of a vessel rather than its weight.) She was armed with six guns, which made her more than a match for the bark if it came to a fight. But Ward had no intention of engineering a head-on confrontation. He hailed the Frenchman—a perfectly normal procedure when two ships met on the high seas—and pulled alongside her, patiently “passing many hours in courteous discourse . . . seeming glad of the other’s acquaintance” while most of his men stayed hidden belowdecks. When he judged that any suspicions the French crew might have had had been lulled, he gave a signal, at which his men burst out on deck and the novice pirates boarded their victim, seized her cargo, and imprisoned all hands before “any had time to think how they could be hurt.”

History doesn’t record the fate of the French crew, but it was their ship that Ward wanted. It was a bigger vessel than his own, with more firepower. Now he needed more men. So he anchored off Cawsand, a little fishing village overlooking Plymouth Sound known as a center for smuggling, and went ashore in a longboat.

Throughout Ward’s career as a pirate one of his most effective qualities was his power of persuasion. He had convinced thirty of the Lion’s Whelp’s crew to jump ship and steal the bark with its presumed cargo of Catholic gold; when that failed, he convinced them to take part in a daring act of piracy. In the years to come, he would convince Ottoman officials to provide him with men and munitions; he would convince English agents who came to hunt him down that they should change sides. And now, on the beach and on the quay and in the alehouse, “with the news of his success, and expectation to come,” he convinced the smugglers and fishermen of Cawsand Bay to follow him to the Barbary Coast.

Leaving ashore the two watchmen taken prisoner when he stole the bark in Portsmouth, Ward and his band of pirates sailed south, across the Bay of Biscay and down the coast of Spain and Portugal. Off Cape St. Vincent they took a small flyboat, a flat-bottomed coastal trader used by the Dutch. She was laden with valuable merchandise, and as they turned east through the Straits of Gibraltar, Ward put her crew into the bark and left them to steer their own course for home, while he and his little convoy doubled back and headed for the shelter of Larache on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. We don’t know how long they stayed there, only that their next prize was a settee, a two-masted, single-decked transport ship used to carry spare galley slaves and more commonly found in the Levant than in the western half of the Mediterranean. Then Ward decided to take his squadron, which now consisted of the settee, the French merchantman, and the flyboat, straight to the pirate haven of Algiers.

His timing couldn’t have been worse. A few months before, an English privateer named Richard Giffard, a onetime friend of the Algerians who had subsequently changed sides and was now fighting against the Turks for the Duke of Tuscany, sailed into Algiers and tried to set fire to the Algerian corsair fleet. He failed, but the governor of Algiers, Mohammed the Eunuch, was suitably angered. He rounded up a dozen of Giffard’s crew who had somehow been left behind when their captain fled and tortured them to death. English merchants in the city were imprisoned and ordered to pay heavy fines; English ships were banned from entering the port; and it was generally understood that Giffard’s fellow countrymen were no longer welcome in Algiers.

So when John Ward arrived, hoping to dispose of his prize cargoes and victual his ships in a city known throughout the Western world as a safe haven for European renegades, he was surprised to meet with a frosty reception. In fact, several members of his crew were arrested the moment they went ashore, and it was only after some careful negotiation and a hefty bribe that Ward was able to procure “the peace and enlargement of his followers.”

According to another Englishman named Richard Parker who was in Morocco at the time to trade woolen goods for sugar, Ward made a hasty retreat and tried his luck next at Salé, on the Atlantic coast. Arriving there late in 1604, he sold his goods, victualed and trimmed his vessels, and recruited more men—mostly, it seems, from Parker’s own ship, the Blessing , which was left so undermanned that the merchant thought he would never get back to England. He was left with little choice but to hitch a ride with the pirates. (Or so he told the Admiralty court when he was brought before it and accused of piracy some years later.)

Early in 1605, Ward set sail from Salé on a course that took him through the Straits and back toward Algiers. This time, however, he kept going eastward along the Barbary Coast, past the ancient ruins of Hippo Regius, where Saint Augustine had died as Vandals stormed the city walls in A.D. 430; past the Khroumirie Mountains with their forests of cork-oak extending almost to the sea; past the corsair bases of Tabarquea and Bizerte, which began life as Phoenician settlements more than 700 years before the birth of Christ. Eventually Ward and his little convoy rounded Cap Farina and entered the Gulf of Tunis.

