John Oxenham, (c. 1535-1580)

John Oxenham is a prime example of the daring and courage with which Elizabethan seamen and adventurers assailed the Spanish empire. Other than a strong likelihood that he was born in Devonshire, Oxenham’s early life is almost completely unknown. In 1572, he sailed with Sir Francis Drake on an expedition that attacked Nombre de Dios on the isthmus of Panama. When the English raiders captured a mule train carrying silver up the isthmus from Peru, both Oxenham and Drake realized the advantages of gaining access to the Pacific. Because Spanish treasure ships in the Pacific felt safe from attack, they were virtually unarmed. Drake eventually devised a plan for a voyage of circumnavigation to raid the west coast of South America. Oxenham came to believe that a permanent English presence in Panama would allow privateers to intercept treasure as it came up from Peru. Once seized, the treasure could be transported across the narrow isthmus for quick shipment to England. He began making preparations for an expedition to seize Panama, convincing Drake, John Hawkins, and others to invest in the venture.

Oxenham left Plymouth on 19 April 1576 with a company of about 50 men. Traversing the Lesser Antilles, Oxenham, reaches the Spanish Main west of Cartagena with his 11- gun, 57-man, 100-ton frigate. Concealing it along this shoreline, he then strikes west-southwestward aboard a captured Spanish frigate and two pinnaces to intercept coastal traffic visiting the annual plate fleet fair at Nombre de Dios (Panama). In September Oxenham transfers his English frigate and two Spanish prizes with 18 prisoners to Pinos Island (north of Acla, Panama), leaving a 40-man anchor watch aboard while exploring inland with 12 men, guided by black cimarron allies. During his two-week absence, Oxenham’s vessels are surprised and captured by a Spanish frigate and brigantine bearing 20 soldiers out of Nombre de Dios. All his men except a young French page escape ashore.

Having established good relations with the local Cimaroons (Africans who had escaped from Spanish slavery and banded together against their former masters) during the 1572 expedition, Oxenham was depending on their assistance to capture the isthmus. The Cimaroons did not disappoint him, and the English raiders were able to hold Panama for most of 1577.

Oxenham in the Pacific. January 1577, after building a 24-oar launch, Oxenham rafts down the Chucunaque and Tuira rivers (eastern Panama) with 50 Englishmen and 10 cimarron allies to gain the Gulf of San Miguel. His expedition then falls upon the off shore Pearl Islands by February 20 (Ash Wednesday), pillaging them over the next three weeks, as well as intercepting Spanish coastal traffic between Peru and Panama.

Learning of this threat from two escapees who reach Panama by canoe on March 6, Gov. Dr. Gabriel de Loarte prepares his defenses, dissuading Oxenham from trying a surprise attack the next evening. As the English withdraw toward the Pearl Islands, they seize a rich bark arriving from Guayaquil, so they return into the Gulf of San Miguel with considerable booty. Meanwhile, de Loarte dispatches a 200-man counter-expedition under Pedro de Ortega Valencia aboard a half-dozen boats on March 13 to hunt down the intruders.

This Spanish contingent meets the rich Peruvian galleon Miguel Angel, a 50-man detachment guiding it safely into Panama by March 28. De Ortega in the meantime continues his search for the retiring Englishmen, while Vice Adm. Miguel de Eraso (Don Cristobal’s son) detaches two frigates from his plate fleet at Nombre de Dios-plus a Panamanian coastguard frigate and brigantine-to cut off Oxenham’s retreat on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus. De Eraso also personally leads 30 harquebusiers to reinforce Panama City.

After ascending the Tuira River for eight days, until his vessels can go no farther because of shallow water, de Ortega proceeds afoot along the Chucunaque’s banks with 60 soldiers. At 10:00 a. m. on April 2, after another four-day march, he overtakes 30 Englishmen and 80 Cimarrons eating near the “Piñas” confluence (possibly the modern Tupisca or Chico River), slaying nine Englishmen and capturing four-a wounded sailor and 3 boys-plus scattering the rest into the jungle. Oxenham’s 12-man party is also attacked two days later at the village of “Catalina” (possibly modern Yavisa), winning free after suffering 3 killed in an hour-long defense of their extemporized fort. The 4 English captives are then carried back to Panama by April 18, along with the bulk of their supplies and booty.

In May 1577, 40 Spanish soldiers under Capt. Luis Garcia de Melo travel from Panama City to Nombre de Dios with two English captives to destroy Oxenham’s launches, which are hidden underwater on the north coast. Instead, Adm. Cristobal de Eraso appropriates these prisoners, delegating Gabriel de Vera’s 80-man royal warship to carry out this mission. Eventually, both Spanish contingents unite and raise the prizes together, after which Garcia de Melo rampages south through cimarron territory with 60 soldiers in a punitive sweep, emerging into the Gulf of San Miguel, while de Vera gains Cartagena.

Deprived of all means of escape, the English survivors remain in mid-isthmus until late August, when they are surprised by another 120 Peruvian troops in two search columns under recently arrived Diego de Frias Trejo, who seizes Oxenham and 8 of his followers. Other captures follow in mid-December 1577 and early February 1578, until 13 Englishmen are executed in Panama by April. Oxenham and his officers were imprisoned in Lima (Peru), where they were executed in 1580.

Isthmus of Panama

Although the narrowest span between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, the Isthmus of Panama represented a formidable barrier. Convoys sailing out from Spain had to anchor at Nombre de Dios to discharge passengers and cargoes. People and light merchandise traveled overland by mule train, taking fve or six days to complete a crossing. Heavier goods were ferried 50 miles westward along the coast by hired boat to the port of Chagres. They then were lightered another 44 miles up the snaking Chagres River to a way station called Venta de Cruces. The last 18 tortuous miles up Obispo Valley, over the continental divide and down the Rio Grande Valley into Panama City, was completed by pack animals. Such trips could take three weeks or more to complete. If droughts dried up the river course, extra portages meant even slower progress.

South American produce, passengers, and bullion were brought back in the opposite direction, after which a commercial fair was held at Nombre de Dios, and the galleons finally weighed anchor. A system soon evolved whereby Spanish merchants avoided living in the torrid climate at Nombre de Dios during its tiempo muerto or “dead time”-before a plate fleet arrived in the spring. Instead, they lived more comfortably, and warehoused their goods more safely, in Panama City. Early each year, they began preshipping bulk items via the Chagres River to have an inventory on hand at Nombre de Dios. This route was two to three times less expensive than mule trains, despite being monopolized by a handful of boat owners. Heavier South American produce followed once the Peruvian silver convoy appeared, its royal bullion temporarily housed at Panama City.

Once a dispatch vessel brought word that a plate fleet had reached Cartagena (Colombia), trans-isthmian traffic began to accelerate. The 1,000-2,000 mules engaged in the trajin-literally “haulage”-were fully committed to shuttling private bullion and other high-value items directly overland to Nombre de Dios. Once the plate fleet dropped anchor there, Chagres boats began ferrying the first purchased Spanish goods along the coast and upriver to Venta de Cruces. Trading at Nombre de Dios ceased once the king’s Peruvian silver and dispatches were brought from Panama City, at which point the galleons left. With business at an end, the Panamanian mule teams-consisting on average of 30 mules and nine teamsters apiece- resumed servicing the bulk river traffic out of the Cruces way station, as local and South American traders brought their purchased goods back upriver. If it was too late in the year, such shipments could be held up by strong countercurrents in the river, which occurred every June through December during the rainy season (especially along the final four-and-a-half mile stretch between Gorgona and Venta de Cruces). Once the Peruvian convoy cleared Panama City for its homeward voyage to Callao, a sleepy calm descended on the Isthmus, until the next spring.


The End of Black Bart

As night fell on Saturday, 13 January 1722, the two pirate ships pulled away from Whydah, taking the French prize with them, leaving the Porcupine blazing in their wake. Captain Ogle arrived in HMS Swallow twenty-four hours later.

Bartholomew Roberts had got away with it again. He had sailed into the very jaws of two of the most powerful British warships ever sent in pursuit of pirates, and yet had managed to pillage shipping along a 500-mile stretch of coast, leaving them twisting and turning in his wake, bewildered by the speed of his movement, and sailed away unharmed having taken a total of nineteen prizes. For all the simmering tensions within his own crew, he must have felt invincible. There was even a bonus. As they pulled out into open sea the pirates came across the Whydah, the small Royal African Company sloop which had escaped them two days before, enabling them to indulge once more their detestation of the company and its ships. They plundered it and Miss Nanny was again given license to set it alight. Watching the flames take hold, one of the Liverpool men asked James Philips, an Old Stander, the ‘reason of such wicked practice that served no purpose among them’. ‘It was for fun,’ Philips replied.

The Whydah’s crew was loaded on to a slaver called the Neptune, which happened to be passing, but which the pirates decided not to plunder. The pirates then made their way to Cape Lopez where they set about converting the French prize into their new second ship, naming it, like its predecessor, the Ranger.

