Captain John Ward III

When John Ward and his men arrived in Tunis in 1605, Uthman Dey’s enthusiasm for piracy, and the eagerness of English outlaws to play their part in the war against Christendom, were already causing anxiety in Europe. In February 1603 the French vice-consul at Zante counted eleven English pirates who had taken French shipping and brought their prizes into Tunis over the previous nine months (the list was headed by Richard Giffard); and the Venetians, who were forced to ask the sultan himself to intervene when an English corsair robbed “the Consul of the Republic and many other rich merchants” and sold their goods at Tunis,30 reckoned the current pasha had amassed so much wealth from English privateering that he could afford to send the sultan a present of 4,000 gold coins to secure his early return to the court at Istanbul.

Unusual for a pirate base, the city of Tunis lies a good five miles from the coast, at the western end of a shallow saltwater lagoon called el-Bahira (“the little sea”), which is known to Europeans as the Lake of Tunis. At the narrow eastern mouth of the lagoon is the harbor of La Goulette (“the throat”), which controlled access from the Mediterranean into el-Bahira, and which was a natural focus for the city’s naval defenses. The Spanish king Charles V built a fortress across the entrance to el-Bahira when his forces took Tunis in 1535, but it was destroyed forty years later by the Turks, who constructed a massive citadel, the Borj el-Karrak, on its ruins. By the early seventeenth century a small town had grown up around the citadel, and La Goulette boasted two mosques, warehouses, a customs house, holding cells for slaves, and a small community of a hundred or so Jewish and Italian merchants.

El-Bahira was only a few feet deep, and although a channel had been cut through the lagoon to allow shallow-drafted Mediterranean galleys access to Tunis itself, strangers were required to come ashore at La Goulette to make themselves known to Uthman Dey’s customs officials and the merchants who gathered at the quay to appraise the new arrivals.

What did they make of John Ward and his motley crew of disaffected naval men and Cornish smugglers? Heavily bearded, with long lank hair beneath their knitted Monmouth caps, and wearing short canvas breeches and a bizarre assortment of brightly colored velvet jackets and leather jerkins, stolen doublets and clanking body armor, the pirates must have attracted stares as they moved through the sunlit streets and dark little alleys of La Goulette—stares from the Janissaries in their vivid woolen coats and elaborate gold-banded hats, stares from turbaned artisans and fishermen, stares from the veiled women whose “multifarious coverings at a distance make them appear of a much larger size than ordinary.”

La Goulette seemed just as strange and exotic to Ward and his men, and Tunis itself was another world. Before the sieges and counterattacks of the sixteenth century reduced it to ruins, it had been a thriving, cosmopolitan city. Writing in the 1520s, the Andalusian chronicler al-Hassan ibn Mohammed al-Wazzan al-Fassi (known in the West as Leo Africanus) recalled Tunisia as “the richest kingdom in all Africa,” praising its capital as a “stately and populous city” set amid olive groves, with a fine mosque, “colleges and monasteries . . . maintained upon the common benevolence of the city,” and a great diversity of commerce and industry: linen-weavers, drapers, and artificers of all kinds; butchers, grocers, apothecaries, tailors; “and all other trades and occupations.” Houses were built of stone and decorated with carved and painted work:

They have very artificial pargettings or plaster-works, which they beautify with orient colors: for wood to carve upon is very scarce at Tunis. The floors of their chambers are paved with certain shining and fair stones: and most of their houses are but of one storey high: and almost every house hath two gates or entrances; one toward the street, and another toward the kitchen and other back-rooms: between which gates they have a fair court, where they may walk and confer with their friends.

Suburbs had grown up beyond the walls to the north and south, and another between Bab al-Bahr, the eastern entrance to the city, and the shore of el-Bahira: this was where Genoese, Venetian, and other European merchants lived, “out of the tumult and concourse of the Moors” in their separate factories, or wakāla.

“Before the last assault made upon it by the Turks,” wrote a seventeenth-century English traveler, referring to the Ottoman conquest of Tunis in 1574, “there were many bulwarks and forts, but most of them are since slighted.” But plenty of monumental architecture survived, most notably the Great Mosque that had stood at the heart of Tunis since the eighth century. At the time of John Ward’s arrival, Uthman Dey was busy adding a monument of his own. His house, Dar Uthman, was the most impressive seventeenth-century palace in the whole of Tunis.