Tunis had long been known in Europe as a refuge for outcasts and outlaws. In the early sixteenth century, when Oruç Barbarossa made the city his base for raids on Venetian shipping and an entire community of Christian merchants settled there to trade in stolen goods, the Hafsid ruler of Tunisia, Mohammed IV, was guarded by “fifteen hundred most choice soldiers, the greatest part of whom are renegadoes or backsliders from the Christian faith.” The subject of a drawn-out struggle between the Ottoman Empire and Spain during the 1500s, Tunis was occupied in 1534 by Turks under the command of Khair ad-Din; then by the Spanish; again by Turks in 1569; again by the Spanish; and by the Turks for a third and final time in 1574, when the Hafsids, who had become little more than puppet kings of the Spanish, were ousted and the Ottoman emperor installed a beylerbey, or provincial governor, whose authority was enforced by a garrison of 4,000 Janissaries.

The Janissary corps was the nucleus of the Ottoman army. All of its members were converts to Islam who had been recruited from the children of the devshirme, the child-tribute that the empire exacted from Christian subject states in the Balkans. Highly disciplined and rigorously trained in the use of arms, they were a hierarchical warrior class that was accountable to its officers and to Istanbul, and not to the civil authorities in the various provinces where the corps was stationed. Janissaries played a vital social and political role in all of the Ottoman outposts on the Barbary Coast, and for a governor to ignore their interests was to court disaster.

The Ottoman Empire’s objective in taking and holding Tunis was primarily strategic. The city was regarded as a bulwark against expansionist Christian powers in the Mediterranean, a base from which to launch military operations against the West, and no real attempt was made to colonize the surrounding country, and the fact that Istanbul appointed a pasha to govern for only one year at a time did little to encourage stability.

In 1591 the rank-and-file Janissaries garrisoned in Tunis rebelled against their senior officers, whom they accused of treating them badly. The mutineers chose leaders of their own, whom they called deys (from the Turkish dayı, “maternal uncle”), and forced the pasha to accept a nominal role as the sultan’s representative and to cede real power to the dey.

For seven years, ruling deys came and went with alarming frequency, none of them strong enough to keep the different factions within the Janissary corps in check. Then, in 1598, a junior officer named Uthman emerged as the leader Tunis needed, and, with a little help from 2,000 local Arab troops, he took control of the corps and the capital.

Known variously in England as Kara Osman, Osman Bey, Crosomond, and the Crossymon, and described at different times as Viceroy, Captain of Janissaries, and Lord Admiral of the Sea, and regarded as the archetypal sinister Turk, Uthman Dey was an able administrator and a clever manager of men. His rule, according to a seventeenth-century history of Barbary, was characterized by gentleness, justice, and a profound tranquillity. Among the many achievements of his reign were an important trade treaty he concluded with France, which entailed a reciprocal renunciation of the right of search; success in maintaining harmonious relationships both within Tunisia and between Tunisia and the rest of the Ottoman Empire; and the welcome he gave to tens of thousands of Moriscos, Spanish Muslims expelled from Andalusia in 1609. According to the seventeenth-century historian Ibn Abi Dinar, Uthman Dey “made room for them in the town, and distributed the neediest of them among the people of Tunis,” thus bringing an army of skilled artisans and laborers into his country and revitalizing Tunisian arts and crafts.

In the West, however, Uthman Dey is remembered for one thing and one thing only: piracy. As part of his efforts to build a prosperous new Tunis, he worked closely with the head of the navy, the qaptan, and the powerful guild of corsairs, the taifat al-raïs, to establish the city as one of the most important corsair bases on the Barbary Coast. European renegades and “Turks”—that catchall English euphemism both for citizens of the Ottoman Empire and for all Muslims, no matter where they came from—had operated out of Tunis for generations, paying tribute to officials and duty on the prizes and slaves they brought in for sale. But Uthman invested in corsairing expeditions and provided each corsair captain, or raïs, with troops, guns, and money. He ensured that Janissaries received a share of the profits. (Janissaries served as the fighting force aboard all corsair vessels, and the Janissary officer in command was theoretically in charge of the ship, since he outranked its raïs.) By the time of his death, Uthman had managed to weave piracy so deeply into the fabric of Tunisian society that it was a major state industry.