The plan now was to make for Brazil in the hope of repeating the capture of the Sagrada Familia over two years before. Since Kennedy’s desertion with their gold Roberts’ rampages had been confined to waters which, though rich in prizes, rarely yielded the sort of spectacular haul that would enable a pirate to retire. And retirement was what Roberts now had in mind. They planned to raid off Brazil for eight months, ‘share 600 or 700 pounds a man, and then break up’, Roberts’ confidant George Wilson told a new recruit. It was increasingly rare in this period for pirates to survive to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. Shrewd operator that he was, Roberts sensed that he had pushed his luck for long enough, and was dreaming of a life of ease, free of the constant stress of having to keep control over an unruly crew of 250 men. He would probably have made the move earlier if the Good Fortune hadn’t deserted or the Puerto del Principe hadn’t been captured, which forced him to stay longer off Africa to build up his strength.

But Captain Ogle hadn’t finished with him yet. At Whydah he was told that Roberts was carrying substantial quantities of gold. If any extra incentive were needed he now had it, and he was determined not to let the pirates slip through his grasp. ‘I judged they must go to some place in the Bight [of Biafra] to clean and fit the French ship before they could think of cruising again,’ he wrote. There were only a limited number of places where this could be done. Ogle strengthened his crew with thirty recruits from the Porcupine and the French ship the pirates had seized. Then, on 19 January, he sailed out of Whydah planning to explore them one by one.

He went first to Princes Island, where he had buried so many of his men four months earlier. Finding no word of the pirates he hurried quickly away. He went next to the River Gabon, but, again, drew a blank. Then, as dawn broke on 5 February, he saw the outline of the three pirate ships, riding at anchor, framed against the headland of Cape Lopez.

He’d arrived just in time. The pirates had careened the Royal Fortune and had almost completed fitting out the new French ship. Two days later they’d have sailed for Brazil. But Ogle might be forgiven if at this moment he paused and drew breath. They’d loaded the new Ranger with 32 guns, giving Roberts 72 guns in total. The pirate crew now numbered 253 men, and Ogle believed it to be larger. Ships taken at the start of January had told him there were close to 300 men aboard the two pirate vessels, including ‘100 blacks, trained up’. Ogle had just 50 guns and a crew of no more than 250. He was confronting the most powerful, experienced pirate crew in the Atlantic and the outcome was by no means certain.

But, for once, Roberts’ luck deserted him. There was a sandbank between HMS Swallow and the three pirate ships. As Ogle approached from the north he was obliged to veer west, out into open sea, to avoid it. Seeing this, the pirates thought he had taken fright at the sight of them, and was trying to escape. They concluded that Swallow was a merchant ship, probably Portuguese and full of sugar.

Roberts now made a fateful decision. Sugar, of course, was one of the key ingredients of punch and they were running short. The men on the new Ranger, in particular, had had none for the past few days and this was adding to tension between the two crews. ‘There is sugar in the offing,’ he bellowed across to them. ‘Bring it in that we may have no more mumbling!’ He was handing the prize to the second ship. It was a sound piece of team management. But it meant that, from that moment, Roberts’ forces would be fatally divided.

The Ranger was ‘on the heel’ when HMS Swallow appeared, meaning its contents had been shifted to one side, tilting it so its hull could be scrubbed. Its crew quickly righted it and, while they were doing this, Roberts took the precaution of sending across twenty of his most loyal men to bolster its crew, including his boatswain, William Main, and John Walden – ‘Miss Nanny’. He had no faith at all that, having taken the prize, the Ranger wouldn’t simply desert. He’d also been careful to make sure it was carrying none of the crew’s gold.

With the additional men aboard, the Ranger set off in pursuit of its prize. Seeing this Captain Ogle immediately realised the pirates’ mistake. He continued out to sea, making sure he went slowly enough not to lose sight of the Ranger. Aboard the pirate ship there was wild excitement, the pirates brandishing their cutlasses and ‘swearing every minute at the wind or sails to expedite so sweet a chase’, according to Captain Johnson. One man was dancing manically around the deck. Its captain, the Welshman James Skyrm, ‘in the hurry and warmth of his passion’ slashed with his cutlass at a couple of the forced men whom he felt were showing less enthusiasm than the rest.

Amidst the mayhem one man aboard, peering closely at the prize, began to suspect its true identity. William Guinneys, who had been forced from the Porcupine in Whydah, mentioned his suspicion to a crewmate standing next to him. But the man ‘bid him hold his tongue’. He too was a forced man and both knew HMS Swallow represented their best chance of being freed.

Around 10.30 a.m. Ogle judged they were out of earshot of the ships back at Cape Lopez and allowed the Ranger to come within gunshot. The pirates immediately opened fire with four chase guns, simultaneously hoisting their black flag and preparing to board. At this, Ogle swung HMS Swallow around, across the Ranger’s path, opened the lower gunports and delivered a broadside.

The effect was devastating. The Ranger was caught head on and the fire from HMS Swallow raked its decks from bow to stern, ripping through flesh and tearing off arms and legs. Stunned, the Ranger wheeled away. In the confusion, a young pirate, David Littlejohn, lowered the black flag, signalling surrender. But immediately William Main, the Royal Fortune’s boatswain, and another man rushed at him, pistols drawn, and forced him to raise it again. It was only with difficulty that other pirates persuaded them not to shoot him.

A chaotic pursuit now ensued, the two ships exchanging cannon fire at distance. Captain Skyrm, Main and other hard-liners were all for pulling alongside HMS Swallow, throwing out grappling hooks and making a desperate bid to board. But it was clear the bulk of the crew were reluctant. At 2 p.m. the poor steering of the pirates enabled Swallow to draw close again and deliver another devastating broadside. The Ranger’s main-mast came crashing down. On the deck men slithered around in their own blood. By now nine were dead and around fourteen wounded. Captain Skyrm’s leg had been blown off, as had Miss Nanny’s. Skyrm continued to hop back and forth across the deck, screaming dementedly at his men to continue fighting. But it was clear all was lost. At 3 p.m. the Ranger struck its colours and surrendered, the men throwing their black flags overboard so they could not be displayed in triumph over them on the gallows.

So often the hardened pirates among the crew had said they would blow themselves up and ‘go all merrily to Hell together’ rather than be captured. Now they were true to their word. Half a dozen of the most desperate gathered around the gunpowder they had left in the steerage, and fired a pistol into it. But it was too little to do anything other than leave them hideously burned.

HMS Swallow’s surgeon, John Atkins, heard the explosion as he was being rowed across to the Ranger to treat the wounded. Climbing aboard, he encountered a bizarre scene. The pirates were as dandily dressed as ever ‘with white shirts, watches, and a deal of silk vests’. Those unhurt remained ‘gay and brisk’. But the ship was awash with blood, and dead and hideously injured men lay all about, victims both of the battle and the explosion afterwards.

Captain Skyrm was still raging and refused to allow Atkins to dress the stump of his leg. Atkins turned instead to William Main, whom he identified as a boatswain by the silver whistle hanging at his waist. ‘I presume you are the boatswain of this ship,’ he said. ‘Then you presume wrong,’ replied Main, ‘for I am the boatswain of the Royal Fortune, Captain Roberts commander.’

‘Then Mr. Boatswain you will be hanged I believe,’ Atkins retorted. ‘That is as your honour pleases,’ said Main. Main told him there were still 120 men (a figure which excluded slaves) aboard the Royal Fortune – ‘as clever fellows as ever trod shoe leather: would I were with them!’ But he denied responsibility for the explosion. The blast had blown him into the water and he complained he had ‘lost a good hat by it’.

Atkins turned next to a pirate called Roger Ball, whom he could see from his hideous burns had been close to the seat of the explosion. Ball was sitting in a corner ‘with a look as sullen as winter … bearing his pain without the least complaint’. He told him a pirate called John Morris had fired the pistol into the powder, but that ‘if he had not done it, I would’. Like Skyrm, Ball refused to allow Atkins to dress him. As evening fell he entered ‘a kind of delirium, and raved on the bravery of Roberts, saying, he should shortly be released, as soon as they should meet him’. Ogle’s men strapped him down upon the forecastle and he screamed and strained at the ropes all night, despite his appalling injuries. He died the following day.

There were over a hundred men still alive on board, including twenty-three slaves and sixteen Frenchmen, taken when the new Ranger was seized at Whydah and still being held prisoner. It was decided to leave the wounded pirates aboard, along with the Frenchman and a skeleton crew from HMS Swallow, and to dispatch the Ranger to Princes Island. The remaining pirates, numbering around sixty, were stripped naked and shackled below decks on HMS Swallow, along with the slaves. Ogle’s men spent a couple of days getting the Ranger in a fit state to sail. Then, on 7 February, the two ships parted company, Swallow heading back towards Cape Lopez where Ogle knew Roberts would be awaiting the return of his consort. Two days later, on 9 February, Captain Ogle caught sight of the Royal Fortune and the abandoned old Ranger, still riding at anchor just where he had left them.

Dusk was falling and Ogle, now confident of victory, decided to postpone his attack until the following day. The pirates had not spotted him. And he was delighted to note there were now three sails in the bay. This meant Roberts and his men had seized a prize, and would, at that moment, be plundering its liquor store.

In fact the vessel riding at anchor alongside the two pirate ships was the Neptune under Captain Thomas Hill – the same ship the pirates had encountered as they left Whydah, and onto which they had loaded the crew of the Whydah sloop. Its presence at Cape Lopez is suspicious. Hill was on his way to the port of Cabinda further south and later claimed he had simply put in to get water. But the pirates had not robbed Hill the first time they encountered him and it’s likely they had reached an arrangement. Hill may have been bringing them supplies. Either way, as Ogle suspected, they were enjoying a party and when dawn broke on 10 February most of the pirates were either still drunk or nursing ferocious hangovers.