Uthman’s enthusiasm for piracy was attracting merchants back after the upheavals of the previous century; and the ready market for stolen goods, coupled with the promise of a safe haven and the prospect of official backing in the form of men, supplies, and money for any ventures against European shipping, were enough to persuade John Ward that Tunis was a suitable base of operations. “Thus as the sea might by experience relate his spoils and cruelty,” reported a scandalized Englishman, “so the land was an eye-witness of his drunkenness and idle prodigality.”

For the next year, nothing was heard in Europe of John Ward. He was working hard to establish a relationship with Uthman Dey, who “held share with Ward in all his voyages, prizes, and shippings and [was] his only supporter in all his designs.” Driven by mutual respect and mutual self-interest, the two men seemed to hit it off almost immediately. Ward was given lodgings in the house of the dey’s treasurer, Hasan the Genoese, and was trusted to look after Uthman’s money when Hasan was away.

Tunis at the beginning of the seventeenth century was a cosmopolitan society. Along with the native Tunisians and the Turks, there were Greek and Armenian merchants and brokers, tribesmen from the interior, and outcasts from just about every seafaring nation in Europe. John Ward and his English crew brushed shoulders in the souks and alleys with Dutchmen, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Irish, Portuguese. Algiers was the same: a list of thirty-five corsair captains who owned war galleys in Algiers in the 1580s included just ten Turks, along with six Genoese, three Greeks, two Venetians, two Spaniards, and two Albanians; one apiece from Naples, Sicily, Calabria, France, Hungary, and Corsica; one Jew; and three sons of renegades. Even the admiral of the Algerian fleet was an Italian renegade.

And the Franks, as the Levant contemptuously called all European nationals, not only used the Barbary states as bases for piracy; they occupied positions of power in governments all the way along the coast of North Africa. Before his capture and conversion to Islam, the treasurer to the pasha of Algiers in the 1580s—now a eunuch named Hasan Aga—had been a Bristol merchant’s son named Rowley. From 1649 to 1672 the roles of both pasha and dey of Tripoli were occupied by a Greek renegade. Later on in the seventeenth century, after the dual role was divided into separate posts again, the dey was a Venetian and the pasha an Albanian.

Although Ward quickly became a minor member of the Tunisian court, his real value to Uthman didn’t have much to do with his abilities as an administrator. Toward the end of 1606 he was out on the cruise again, prowling around the islands of the Aegean and the Ionian seas in his Dutch flyboat, which he had rather wittily renamed the Gift. She was armed with thirty guns and carried a crew of sixty-seven Englishmen, Dutchmen, and Spaniards. There were also twenty-eight “Turks” aboard, either North African sailors recruited at Tunis or La Goulette, or, more likely, a contingent of Janissaries provided by the dey to act as marines and to keep an eye on his investment. A further nineteen English seamen sailed in a pinnace, a small light sailing vessel, that accompanied the Gift.

Late one evening at the beginning of November 1606 the watch on the Gift caught sight of an English ship, the John Baptist, which was on its way from Messina in Sicily to the island of Chios in the Aegean Sea with a consignment of silks. The pirates caught up with the merchantman after midnight just outside the Ottoman-held port of Koroni on the southwest coast of the Peloponnese. Her master surrendered and Ward’s men duly came aboard and loaded the cloth into the pinnace, which set off back to Tunis, while the pirates commandeered the John and forced its officers to join their company. (Or so the master of the vessel later claimed when he was hauled before an Admiralty Court in London.)

Two weeks later, on November 16, 1606, a Venetian merchant galley named the Rubi disappeared in the eastern Mediterranean on its way home from Alexandria. Its cargo was valuable—spices, indigo, flax, and luxury goods—and the rumor was that it had been taken by an English privateer. It had, and the culprit was John Ward.

At the turn of the year, another Venetian ship, the Carminati, left Nauplion in the Peloponnese for Venice, carrying a mixed cargo of acorns, gall-nuts, blankets, silk, and grain. Driven off course by strong winds, she was intercepted near the Greek island of Milos by pirates in a Savoyard ship flying the Maltese flag, who stole her cargo but let her go on her way. Good fortune didn’t sail with her. On January 28, 1607, the Carminati was intercepted again, this time by an English vessel flying Flemish colors. (Who needed a Jolly Roger? One can see why the Admiralty Court in London used to complain that “so many banners and colors are promiscuously used at sea to disguise themselves and entrap others [that it is not possible] to know which ships are piratical or not.”) The “Fleming” was John Ward, with a crew of 110, mainly English but with a contingent of Turks. He boarded the Carminati, and her master, crew, and passengers were put in a small boat with a supply of ship’s biscuit and left to find their own way home, while the pirates sailed off with her in the direction of the Barbary Coast.