The state industry, as it was turning out to be for smaller maritime nations all over the Mediterranean. Unable or unwilling to compete with the big trading powers like Spain, France, and the Venetian Republic, or with their up-and-coming rivals, England and the Dutch Republic, such states turned privateering into a mainstream commercial activity. This meant that, strictly speaking, the corsairs of the Mediterranean weren’t pirates, just as the privateers of Western Europe weren’t pirates. Much has been made of the distinction by twentieth-century apologists, who stress the institutional and legalistic aspects of corsairing: the issuing of commissions, the way that prizes were taxed by the state, the restrictions on who could and who could not be attacked. In most Mediterranean languages the word “corsair”—the French corsaire, the Provençal corsari, the Spanish corsario, the Italian corsaro—means “privateer” as distinct from “pirate.” It was only the lazy English who persisted in treating the two words as synonymous: in the 1599 edition of his Voyages, for example, Richard Hakluyt spoke of “the Turkish cursaros, or as we call them pirates or rovers.”  Over a hundred years later an English historian could still talk of “the corsories or pirates of Tripoli.”

These are muddy semantic waters. Christian and Muslim states adopted increasingly legalistic positions in the course of the seventeenth century, as jointly ratified and (in theory) binding articles of peace came to occupy a position of importance in Europe’s stance toward Barbary. From the 1670s onward, English government sources tended to reserve the charge of piracy for the buccaneers of the Caribbean, who were becoming an increasing menace. (In 1684 Henry Morgan wrote from Jamaica to instruct his London lawyers to sue a publisher for describing him as a “pirate” rather than a “privateer”; he won £200 in damages, plus costs.) English consuls in Barbary were careful never to refer to corsairs as pirates, even though the absence of a treaty rather than the presence of a state of war was enough for those corsairs to justify taking a vessel from a militarily weak nation such as Naples or Ragusa or Genoa.

Most seventeenth-century Englishmen were less particular. The word “corsair” wasn’t common in English anyway, and the charge of piracy was routinely and casually leveled at the warships of any nation the English didn’t like, including all the Barbary Coast states. In any case, what was the legal status of Tripoli or Tunis or Algiers—all part of the Ottoman Empire—when they declared war on a European state to legitimize the plundering of its merchant ships, while their political masters in Istanbul simultaneously assured the state in question that the Ottoman Empire was friendly and that no such hostilities were intended? What if the taifat al-raïs was so bound up with government, as it frequently was, that it could engineer a declaration of war in order to legitimize the search for lucrative victims, thus turning diplomacy itself into an instrument of piracy? After pointing out the confusion and stressing the difference between a privateer and a pirate, the Oxford English Dictionary falls back into the fog by defining a corsair as “a pirate-ship sanctioned by the country to which it belongs.”

A further complication was the wars of religion that were being fought out in the Mediterranean—sometimes by proxy, sometimes not—all through the seventeenth century. The fiercely anti-Islamic tendency in Catholic southern Europe had its counterpart in the devout Muslims who still saw the Barbary Coast corsairs as front-line troops against encroaching Christendom. “And there were some who went on the sea jihad and found fame,” wrote the Algerian historian Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Maqqari in the 1620s. Forty years later a Moroccan pilgrim who paused in Tripoli on his way to Mecca referred to corsairs as mujahideen and again described their activities as jihad. They were warriors for Allah, ghuzat mu’mineen, and by attacking European shipping they were resisting the colonizing forces of Christendom, which had not given up their intention to gain a foothold in North Africa and erode the dar al-Islam.

Like the truth, the motives of individuals are rarely pure and never simple. Circumstance, history, ideology, the opportunity to strike back, the thrill that can accompany an act of violence—all played their part in the creation of a corsair culture along the Barbary Coast. So did profit. Ibrahim bin Ahmad, an Andalusian sailor and master gunner who came to Tunis with other Morisco refugees in 1609, was delighted at the warm welcome he was given when he arrived. “The ruler, Uthman Dey—God have mercy upon him—took an interest in me and appointed me to the command of two hundred Andalusians, giving me the sum of five hundred sultanis [gold coins] and two hundred hand-guns and daggers plus whatever was necessary for a sea voyage.” Suitably fitted out, Ibrahim set off “in search of the infidel and his wealth.”