This was the scenario that Roberts had always dreaded – an encounter with a powerful naval vessel when his crew was the worse for drink. They were in such a state that they didn’t see HMS Swallow initially as it began its approach that morning. They were ‘very easy in the bay’, recalled John Atkins, ‘and stayed so long that we doubted whether they would stir for us’.

Roberts was in his cabin when the cry of ‘Sail ahoy!’ finally came. With him was Captain Hill from the Neptune and they were enjoying a breakfast of weak beer and salmagundi – a pirate speciality that included chunks of meat, pickled herrings, hard-boiled eggs and vegetables. In their befuddled state his men again failed to identify HMS Swallow. Some thought it was Portuguese, others a French slaver. But most believed it was the returning Ranger. Roberts, unconcerned, continued his breakfast. His men were debating how many guns they should fire as a salute to their returning consort when suddenly a look of horror passed across the face of David Armstrong, the deserter from HMS Swallow whom they had taken at Axim six months previously. Armstrong had recognised his old ship. He dashed down to Roberts’ cabin.

It was probably at this moment, as Armstrong frantically gabbled the news, that Roberts realised he was going to die – if not that morning then on the gallows in the next few weeks. But if he felt fear he didn’t show it. Perhaps to displace his own tension, he cursed the trembling Armstrong for cowardice and, taking leave of Captain Hill, went up on deck. Hill took the opportunity to slip back quietly to his own ship.

Looking through his telescope Roberts saw it was flying French colours, which was clearly a ruse. He ordered his men to battle stations. Many were terrified. At least one would spend the battle hiding in the ‘heads’ – the enclosed toilets at the front of the ship – and Roberts almost came to blows with others. But he himself kept his composure. If this was the end then he was determined to go out in style. He went below and dressed in ‘a rich crimson damask waistcoat and breeches, a red feather in his hat, a gold chain round his neck, with a diamond cross hanging to it’, according to Johnson. He put on his sword and slung four pistols over his shoulders on a silk sling, in ‘the fashion of the pirates’. Then he went up on deck.

The strategy he devised was characteristically bold. Armstrong told him HMS Swallow sailed best ‘upon a wind’, that is, with the wind coming from the side. With the wind directly behind them the Royal Fortune might be able to outrun it. The wind at that moment was blowing from the south, in the face of the approaching man-of-war. Roberts decided to sail straight towards Ogle’s ship, exchange broadsides, and then shoot out into open sea and try and make a run for it with the wind behind him. If badly damaged the ship would ground itself on the headland ‘and everyone to shift for himself among the Negroes’. If the worst came to the worst they would come alongside and blow both ships up. Roberts knew it was a desperate gamble. And he knew most of his men were drunk and unfit for service – ‘passively courageous’, in Johnson’s words. But he had little option.

By mid-morning a thunderstorm was breaking around them. In the wind and driving rain the pirate ship sped towards HMS Swallow. At 11 a.m. the two ships closed, raised their true colours, and exchanged broadsides. HMS Swallow was almost untouched. The Royal Fortune lost its mizzen-mast and suffered damage to its rigging. But it was still sailing and was soon half a gunshot beyond HMS Swallow and heading out into open sea. Just for a moment it looked as if Roberts might have got away with it. But then the crew’s night of revelry took its toll. One man simply passed out on the deck having fired his gun. Many others were little better and the pirates’ steering was erratic. By now the storm was gaining in strength. One clap of thunder ‘seemed like the rattling of 10,000 small arms within three yards of our heads’, John Atkins later recalled, and the simultaneous bolt of lightening split the top of HMS Swallow’s main-mast. But, with the wind swirling around unpredictably, the warship was soon gaining ground once more on the Royal Fortune. At half past one, it came close enough to deliver another broadside. As the smoke cleared the men on HMS Swallow saw the pirate’s main-mast come crashing down. Shortly afterwards the pirates signalled surrender.

As on the Ranger, the crew of the Royal Fortune immediately divided between those who felt they might stand some chance of acquittal at trial and those who knew only the gallows awaited them. James Philips, one of the Old Standers, went down to the powder room with a lighted match, swearing ‘let’s all go to Hell together’. But there he encountered a sentry – Stephen Thomas – placed by Henry Glasby. Philips ‘throwed [me] against the ladder at the hatchway, wounding [my] hand as [we] were struggling about the match,’ Thomas later recalled. At that moment Glasby appeared and, together, they were able to subdue him.

Shortly afterwards HMS Swallow’s long boat arrived, commanded by Lieutenant Isaac Sun. Recalling the attempt to blow up the Ranger, Ogle had opted to keep his ship at a distance. Working with Glasby, whose ‘good character’ he’d been informed of beforehand, Sun quickly secured control of the Royal Fortune. But there was one final moment of farce as crewman Joseph Mansfield, the former highwayman, suddenly burst from the hold, blind drunk. ‘He came up vapouring with a cutlass to know who would go on board the prize,’ Glasby later recalled. ‘It was sometime before [we] could persuade him of the truth of [our] condition.’

By 7 p.m. the entire crew was secured below decks on HMS Swallow, side by side with their colleagues from the Ranger. The pirates had suffered three dead and ten injured in this second battle, while HMS Swallow hadn’t suffered a single casualty in either engagement. ‘Discipline is an excellent path to victory,’ Atkins commented in his memoir. ‘The pirates, though singly fellows of courage’, lacked ‘a tie of order, some director to unite that force’. Defeat and capture would always ‘be the fate of such rabble’, he concluded. Naval discipline had won out over pirate bravado. But it was a harsh verdict on Roberts’ leadership. This pirate crew, more than any other, had possessed a ‘director’ and ‘a tie of order’. The problem was the pirates themselves, and their reluctance to submit themselves to his will.

But Roberts himself was the one man Atkins was never able to speak to. As the Royal Fortune had sailed towards HMS Swallow that morning Roberts had taken his place close to the wheel ready to direct operations. But as the smoke cleared after the first broadside the helmsman, John Stephenson, had noticed him apparently resting on the tackles of a gun. He ran over and swore at his captain to get up and fight like a man. But Roberts’ throat had been ripped out by grapeshot. The greatest of all pirates, the ‘Admiral of the Leeward Islands’, the scourge of three continents, was dead.

At that moment they were within just a few miles of the spot where they had seized the Expectation back at the end of July 1719. Since then Roberts had taken around 400 ships – a figure which dwarfs that of any of his contemporaries. He had travelled around 35,000 miles. And he’d held together a larger crew for a longer period of time than any other pirate captain. But in the end he had lost his long battle with the anarchy of pirate life. For all the tensions within the crew Roberts was revered by his men and, although the battle raged on for three more hours, his death knocked the fight out of them. Ogle was in no doubt that, if he had been alive, Roberts would have blown up the Royal Fortune with everyone aboard rather than allow it to be taken.

Many times Roberts had sworn, ‘Damnation to him who ever lived to wear a halter!’ He, at least, had escaped hanging. He had left strict instructions that if he was killed at sea his body should be thrown overboard to prevent its being hung in chains. Stevenson wept over him for a time, as the pirates gathered round. And then they fulfilled their captain’s last wish, heaving his body over the rail and consigning it to the deep, still dressed in all its finery.


Robert Surcouf, ‘le Roi de Corsaires’

Capture of Kent by Confiance. Painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray.

Robert Surcouf had made his name and fortune years in the East, capturing the 1,200-ton Indiaman Kent in 1800 and retiring to St Malo. At the Emperor Napoleon’s urging, he returned to Ile de France in 1807 in Revenant, an 18-gun sloop built to Surcouf’s design, her hull completely sheathed in copper, one of the fastest ships afloat. Over the past year, Revenant had become the bane of shipping in the Bay of Bengal, where she had taken more than thirty prizes. In one two-month spell alone, nineteen British vessels were captured by Revenant and two French frigates.

The losses produced squeals of outrage from the merchants of Calcutta who drafted a memorial to the Admiralty, pointing out that ‘the two small islands of Mauritias [sic] and Bourbon’ were the source of their ‘unprecedented suffering’. Surcouf’s activity had been conducted ‘within one hundred leagues of Madras roads, the principal Station of His Majesty’s ships, where at the same time the Flag of a British Rear-Admiral [was] displayed.’

The greatest Breton corsair base was the tidal island of Saint-Malo, on the border with Normandy, whose citizens declared an independent republic in 1490–93 and which remained a free port and a pirate haven until 1688. It was the home of René Duguay-Trouin, who ran a corsair fleet of 64 ships and in 1709 was made Lieutenant General of the Naval Armies by King Louis XIV after capturing more than 300 English and allied merchant ships. Saint-Malo also produced the last grand practitioner of the guerre de course, Robert Surcouf, who directed a fleet of corsairs against British shipping worldwide during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period with a success that shone by contrast with the debacles of the French Navy, and who died fabulously wealthy in 1827.