There were plenty of renegades operating in the eastern Mediterranean at that time, and so far there was little to mark Ward out as any different from the rest. That was about to change dramatically. Ward took the John Baptist, the Rubi, and the Carminati back to La Goulette and spent late February and March rigging out his prizes for battle, with backing from his partner-in-piracy Uthman Dey. In April 1607 he put to sea again, this time in the converted Rubi, and now in command of a small war fleet, which seems to have consisted of the John Baptist (renamed the Little John), the Gift, and the Carminati. A storm scattered the four vessels before they reached the northern Adriatic, where they planned to prey on returning Venetian merchantmen; Ward lost contact with the Little John and the Carminati , and blown far off course, he changed his mind and took the Rubi and the Gift into the eastern Mediterranean.

On April 26, while cruising between Cyprus and the coast of Turkey, they came in sight of the biggest ship he—or any of the other pirates—had ever seen.

There were indeed some gigantic merchant vessels afloat at the turn of the seventeenth century. The Madre de Deus, a Portuguese carrack captured by the English off the Azores in 1592, was an 1,800-ton monster, so huge that her captors had to bring her into Dartmouth instead of London because the Thames wasn’t deep enough to take her. Five years later a visitor to Marseilles was astonished at the sight of a captured Genoese vessel coming into harbor “like a great house of five storeys rising from the middle of the sea.” The Dutch built a series of massive ships in the early 1600s to ply the East Indies trade; the Venetian ambassador to England remarked in the summer of 1609 on a sighting of four great Dutch ships passing the English coast on their way home from the Indies. “They are reported to vary from 1400 to 2000 tons,” he said. And the Venetians had leviathans of their own, the seventeenth-century equivalents of the very large crude carriers and ultra-large crude carriers (the VLCCs and ULCCs) that ply their trade between East and West today. They were useful for transporting bulky cargoes like cotton from Cyprus and the Levant, and although they were slow in the water, they were much less vulnerable to attack by corsairs. They were manned by hundreds of sailors and marines, and they towered over the galleys, flyboats, and bertons favored by most Mediterranean pirates.

It was one of these massive Venetian merchantmen that John Ward encountered as the Rubi and the Gift cruised off the Turkish coast in April 1607. The Reniera e Soderina, “a great argosy of fourteen or fifteen hundred tons” was on her way back from Aleppo with a mixed cargo of cotton, silks, indigo, salt, and other merchandise “esteemed to be worth two millions at the least.”

Too heavy to maneuver in the light winds, the Soderina was a sitting target, and Ward’s much smaller vessels, which were able to make use of the wind, opened fire as soon as their guns were within range. For three hours they blasted away at the Venetian, smashing holes through her hull in five places and starting fires among the cotton bales which the ship’s company had dragged up from the hold to use as cover.

Eventually Ward ordered his men to prepare to board her.

As the pirates approached, the Soderina’s captain mustered his crew and passengers on deck and asked them whether or not he should surrender; finding that they still had stomach for a fight, he handed out small arms and deployed the defenders on the quarterdeck (the area of deck aft of the mainmast) and the poop (the raised deck at the stern of the vessel). The Soderina’s gunners got off another two or three shots at the corsairs as they closed; everyone else held steady and waited for the iron grapnels to come flying into the rigging and over the gunwales, the inevitable prelude to being boarded.

Not yet. Not quite yet. When they were within a hundred yards of the Soderina, the Rubi and the Gift each fired six rounds of chainshot. Some of it tore into the rigging and sails, some smashed into the gunwales and the bales, sending up clouds of shredded cotton and splinters. And one round scored a direct hit on a group of defenders. It blew two of them to pieces. Terrified, the rest dropped their weapons and ran, locking themselves in the forecastle or belowdecks. When the unfortunate captain ordered his crew back to their stations, the ship’s carpenter and a couple of others confronted him with weapons in their hands and told him he was no longer in command.

In the midst of all this panic, first the grapnels and then the pirates made their fearsome appearance on deck, with Ward in the thick of the fight. “He did in the deadly conflict so undauntedly bear himself,” said one of his men later, “as if he had courage to out-brave death, and spirit to outface danger, bastinadoing the Turks out of his ship into theirs, and pricking others on even with the point of his poignard.” Another henchman, William Graves, was even more eloquent. The battle “was long, and it was cruel, it was forcible, and therefore fearful,” he said. “But in the end our Captain had the sunshine, he boarded her, subdued her, chained her men like slaves, and seized on her goods, as his lawful prize, whom the whistling calm made music unto, ushering her and our general into Tunis.

The capture of the Soderina, magnificent though it was, almost proved to be Ward’s undoing. After a triumphal entry into Tunis, he spent the summer and autumn of 1607 refitting her and arming her as an awe-inspiring man-of-war. “So inflated with pride, and puffed up with vain glory, that he now thought, nay did not spare to speak, he was sole and only commander of the seas,” he sailed out again that December at the head of a small fleet of pirate ships on an expedition financed in part by himself and his commanders, in part by Uthman Dey and other wealthy Algerians. The Soderina now carried sixty bronze cannon, a vast quantity of ammunition, and a fighting force that consisted of 350 of Uthman Dey’s Janissaries. The crew, a mixture of English, French, and Flemish renegades, was captained by an Englishman, Abraham Crosten or Grafton, and Ward himself sailed as admiral of the fleet.

The news that Ward was out on the cruise again with such a strong force caused panic in Christendom. James I offered to send three or four naval vessels to help the Venetian Republic track him down. The doge and Senate forbade any of their merchants from sailing east of Corfu unaccompanied and ordered three great war galleys down to escort ships in convoy to and from Alexandria and Aleppo.

Then, in March 1608, reports started to circulate that a ship bound for Marseilles had sighted wreckage 100 miles off the Greek island of Kythira, which was a favorite haunt of corsairs because of its strategic position between the Aegean and Ionian seas. Four men and a boy, all Turks, had been found clinging to a makeshift raft, and they claimed they were the only survivors of the wreck of the huge Soderina. The vessel had got into difficulties during a storm and Ward had taken to one of the boats. He was presumed to have drowned. “Would to God the news were true!” exclaimed Sir Henry Wotton.

It wasn’t. At least, the part about Ward’s death wasn’t. The Soderina had indeed gone down off Kythira, “being much disabled with cutting so many holes out of her sides for the planting of ordinance,” according to Andrew Barker. Ward’s attempt to convert her into a fully armed man-of-war had fatally weakened her hull and left her unable to withstand one of the sudden powerful storms that plague the eastern Mediterranean. Her crew went down with her, as did all the Janissaries. The only survivors were the four men and a boy who were picked up clinging to the wreckage.

But John Ward hadn’t been aboard the Soderina when she sank. When intelligence came from Tunis that he was still alive, it suited the Venetians to announce that he had deserted his men. Henry Pepwell, the informant who provided the English ambassador with such a vivid picture of the balding drunken prodigal in Venice that summer, reported that the arch-pirate had transferred to a twenty-two-gun French prize because the Soderina was leaky and rotten. Another story was that Ward hadn’t been sailing on the Soderina at all but had gone aboard temporarily to put down a quarrel between the English and the Turks—it was sheer good fortune that he was already back aboard his own vessel when the storm hit.

Whatever the truth of the matter, he faced a bitterly hostile reception when he sailed into Tunis without the Soderina, and without her crew. The friends of the lost men wanted to know how it was that the English admiral had survived when their loved ones hadn’t. For a time he didn’t dare walk the streets for fear of “the outcries and cursings blown in his ears, of wives, fathers, and kindred, for the loss of so many of their friends at one blow”; it was only the continued support of Uthman Dey that enabled him to recruit a new crew. Even then, no Turk would sail with him for some time to come.

Yet for all his woes, the taking of the Soderina transformed Ward from just another Barbary Coast renegade into an arch-pirate. The arch-pirate, in fact. Its cargo had made him so much money that he tried to buy himself a pardon from James I so that he could return to England. In mentioning the subject to the doge of Venice, Sir Henry Wotton described him as “beyond a doubt the greatest scoundrel that ever sailed from England.” For their part, the Venetians were so outraged at the damage done to their reputation by the Soderina’s capture that their ambassador told the Earl of Salisbury that “the Republic will never consent to Ward’s pardon.” Their outrage was increased by the swift arrival in Bristol of no fewer than three English vessels carrying goods bearing the Soderina’s stamp. When challenged, the merchants admitted that their cargo was bought in Tunis. They said that Turks sold it to them, not Ward. And they claimed that although that cargo might well include stolen goods, the goods weren’t stolen from the Venetians. The case was still going through the English courts three years later.