Robert Surcouf, ‘le Roi de Corsaires’, by drawing on the islands’ privateering tradition and setting aside foolish notions of gloire. When an English captive once challenged him with the words ‘You French fight for money while we fight for honour’, Surcouf shot back: ‘A man fights for what he lacks most.’

The appearance of numerous French privateers in the Indian Ocean had by now become a grave concern to the Indiamen. Earlier in the year of 1799, on 3 February, the small, Extra-ship Echo, Captain William Catline, which had made the round trip out to Botany Bay and then China, was homeward bound from the Cape of Good Hope to London when taken by La Confiance. This was commanded by Robert Surcouf who had been menacing British trade in the Indian Ocean for four years, having first arrived at Île de France on a slaving voyage in 1795. The Île de France’s Governor Malartic had despatched him in the Émilie to secure foodstuffs for the island, but Surcouf had other ideas. Although intending to load a cargo of rice on the Burmese coast, in December 1795 he had encountered the British Country-brig Penguin. The Émilie was not flying colours and the master of the Penguin had fired a shot intended to force the stranger to reveal her nationality, but this was just the notional provocation Surcouf wanted and he immediately engaged the astonished Penguin which was, with her cargo of timber, sent into Île de France as a prize. Emboldened by this success Surcouf now sailed to the head of the Bay of Bengal, rightly judging that off the Sand Heads at the mouth of the Hughli he would be able to prey on British shipping – inward or outward bound – around the pilot station there.

At first light on 19 January 1796 the 23-year old Surcouf had spotted the pilot brig leading two outward-bound and loaded Country-ships clear of the shoals. Within an hour all three were his prizes. The two Country-ships were sent on their way to Port Louis and since both were full of rice, Surcouf had the satisfaction of having fulfilled Malartic’s orders and saved the Île de France from starvation. His conscience thus clear, he transferred his crew into the pilot-brig Cartier and sent the Émilie back to Port Louis. He was now able to lie in wait in a vessel not only familiar to all regular traders in the Bay but actively sought out by them for pilots. Under this deception, on 28 January Surcouf took a third rice-carrying vessel, the Diana. Having dispersed several prize-crews and being now short of hands Surcouf accompanied his newest prize on her way south, only to find the HCS Triton lying in Balasore Roads near the mouths of the Hughli, awaiting a pilot.

On 29 January 1796 the watch aboard the Triton spotted the approaching pilot-vessel and soon afterwards she rounded-to and lowered a boat which, on approaching, hailed them in English. Naturally assuming the pilot was about to embark, the boat was allowed alongside and a moment later her crew were on the Triton’s deck, their weapons revealing them as French corsairs. Captain Philip Burnyeat was among those killed in the smart fight that followed between ‘full two hundred stout fellows’ taken by surprise by eighteen bold Frenchmen led by Surcouf himself. Although the Triton was later recaptured by the Royal Navy and arrived at Madras in June 1798 – whereupon her former mate, David Dunlop, assumed command – the initial loss of this ship and in such a manner was a major blow to the Company’s prestige.

Surcouf was now embarrassed by the number of prisoners on his hands and released the Diana in exchange for a ransom promissory-note guaranteed by her master. Sending the Diana into the Hughli full of news of the French corsair’s audacity, Surcouf took command of the Triton and arrived triumphantly at Port Louis, Île de France, only to learn that in his absence the Cartier had been captured by HMS Victorious. This was not the only bad news he received, for his daring exploits had been carried out without any Letter-of-Marque-and-Reprisal and Governor Malartic was furious. Unimpressed by the young man’s audacity, Malartic confiscated Surcouf’s prizes and initiated a legal wrangle which later continued in Paris. The beneficiaries of Malartic’s action were the British, for Surcouf took passage to France to fight his case with a claim of 1,700,000 livres against the Governor. This he won after a process lasting over a year, tactfully remitting two-thirds of his award into the coffers of the ruling French Directory. The case, however, had attracted the notice of an armateur at Nantes named Félix Cossin. Of the fifty-seven privateers sent out from Nantes in 1797, no less than ten belonged to Cossin, who had been successfully fitting-out and operating corsairs since the beginning of the war. Now he offered the 14-gun ship-rigged Clarisse to Surcouf, an offer that was accepted and Surcouf, accompanied by his older brother Nicolas as first lieutenant, travelled to Nantes. At the end of July 1797 the Clarisse slipped down the Loire and escaped to sea, evading the British blockade.

Cossin’s investment nearly ended three weeks later when, a little south of the equator, the Clarisse ran into a British slaver. In the sharp engagement which followed Surcouf received a superficial but painful wound in the face, but he shot the commander of the slaver only to be rewarded by having the Clarisse’s fore-topmast carried away. These two events terminated the engagement; the two ships drew apart to repair the damage. Surcouf now proceeded directly for Port Louis, securing one prize – a brig – which accompanied him to Île de France where the Clarisse arrived on 5 December.

Surcouf left again early in January 1799, heading first for the Sumatran coast. Off Benkulen he took two prizes following a savage action in which brother Nicolas led the boarders, but the loss of men and damage to the Clarisse persuaded Surcouf to accompany his prizes back to Port Louis where he refitted his ship and recruited his crew. He sailed next on 17 August, heading again for the Sunda Strait were he took a Danish interloper on charter to British merchants, along with a Portuguese merchantman. He now made for the Sand Heads and seized a large Country-ship, the Auspicious, which was bound for Bombay with a valuable cargo that realised, after condemnation as a lawful prize, over one million francs.

Cruising in the offing the Clarisse encountered the Général Malartic, a French privateer owned in the Île de France and commanded by a Mascarene named Jean Dutertre. The two men dined together and in the course of an over-convivial evening fell out, starting a feud that was to have consequences of some moment. Having taken his departure of Dutertre, Surcouf watered off Mergui before approaching Balasore Road again on 30 December 1799. That night the Clarisse gave chase to a large merchant ship and almost ran down another vessel in the darkness; she was the British frigate Sybille and she now gave chase to the little Clarisse. Obliged to run, Surcouf knocked the wedges from his masts’ heels and threw all but six of his guns overboard: the Clarisse led the chase all night and all the following day. During the night, as the wind dropped and favoured the corsair, he was able to give the Sybille the slip.

On New Year’s Day 1800 Surcouf took the Country-ship Jane, owned by Bruce, Fawcett & Co. of Bombay, as she was outwards from Bengal laden with rice. Captain John Stewart had spoken to the American ship Mount Stewart and been warned by her master that a French corsair lay in the offing. Stewart had therefore prudently decided to keep company with the homeward-bound Indiamen Manship and Lansdowne and next day, the 31st, Stewart spoke with the Sybille which was returning to the Sand Heads from her fruitless chase of the Clarisse. This only confirmed the corsair’s presence. At daylight next morning the Jane lay 5 miles astern of the two Indiamen and at this moment

we saw a strange sail…who on perceiving us bore down with great caution, because, as Monsieur Surcouf afterward told me, he took one of the ships to be either Sybille or Nonsuch seeing the other two ships safe into the Sea.

Stewart himself was more certain of the situation.

When I saw the strange sail altered her course, I took it for granted that she was the privateer which the American had given intelligence of and immediately ordered a gun to be fired as a signal to the Indiamen. We continued the signal till about 8 o’clock when the privateer saw that the ships a-head paid no attention to our firing, she hoisted English colours – up studding-sails and royals and came on with more confidence – at ½ past 8 she gave us a shot, hauled down the English colours and hoisted the French national flag. We returned her fire from a 6-pounder which we got off the deck into a stern port in the great cabin, at the same time carrying every sail after the Indiamen, anxiously hoping that the constant firing would bring them to our assistance, but we looked in vain, for they never made the smallest movement to assist us. At 9 the privateer having got very near us, they began to fire grape shot from 2 brass 36-lb cohorns [small grenade-firing mortars] which they had mounted forward. At this time it came on a light squall from the southward which brought the Indiamen directly to windward of us. During the squall we carried on [a] press of sail and the firing ceased on both sides [but] the superior sailing of the privateer soon brought her up again when she commenced a smart fire from musketry and grape shot from one of the 36-lb cohorns – the other having been disabled early in the action; at 11 out powder was wholly expended, the last gun we fired being loaded with musket cartridges. The Frenchman then prepared to board us. They triced up grapnels to their main and fore yardarms, and Surcouf gave orders to board, animating his men with a promise of liberty to plunder. Seeing that we were incapable of resisting the force that was ready to be thrown on board of us, I was under the necessity of ordering the colours to be hauled down and we were taken possession of by an officer of the Clarissa (sic)…

On boarding his captor Stewart learned that the Clarisse’s armament had been much reduced by the necessity of throwing overboard seven of her carriage guns and all her spare spars in running from the Sybille. Her men had begun to cut away the upperworks when the wind fell light and enabled Surcouf to escape the Sybille. Stewart goes on to state what happened to his own ship and men after their capture.

Surcouf sent on board the…[Jane] one officer (by trade a tailor), sixteen Frenchmen, and ten lascars. They were employed until sunset shifting prisoners, and so refitting the rigging of the prize, which had been shot away during the action, and cutting out a double-headed shot which had entered near the stern post just above the waterline.

In his report Stewart records a further insight, inveighing with Surcouf against the Company commanders who had deserted him and pointing out the consequences.