Now every corsair who ever cruised the Barbary Coast was described as a follower of Ward the arch-pirate. Henry Pepwell, who had returned to England, wrote to Sir Henry Wotton in Venice to say that even though he bore “a certain friendship for [Ward], he was prepared to kill him and burn his ships.” All he needed was a ship of his own to get him to Tunis, and he hoped that might be provided by the Venetians. Wotton duly broached the subject during an audience at the Ducal Palace, but received a frosty response from the doge, who thanked him for the idea but said “he believed Ward was not at Tunis but outside the Straits.”

The mere fact that an English ambassador could discuss a pirate’s assassination with a Venetian head of state, and that the head of state was already well briefed on that pirate’s current whereabouts, says a lot for Ward’s reputation. One of James I’s proclamations against pirates singled out Ward by name, commanding English naval officers, justices, vice-admirals, mayors, and bailiffs to do everything in their power to apprehend “Captain John Ward and his adherents, and other English pirates.” The same proclamation threatened death to any of the king’s subjects who supplied “this pirate Ward and others” with munitions.

Despite his growing reputation, Ward suffered his share of setbacks. The Venetians built a huge warship, the 1,500-ton, eighty-gun San Marco, which they sent against him together with twenty or thirty galleys “to beat him out of the Gulf [of Venice]. Andrew Barker was told that this fleet came upon Ward’s flyboat and forced her ashore, sending the crew running for their lives. The arch-pirate himself doesn’t seem to have been aboard at the time, which was as well for him—Venetian marines killed several of the pirates and captured thirty-two more, whom “they hung up for carrion in the island of Corfu.” Ward’s lieutenant William Graves was captured by a French vessel and hanged at Marseilles; his crew, “which were about an hundred infidels, are all made slaves.” And in the summer of 1609 a French force entered the harbor at La Goulette and burned twenty-three privateers, all said to belong to Ward.

None of this made any difference to Ward’s reputation. Although he rarely went to sea now, Europe still regarded him as a sinister puppet-master directing a vast pirate fleet from his stronghold in Tunis. Uthman Dey gave him a ruined castle in the city, and on the site he built a mansion, “a very stately house, far more fit for a prince, than a pirate,” according to one account. Stories of his extravagant and amoral lifestyle spread, growing more outrageous with every telling. It was said that whenever he went to sea, his cabin was watched by his personal guard of twelve Janissaries. On land he held court like a nobleman, “his apparel both curious and costly, his diet sumptuous.” He had two cooks to dress his meat, a man to taste it for him, and an entourage of renegades who had to be bribed before any petitioner was admitted to his presence. “Swearing, drinking, dicing, and the utmost enormities that are attended on by consuming riot, are the least of their vices.” It was even said that Jews queued up to offer him their sons to satisfy his unnatural lust.

As stories of Ward’s exotic lifestyle spread, he found his own peculiar niche in popular culture. The prolific bookseller Nathaniel Butter, publisher of the First Quarto edition of King Lear, commissioned a hack writer named Anthony Nixon to produce Newes from Sea, of Two Notorious Pirates, Ward the Englishman and Danseker the Dutchman, with a True Relation of All or the Most Piracies by Them Committed unto the 6th of April 1609. (Ward’s name was often coupled with that of Simon Danseker, another Barbary Coast pirate with a reputation.) The pamphlet sold well—rather better than Lear, in fact—and it was quickly reprinted with a slightly different title, Ward and Danseker, Two Notorious Pirates. “The Seaman’s Song of Captain Ward,” which draws heavily on Nixon’s account, was registered at Stationers’ Hall on July 3, 1609; and at the end of October, Andrew Barker’s True and Certain Report appeared, claiming to set the record straight since “so many flying fables, and rumoring tales have been spread, of the fame, or rather indeed infamy, over the whole face of Christendom, of this notorious and arch pirate Ward.”

All these works hover ambiguously between condemnation of Ward’s crimes, a grudging admiration of his courage, and a ghoulish relish at his more exotic atrocities. But in December 1610 a new rumor reached the Venetian ambassador in England, a rumor so awful that it eclipsed all his other misdeeds.

Ward had become a Muslim.

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