All this time the Indiamen were in sight to the S.W. At sunset when Surcouf was viewing them from the poop thro’ a telescope he requested I would tell him upon my honour whether they were Indiamen or not. I repeated what I told him before that they were two Company’s ships with whom I had kept company ever since we left the pilot. He replied they were two Tritons, alluding to the easy capture which he made of that ship, and said that the commanders deserved to be shot. This was the universal opinion of the French officers. I fear their conduct will be attended with bad consequences to the Hon’ble Company’s ships as it has given the Frenchmen a very contemptible opinion of them and will subject them to many attacks which a spirited behaviour would have freed them from…

The senior of the officers concerned was John Altham Cumberledge of the Manship who subsequently became a principal managing owner and captain of the HCS Neptune as late as 1826. The other is less easy to identify, the Lansdown not being listed as a Company ship after 1788, though she was undoubtedly a chartered Extra-ship. However, it is inconceivable that they were ignorant of the Jane’s plight and one can only assume that if they were not cowards, their zeal to avoid risking their own ships was excessive. Clearly, a bold front would have rescued Stewart from his fate.

Happily, the worthy Stewart was not held long, being landed at Bemblepatam to report to Calcutta, revealing what he knew of Surcouf’s intentions – a good example of merchant masters contributing to the intelligence picture:

Surcouf does not mean to come any more near the Sand Heads, being very much afraid of the Sybille and the Nonesuch (sic), but intends to cruise in the latitude of 19 and 20 degrees…the trade of Bengal will be entirely cut off until they have surfeited themselves with prizes and returned to the Mauritius [as the Île de France was called by the British] to recruit their crews. I have written to Lord Mornington (the [new] Governor-General) a similar letter to this…

Three days after taking the Jane Surcouf ran across two American merchantmen, the Mercury and Louisa. At the time the United States and France were in a state of quasi-war (as a result of French seizures of American ships trading in defiance of the blockade declared by the French government’s First Consul Bonaparte). Surcouf immediately chased and engaged the Louisa, which fired back with her stern-chasers while the Mercury attempted to cross the Clarisse’s stern and rake her. Seeing himself overtaken, the master of the Louisa put his helm over and tried to cross Surcouf’s bow, intending to rake from ahead, but he failed to avoid a collision and as the Clarisse’s bowsprit rode over the Louisa’s deck and entangled in her rigging, over the battered bow of the French corsair swarmed a boarding party at the head of which were the Surcouf brothers. A bloody fight concluded in the capture of the Louisa. Putting Nicolas in command, Surcouf headed after the Mercury, but the Clarisse was so knocked about that he had to abandon the chase and follow his brother back to Port Louis.

On survey, the Clarisse was found to be both damaged and strained, requiring an extensive refit. Surcouf therefore accepted an offer to command La Confiance, a ship-rigged corvette with a fine reputation for speed. In raising a crew for her, however, he found himself in competitions with Dutertre, just then returned from a highly successful cruise and himself recruiting. The two men again fell out, this time over an escalation of bribes offered to likely seamen, and Surcouf challenged Dutertre to a duel. At this Malartic intervened and, after pointing out the only beneficiaries from the death of one of them would be the hated British, the two men embraced and decided to choose their crews by lot.

La Confiance sailed in mid-April 1800 but her cruise got off to a bad start, Surcouf sailing initially for the Sunda Strait where the convoy system denied him any prizes. He next made for the Seychelles, took aboard wood and water and headed for the east coast of Sri Lanka, where he arrived in August. Here he carried off several prizes before evading British cruisers by falling on the Coromandel coast until, at the end of September, he again met the Sybille. Some measures had been taken to disguise the frigate to look like a merchantman and a deceived Surcouf was unable to avoid a close encounter, though he approached her wearing a British red ensign and with a renegade Englishman standing alongside him masquerading as the ship’s master.

Through his ‘interpreter’ Surcouf began a complex explanation of his plight, sending a boat over with instructions to the young ensign in charge of the boat to pull out the plug when half-way between the two ships. As the boat sank Surcouf made sail, calling out to the Sybille that he had no other boat to pick up his men, a subterfuge that succeeded in giving him sufficient of a start to again throw off his pursuer. Having lost the Sybille, Surcouf headed north, capturing two vessels, one of which was the Calcutta Country-ship Armenia, Captain Thomas Meek, before La Confiance arrived off the Sand Heads in early in October. At daybreak on Tuesday the 7th Surcouf’s lookouts spotted a large Indiaman. Issuing a ration of spirits, he treated his men to an exhortation in which he reminded them of the horrors of a British prison-hulk and promised them the pillage of the ship in the offing. They then went to their stations and ran down on their quarry.

In May 1800 the HCS Queen had caught fire off Brazil. Her survivors were taken up by other Indiamen with which the Queen was in company, most of them – including several women and a detachment of troops – ending up aboard the Kent Owned by Henry Bonham, the Kent was commanded by Captain Robert Rivington and bound for Bengal and Benkulen. From Bahia Bay to Bengal her passage, though hampered by the numbers on board, had been untroubled. With its end in sight, she was making up for Balasore Roads when Rivington altered course towards what he took to be the pilot-vessel, hoisting the signal for a pilot. As the two ships closed one another, Rivington backed his main-topsail and lay-to in anticipation of the pilot’s arrival. Deceived to a point, Rivington now noticed the absence of colours flying from the approaching vessel which was not the expected schooner but a ship. He summoned his men to quarters, shotted his guns and fired a warning shot as the stranger passed on the opposite tack. Immediately, the other vessel’s helm went over and she came about to range up alongside the Kent, firing into the large, overcrowded Indiaman.

Rivington found himself embroiled with Robert Surcouf, commanding the frigate-sized corsair La Confiance which, according to the India Telegraph of 18 October 1800 then shot ahead, and passing round the bow of the Kent, renewed her engagement on the other side… She afterwards made sail ahead…of the Kent [when] she was…observed to haul her mainsail up and wear round for the Kent, and for the first time hoisted her national colours. La Confiance then fired a broadside and a volley of musketry from every part of the ship, which was returned by the Kent for as long as her guns would bear; the privateer then wearing around her stern, ranged close up alongside and received a full discharge from Kent’s starboard guns; at this moment the privateer fired a whole broadside and threw a number of hand-grenades from her tops…some of which penetrated the upper deck and burst on the gun deck, at the same time a fire of musketry was kept up from her tops, which killed and wounded a number of the passengers and recruits that were on the quarterdeck and poop; when the ships were completely locked…Captain Surcouf entered at the head of about one hundred and fifty men who ‘jumped by scores from their fore shrouds, fore yard and top, upon the poop and mizen of the Kent’. Surcouf, ‘in the dress of a seaman that he might not be distinguished, was one of the first that boarded’. Along with Rivington, twenty-one others died on the Kent’s bloody deck, including a wealthy passenger named William Cator who left a widow and an orphaned daughter, a young writer named Thomas Graham, an officer of the Bengal army, the Kent’s third and fourth mates and Mr Findlay, her carpenter. By the time the Indiaman’s colours came down concluding an action that lasted for about an hour and three-quarters, the last twenty minutes of which had been hand-to-hand on the Kent’s deck, forty-four persons had been wounded. Among these were Captain Pilkington, aide to General St John, and thirty-four of the Kent’s crew. William Hickey recounts the end of the affair:

Surcouf sent the whole of the surviving passengers, together with the wounded men, under the care of the surgeon of the Kent, to Bengal in a Country merchantman which he captured while conducting his prize to the Isle of France [Mauritius], about fourteen days after taking the Kent. He had behaved with the tenderest humanity to the wounded and with the utmost liberality to the British prisoners in general, especially the ladies whom he treated with every possible degree of respect and generosity.

The Country-ship was Arab-owned and Surcouf’s arrangements were under cartel, the passengers and wounded being exchanged on promise of the release of his own men that he had left in their scuttled boat to the Sybille’s tender mercies. Surcouf, meanwhile, retired with his immense prize to the Île de France. The news of this second major loss of an Indiamen to the charismatic corsair provoked the Governor-General to offer a lakh of rupees for the capture of Robert Surcouf.

In Port Louis Governor Malartic insisted on a consignment of gold dust and ingots in the Kent’s lazarette being a droit of the French state, a development that left the young Surcouf indignant with rage, so-much-so that he had the gold flung overboard. Surcouf was then ordered home, leaving in January 1801. After evading all British attempts to catch him La Confiance arrived at La Rochelle on 13 April and in the following month Surcouf – who appears to have avoided any consequences of his defiance of Malartic – married and settled down in St Malo to enjoy his wealth. Here he remained quiescent for six years.

Surcouf was lucky. His brother Nicolas less so, having been captured when emulating his sibling off the Sand Heads on 13 November 1800 when in command of the Adèle. Captain Webster of H.M. Sloop Albatross sent his captives up the Hughli to Fort William and Nicolas was afterwards sent to England to be incarcerated in the prison-hulk Hero at Chatham. That same month Surcouf’s old rival Dutertre attempted to seize the HCS Phoenix, Captain William Moffat, when the Indiaman was outward-bound. As the Phoenix approached the privateer a suspicious Moffat sent his men to quarters and, as the Général Malartic attempted to run alongside, her men swarming into her rigging to board the larger ship, Moffat’s gunners poured in a broadside and Dutertre was compelled to strike his colours. His ship was carried a prize, and he a prisoner, into the Hughli which, but a few days before, he had almost succeeded in blockading by capturing upwards of a dozen Country-ships.

Perraud was to be among the French corsairs to reappear in the Indian Ocean in the post-Trafalgar period and a brief notice must be taken of these events which affected both Indiamen and Country-ships. Perraud captured the Bombay Marine’s cruiser Viper and unsuccessfully fought the Teignmouth, Lieutenant Hewitson. Along with Perraud was Surcouf, whom we left in St Malo with his bride in 1801. There he might have remained, fitting out his own privateers as an armateur, had the fate of his brother Nicholas not reignited both his patriotism and his Anglophobia which, combined with his acumen and cupidity, was to prove potent. Nicholas Surcouf had endured his confinement amid the assorted horrors of the prison hulk Hero at Chatham and in August 1801 he had been exchanged by cartel. Having by his incarceration conceived such a hatred of the English, when hostilities were renewed in May 1803, Nicholas impetuously accepted a new command, the 38-gun corsair La Fortune. Reaching the Indian Ocean he made two successful cruises from Port Louis in one of which he captured the Company’s 14-gun brig Fly, Lieutenant Mainwaring. However, before the Company could retaliate, Nicholas Surcouf again fell into the hands of his enemy, La Fortune being taken by H.M. Frigate Concorde. Hearing of his brother’s fate Robert left his wife, threw up the business of an armateur – in which he was squandering his fortune – and returned to sea in a newly built vessel, the 18-gun Revenant. Robert had refused a commission as a commodore of a frigate-squadron offered by Napoleon himself, preferring profitably independent command on his own terms.

He arrived at Port Louis in June 1807 and left again in September to cruise off the Sand Heads and in the Bay of Bengal. Here he snapped up Country-shipping, preying upon the rice-trade between Bengal and Madras in order to keep the Île de France supplied with a staple. For part of the time he operated in company with the frigate Piémontaise prior to her capture while other corsairs were never far away, seeking rich pickings among the merchantmen traversing the bay. The Revenant proved exceptionally fast, enabling Surcouf to evade British cruisers sent against him and so successful was the combined effect of all of this enemy activity that after a loss estimated in excess of £300,000, trade was suspended and ‘an embargo of traffic in and out of Calcutta was maintained for sixty-seven days’.[158] In the end, however, Surcouf was obliged to return to his base on 31 January 1808 having dispersed so many of his men in prize-crews.

After refitting, Surcouf sent the Revenant to sea under his first lieutenant, Joseph Potier de la Houssaye. She had a specific mission: to intercept the large, 64-gun Portuguese man-of-war Concecão de Saõ Antonio. It was known that this ship had struck her lower deck guns into her hold and was loaded with a valuable cargo which she would bear home from Goa to Lisbon. While Surcouf remained in Île de France, De la Houssaye caught and fought the Concecão de Saõ Antonio in June, taking her after a bloody action. Despite the value of the Concecão de Saõ Antonio’s cargo, it was valueless in Port Louis and Surcouf was anxious to get it and what remained of his other captures – including the sums realised from the rice he had seized – through the British blockade of the Mascarene Islands and home to his bankers. However, in Port Louis Governor Decaen was an embittered man, jealous of Surcouf’s wealth and reputation, all of which he disapproved, and frustrated by his isolated post denying him the glories that his contemporaries had garnered during Napoleon’s dazzling campaigns in central Europe. But Decaen was a dutiful Governor and sought to strengthen the islands’ defences against the attack he felt certain would be mounted against them.[159] To this end he requisitioned Revenant on the French state’s behalf.[160] There was an ugly confrontation between the two men, the upshot of which was that Surcouf agreed to give up his ship if he took command of the frigate Sémillante which had been so damaged in an action with HMS Terpsichore that she had been condemned as a warship and bought by the merchants of Port Louis. Renamed the Charles, she would be loaded with the loot from the Concecão de Saõ Antonio and the proceeds of other seizures, including his own, and sailed home by Surcouf. Thus seduced by wealth Surcouf, the doyen of French corsairs whose croiserie en guerre et marchandise had been so troubling to Indian trade, withdrew from the Indian Ocean. After several narrow escapes from British cruisers, he reached France to enjoy a wealthy retirement. Fortunately the privateers Surcouf managed were far less successful than those he commanded and, by 1812, the Royal Navy had turned the tide against the armateurs and their investments. However, for some time yet French privateers cruised in the Bay of Bengal and its approaches: the L’Intreprenante took the Country-ship Clyde, Captain McGall, off Sumatra on 15 July 1809; the Gazelle was in the Indian Ocean twice, in 1807 returning to St Malo in 1808, and again in 1810; while the Général Junot and Fântome were also active, all of them making captures. But the threat was diminishing; resources at Port Louis dwindled while the burden of British and Indian prisoners increased and the French became victims of their own success, distant sufferers from the British blockade which prevented any relief sailing from the great French arsenals of Brest and Toulon.

Dutch versus Spain/Portugal–the Colonial War

The Dutch were particularly fond of privateers. Piet Heyn amazingly captured the whole of the Spanish treasure fleet – complete with gold and silver booty from its American colonies – during the Battle in the Bay of Matanzas in September 1628. Heyn became a folk hero and part of a Golden Age of Dutch enterprise, which saw an expanding commercial empire buoyed by the maritime prowess of its sailors. Simultaneously, however, the Dutch were quick to punish piracy. Without sanction, and an agreed fee to the Crown, pirates would be executed.

When the Catalans continued their protests that by April 1640 had turned into armed resistance against the troops there to defend them. The troops were merely the focus of much deeper popular discontent at years of corrupt administration. The famed liberties were mainly restricted to the aristocracy that dominated the kingdom’s assembly (the Corts) and manipulated their privileges for their own ends. The right to bear arms, for example, was used to cloak widespread banditry as lords sponsored gangs to pursue feuds with their neighbours. ‘A mafia-type regime prevailed in parts of Catalonia, sustained by violence and extortion.’ Under these conditions, the protesters did not see their actions as disobedience but as an attempt to draw Philip IV’s attention to their plight.

Peasants armed with scythes entered Barcelona on 22 May 1640 and opened the jail. Alarmed, the viceroy cancelled the Corpus Christi procession scheduled for 7 June. Around 2,000 ‘reapers’ (segadors) protested anyway, triggering four days of rioting. The viceroy and a leading judge were murdered, while other officials fled or went into hiding. Madrid and the provincial authorities blamed each other for the disorder that now spread across the kingdom.

The insurrection threatened the aristocracy’s privileges, but these would also be curtailed if Philip IV were to crush the revolt. The aristocrats sought another way out, opening negotiations with France, and agreeing on 29 September to open the ports to French ships and maintain the 3,000 auxiliaries despatched by Richelieu to assist them. Olivares believed he was facing a second Dutch Revolt and summoned an emergency levy of men across the loyal provinces. The marquis de los Vélez was sworn in as the new viceroy at the head of 20,000 men in southern Catalonia on 23 November. He retook Tortosa and the important port of Tarragona, which was also the seat of the archbishop of Catalonia.

Richelieu initially regarded the revolt as a welcome diversion from the crisis in Italy as the siege of Turin reached its climax. He was prepared to recognize Catalonia as an aristocratic republic that could serve as a useful buffer between France and Spain. The deteriorating situation following Los Vélez’s advance forced him to despatch another 13,000 men to reinforce the rebels. The royalists reached Barcelona at the end of December. Their appearance compromised the provincial government that was accused of failing to defend the kingdom. Following the murders of five more judges, the survivors placed themselves under French protection on 23 January 1641, accepting Louis XIII as ‘count of Barcelona’ and effectively ceding Roussillon. Three days later, the combined Franco-Catalan army defeated Los Vélez on Montjuic hill outside the city.

The rebels had passed the point of no return, but ‘acquired the burden of power without any of the fruits’. Half the French effort was directed at conquering Roussillon where Spain still held Perpignan and other key fortresses. Only half the army was sent into Catalonia where fighting concentrated around Lérida (Lleida) to the west of Barcelona, the town that commanded the main road from Castile into the kingdom.

The Catalans were joined from December 1640 by the Portuguese, opening a new Iberian front to the west. The Portuguese had contributed a comparatively modest 1 million cruzados to Spain’s war effort after 1619. Madrid’s demand for 3 million in 1634 struck them as completely unreasonable. Tax revolts erupted in three of the kingdom’s provinces during 1637 just as key parts of the Portuguese empire were lost to the Dutch as well. These problems stirred the latent resentment at the loss of independence. Olivares’ suppression of the Council of Portugal in 1638 did nothing to help this. Anti-Hispanicism mixed with anti-Semitism as Lisbon Jews and Conversos were integrated into Spain’s financial system after 1627 to take up the slack left by the inability of Genoese bankers to manage the burgeoning debt. Anti-Semitism encouraged popular and clerical support for the break with Spain. The yearning for independence was expressed as the Sebastian myth – that the country’s last native king who ‘disappeared’ at the battle of Alcazarquivir (al-Qasr el-Kabir) in Morocco in 1578 would eventually return. Unlike in Bohemia or Catalonia, the presence of the native Braganza dynasty offered a powerful focus for the coming revolt.

Its trigger was the demand in June 1640 for 6,000 Portuguese troops to assist in crushing the Catalonians. Portuguese malcontents stormed the Lisbon palace of the vicereine, Margarita of Savoy, and threw her adviser, Miguel de Vasconcellos, out of the window in the Bohemian fashion on 1 December. The vicereine was bundled over the frontier and Spanish resistance collapsed. Apart from Ceuta in North Africa, the Portuguese colonial empire recognized the new regime in 1641.

The ensuing conflict is known in Portuguese history as the War of Restoration (1640–68). Left largely alone, the Portuguese were able to improvise an army almost from scratch and launch an offensive into Spain in June 1641. Pope Urban received their ambassador, implying recognition, in 1642, while the English agreed an alliance that was later (1660) renewed with the marriage of Catherine of Braganza to Charles II, the match that saw Bombay and, briefly, Tangiers pass to English rule. However, fighting remained limited until the 1650s because Olivares concentrated on combating the Catalan revolt, since this provided an open door to French invasion. The Portuguese opposed Spanish rule, but they still shared a common enemy in the Dutch who continued their conquests in the Portuguese colonies.

The general sense of failure was magnified by bad news from the Indies, the region that had come to symbolize Iberian wealth and power. The Portuguese held on to Goa and Mozambique, but were expelled from Japan by local opposition in 1639. A protracted struggle with the king of Kandy for control of Sri Lanka opened the island to the Dutch who joined the local campaign to eject the Portuguese after 1636. The conflict drained the resources of the Estado da India, undermining resistance elsewhere to the Dutch who had captured most of the Indonesian spice islands by 1641.

The situation in the West Indies was equally bleak. Using the Matanzas loot, the Dutch West India Company fitted out 67 ships, with 1,170 guns and carrying 7,280 men under Admiral Hendrik Loncq. This was twice the manpower and three times the number of ships deployed to defend Portuguese Brazil. Loncq captured Olinde and Recife, the principal ports of Pernambuco in February 1630. Olivares despatched Spain’s senior admiral, Antonio Oquendo, with 56 ships and 2,000 soldiers to retake the towns before the Dutch could penetrate the sugar-producing hinterland. Oquendo eventually defeated the Dutch off Abrolhos in September 1631. Battered and with no harbour in which to refit his ships, Oquendo was obliged to return to Lisbon. The Dutch extended their positions, occupying the Guianan coast between the Amazon and modern Venezuela. The subsequent capture of Curaçao island in 1634 secured the local salt trade, vital to the Dutch herring industry.

A second relief effort in 1635 similarly failed to dislodge the Dutch, in stark contrast to the successful expedition a decade before. The Brazilian planters realized they would have to collaborate with the occupiers to safeguard their incomes. Portuguese control in Brazil shrank dramatically after the arrival of the energetic Prince of Nassau-Siegen as Dutch governor in January 1637. He won local support by allowing Catholic convents and monasteries to remain open, conducted the first scientific survey of the area and extended Dutch control to 1,800km of the coast by 1641 with a force of only 3,600 Europeans and 1,000 Indians. Two further Portuguese expeditions were repulsed in 1638 and 1640. Meanwhile, the Dutch capture of Elmina on Africa’s Gold Coast in 1637 gave them Portugal’s main slaving base. The Dutch exploited Portugal’s difficulties with Queen Njinga to take Luanda and other positions in Angola by 1641. Axim, the last Portuguese fort on the Gold Coast, fell the following year. Dutch slavers had shipped 30,000 Africans to Brazil by 1654. Dutch sugar exports to Europe between 1637 and 1644 already totalled 7.7 million florins, while other colonial produce worth 20.3 million was shipped over the same period.

Spain’s transatlantic trade collapsed in 1638–41. No treasure reached Seville in 1640. The Tierra Firme fleet brought only half a million ducats the following year, while the New Spain fleet sailed too late in the season and was hit by a hurricane as it left the Bahama Channel. Ten ships went down with 1.8 million ducats. The gross tonnage crossing the Atlantic by the later 1640s was nearly 60 per cent below that during the Twelve Years Truce. Silver continued to get through, but little more than 40 per cent of that produced in the New World was officially declared in Seville, while crown receipts were less than half those of the 1630s. Part of the decline was due to the increased cost of colonial defence, but much disappeared through fraud and the fact that the war forced the colonies to become more self-sufficient and develop their own trade outside the official system.

Captain John Ward I

In the summer of 1608 an Englishman arrived at the small palazzo near the Grand Canal that served as the official residence of Sir Henry Wotton, James I’s ambassador at Venice. The sailor’s name was Henry Pepwell, and he was just come from Tunis, where he had been gathering intelligence about an English pirate called Ward.

“Captain Ward” had been wreaking havoc in the Mediterranean for the past two or three years, and the English and Venetian authorities were desperate for any intelligence that might help them put an end to his activities. Pepwell told the ambassador how Ward’s criminal career began when he stole a small ship on the south coast of England; how he had settled in Tunis and formed a lucrative partnership with the Muslim ruler there; how his pirate fleet was now heading for the Straits of Gibraltar and the North Atlantic, and how he had vowed “to spare no one whom he can defeat.”

In the course of his story, which Wotton took straight round to the Ducal Palace and presented to the doge, the informant gave a description of the man who was fast becoming the most notorious pirate in Europe:

John Ward, commonly called Captain Ward, is about 55 years of age. Very short, with little hair, and that quite white; bald in front; swarthy face and beard. Speaks little, and almost always swearing. Drunk from morn till night. Most prodigal and plucky. Sleeps a great deal. . . .

This unprepossessing word picture is the only information we possess about the physical appearance of the greatest pirate of his age. Half man, half legend, John Ward was the arch-pirate, the corsair king of popular folk culture. London street balladeers sang of how the “most famous pirate of the world” terrorized the merchants of France and Spain, Portugal and Venice, and routed the mighty Knights of Malta with his bravery and cunning. Parents scared their children with tales of the demon who “feareth neither God nor the Devil, / [Whose] deeds are bad, his thoughts are evil,” and scared each other with reports that those who fell into his clutches would be tied back-to-back and thrown overboard, or cut in pieces, or shot to death without mercy. Clergymen in their pulpits thundered that Ward and his renegades would end their days in drunkenness, lechery, and sodomy within the sybaritic confines of their Tunisian palace, while congregations wondered idly if drunkenness, lechery, and sodomy were really such a bad way to go.

The “most famous pirate of the world” was one among thousands of disenchanted, disempowered sailors who turned to piracy in the early 1600s. Most had once been privateers, sailing with legitimate commissions that authorized them to capture for profit merchant shipping belonging to an enemy; all of the pirate leaders who were hanged at Wapping in December 1609 had begun their careers during the English wars with Spain, which started in 1585 and dragged on intermittently for the next two decades. They attacked Spanish merchant shipping but remained on the right side of the English law by obtaining letters of marque and reprisal, government licenses which authorized them to attack ships belonging to Spain and her allies.

This was an international tradition of state-sanctioned piracy which stretched back for centuries. When a group of London merchants had a huge cargo of wool and other merchandise confiscated in Genoa in 1413, the English king, Henry IV, issued letters of marque and reprisal allowing the merchants to detain Genoese men, ships, and goods until full restitution had been made. One hundred and thirty years later, when Henry VIII was at war with France and Scotland, he declared that any English citizen “shall enjoy to his and their own proper use, profit, and commodity, all and singular such ships, vessels, munition, merchandise, wares, victuals, and goods of what nature and quality soever it be, which they shall take of any of his Majesty’s said enemies.” Elizabeth I’s government regularly issued letters of marque (and took a tenth of the prize money along with customs duties on prize goods); and most of the sixteenth century’s greatest English sailors carried such letters or financed expeditions that depended on them. The explorer Sir John Hawkins promoted privateering ventures, as did the entrepreneurial Sir Walter Raleigh; Christopher Newport, one of the founders of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, brought prize cargoes of hides, sugar, and spices taken from Spanish shipping in the West Indies to the port of London in the 1590s; Martin Frobisher and Sir Humphrey Gilbert were both involved in privateering. Sir Francis Drake was careful to take letters of marque with him on his voyage round the world, authorizing him to harass Spanish and Portuguese shipping. (At least, he said he did: he refused to show them to anyone who might have been able to understand them.)

The legal rights and wrongs with regard to such letters of commission could be hard to disentangle. If an English privateer attacked and captured a Spanish merchantman while England was at war with Spain, the status of the prize was fairly straightforward: it belonged to the privateer and his backers. But what if an Englishman operating with Dutch letters of marque took a Venetian ship, claiming that it was carrying goods to one of Spain’s allies? Where did the Venetian merchant go for redress? The English Admiralty might make sympathetic noises, but that merchant would be fortunate indeed if he ever saw his goods again. Elizabeth’s government was notoriously flexible when it came to interpreting the legitimacy of letters of marque. Senior courtiers, and even the queen herself, invested in privateering ventures, and if this led to conflicts of interest, they frequently resolved those conflicts in their own favor. And in 1585 the government, concerned that prizes taken by English vessels were being sold unsupervised in foreign ports, ordered that all prizes must pass through the Admiralty Court in London for sentence of forfeiture. Since the Lord Admiral came in for a percentage of their value, there was good reason for Elizabeth’s senior officials to turn a blind eye to the activities of mariners who blurred the distinction between privateer and pirate.

Privateering was big business. In the aftermath of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, one hundred prizes were brought into English ports every year: together with their cargoes of wines and calicos and sugar and spices, their value amounted to some £200,000, the equivalent of fifteen percent of all annual imports. Years later, the Venetian ambassador reckoned that “nothing is thought to have enriched the English or done so much to allow many individuals to amass the wealth they are known to possess as the wars with the Spaniards in the time of Queen Elizabeth. All were permitted to go privateering, and they plundered not only Spaniards but all others indifferently, so that they enriched themselves by a constant stream of booty.”

This particular route to prosperity at sea came to an abrupt end when James I came to the throne in 1603. The pragmatic and peace-loving James was determined to make peace with Spain, and he immediately issued a proclamation declaring that recent prizes collected by English ships had to be returned, and that anyone who persisted in attacking Spanish shipping after the date of the proclamation would be treated as a pirate. In September 1603 a second royal proclamation, this time “to repress all piracies and depredations upon the sea,” set out in no uncertain terms the consequences of ignoring the first:

No man of war [shall] be furnished or set out to sea by any of his Majesty’s subjects, under pain of death and confiscation of lands and goods, not only to the captains and mariners, but also to the owners and victuallers, if the company of the said ship shall commit any piracy, depredation or murder at the sea, upon any of his Majesty’s friends.

Over the summer of 1604 the Somerset House peace conference brought the Anglo-Spanish wars to an end; a treaty to that effect was signed on August 16. In response, some English privateers offered their services to the Dutch Republic, which remained at war with Spain until the signing of the Twelve Years’ Truce five years later—but in 1605, James I did his best to stop the looting of foreign ships by English privateers by calling home all English seamen serving with foreign powers and prohibiting vessels that carried letters of marque from victualing, or resupplying themselves, at British ports. Anyone who failed to comply would be regarded as a pirate, and, warned the king, “We will cause our laws to be fully executed according to their true meaning, both against the pirates, and all receivers and abettors of them.”

At the same time as he was outlawing English privateering, James I was also running down his navy, and thus making it much harder for Englishmen who wanted a legitimate naval career to find work. By 1607 the English navy, which had been the envy of Europe, numbered only thirty-seven ships, “many of them old and rotten, and barely fit for service,” according to the Venetian ambassador.8 The privateer Richard Bishop articulated the resentment felt by many seafarers when he complained that the king “hath lessened by this general peace the flourishing employment that we seafaring men do bleed for at sea.” Having enjoyed prosperity at sea, many sailors found it hard to give up the life: “We have spent our hours in a high flood, and it will be unsavory for us now, to pick up our crumbs in a low ebb.”

Those sentiments were echoed by John Ward. Born in the Kentish port of Faversham around 1553, he first went to sea as a fisherman; then he became a privateer; and, after James I banned privateering, he joined the king’s navy, serving aboard the Lion’s Whelp, a fast, lightly armed vessel that patrolled the English Channel on the lookout for pirates operating out of Dunkirk. By all accounts he was a morose character, given to heavy drinking and self-pity. He spent his time ashore in taverns, where he would “sit melancholy, speak doggedly, curse the time, repine at other men’s good fortunes, and complain of the hard crosses [that] attended his own.”

Andrew Barker, an English sailor who was held for ransom in Tunis after his vessel was captured by Ward’s pirates in 1608, wrote a vivid account of Ward’s career. A True and Certain Report of the Beginning, Proceedings, Overthrows and Now Present Estate of Captain Ward, which appeared in October 1609, is imaginative, self-conscious, and packed with rhetorical flourishes, but it nevertheless stays very close to the spirit, if not the letter, of the truth.

For instance, one night when the Lion’s Whelp was in Portsmouth harbor and the crew had been given shore leave, Barker has his antihero launch into a tirade about how life has changed for the worse for English seamen since James I came to the throne:

Here’s a scurvy world, and as scurvily we live in it. . . . Where are the days that have been, and the season that we have seen, when we might sing, swear, drink, drab [i.e., whore], and kill men as freely, as your cake-makers do flies? When we might do what we list, and the law would bear us out in it? Nay, when we might lawfully do that, we shall be hanged for and we do [it] now? When the whole sea was our empire, where we rob at will?

The words that Barker put into Ward’s mouth—for he must have, as he couldn’t have heard him speak them—could have come from any one of a thousand disgruntled Jacobean sailors who longed, as he did, for the days that had been. Life in the English navy was hard for sailors like John Ward—so hard that, as Sir Walter Raleigh remarked, men went “with as great a grudging to serve in his majesty’s ships as if it were to be slaves in the galleys.”

Conditions aboard even the best of the king’s ships were unsanitary and overcrowded. The Speedwell, for example, a thirty-gun man-of-war which was rebuilt at the beginning of the century, was about 90 feet long with a beam of less than 30 feet and a depth of about 12 feet. It carried a crew of 191, including 18 gunners, 50 small-arms men, 4 carpenters, and 3 trumpeters. (The Lion’s Whelp, in which Ward was serving, had a smaller crew, but then it was a smaller ship, probably only two-thirds the size of the Speedwell.) Hammocks were still something of a rarity, having only been introduced into the English navy in 1597 as “hanging cabins or beds . . . for the better preservation of [sailors’] health.” Most sailors shared a straw pallet with another man, although they did not usually occupy it at the same time: a two-watch system meant that one worked while the other was resting. They encountered other bedfellows, though: a Jacobean seaman rarely owned more than one set of clothes—typically a woolen Monmouth cap, a linen shirt, and a pair of knee-length canvas slops—which he kept on, waking and sleeping, until they were worn to rags. Clothes and bedding were riddled with lice and fleas.

The food at the beginning of a voyage wasn’t too bad; it might consist of biscuit, salt beef, meal, cheese, and beer. But the beef went bad, the beer turned sour, and the biscuit and meal attracted weevils. Dysentery and scurvy were both common.

These horrors lay in store for every mariner, whether he sailed as a pirate, a merchantman, or a member of His Majesty’s navy. But aboard a private vessel, discipline was relatively relaxed. When the pirate captain John Jennings fell for an Irish whore and installed her in his cabin, for example, his crew burst in on the couple and lectured him on his lax morals, which they blamed for a recent run of bad luck. He lashed out at them with a truncheon, at which they chased him round the deck with a musket. He only managed to save his life by barricading himself in the ship’s gunroom. Eventually tempers cooled and he resumed command. But history doesn’t record what became of his female companion.

That kind of behavior from the crew was inconceivable aboard a naval vessel, where discipline was rigid and the consequences of any kind of insubordination or disobedience were brutal. A minor transgression could earn the hapless sailor a spell “in the bilboes”—shackled by his legs as though in the stocks—or bound to the mainmast or capstan for hours on end with a heavy basket of shot tied round his neck. He might be ducked at the yardarm: “A malefactor, by having a rope fastened under his arms, and about his middle, and under his breech, is thus hoisted up to the end of the yard, from whence he is violently let fall into the sea, sometimes twice, sometimes three several times one after another.”

A refinement on ducking, reserved for more serious offenses, was keelhauling. A rope was rigged up from one yardarm to the other, passing under the keel, and the unfortunate offender was hauled up to one yardarm, dropped into the sea, and dragged slowly under the ship and up to the other. The experience of being half drowned was terrible enough, but much more serious damage was caused by being rasped over the razor-sharp barnacles that encrusted the ship’s bottom. Keelhauling was often a death sentence.

Keelhauling and ducking were cruel but relatively unusual punishments. By far the commonest penalty aboard ship was a thrashing. Minor offenders had to “pay the cobty” by being spanked on the behind with a flat piece of wood called a cobbing-board. More serious crimes were dealt with by the marshal or the boatswain with a painful whip known as the cat-of-nine-tails.

Corporal punishment was an integral part of seventeenth-century life in general. Husbands beat their wives; parents beat their children; masters and mistresses beat their servants; and employers beat their employees. But the unrelenting harshness of naval discipline was of a different order altogether. Remarking that sailors preferred to take their chances “in small ships of reprisal”—that is, in privateers or pirate ships—rather than serve the crown, the naval commander Sir William Monson (himself an ex-privateer) commented that this was because of “the liberty they find in the one, and the punishment they fear in the other.”

Monson had a point. But he glossed over another reason sailors preferred privateering. In the Royal Navy a Jacobean seaman’s pay was ten shillings per lunar month before deductions (the navy calculated sailors’ pay on the basis of a twenty-eight-day month right up until the beginning of the nineteenth century). That wasn’t bad; but the crew of a privateer out on a cruise against the Spanish shared one-third of the prize money among them, and that could easily amount to ten or fifteen pounds, rather more than a top lawyer’s highest fee, for a voyage lasting only a couple of months. Little wonder that professional sailors, especially those who had prospered as privateers before England’s peace with Spain, were less than happy to swap good money and relative freedom as a privateer for punishment and privation in the navy. Or that they wished, as John Ward wished, for the days that had been, “when the whole sea was our empire.”

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.”

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.