Pirate John Ward: the real Captain Jack Sparrow

John Ward was outlandish and fearless, terrorising the Mediterranean with a complete absence of morals – little wonder the English pirate was an inspiration for Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Giles Milton tells the story of perhaps the most familiar blackguard that you’ve never heard of

Illustration of pirate John Ward

The cannon were pumping shot into the hull of the vessel, sending lethal splinters of shrapnel through the air. A fire had broken out below the main deck and the crew was attempting to douse the flames. The sea battle was as terrifying as it was dangerous, yet a lone attacker could be seen leading from the front. Captain John Ward was urging his men forwards as they tried to grapple and board the vessel.

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The Reniera e Soderina was a huge Venetian carrack laden with silks, indigo and other rich merchandise. If Ward succeeded in capturing her, he would be rich beyond his wildest dreams – the crowning glory of a glittering piratical career. Yet it was a career that had begun with very little promise. None of Ward’s friends or contemporaries thought him particularly talented, and none predicted that he would become the richest and most outlandish pirate of his age.

Though they reigned before the Golden Age of Piracy – commonly said to have begun in 1650 – both Elizabeth I and James VI and I were dogged by pirates: Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins and Sir Richard Grenville (along with countless others) would make their fortunes on the lawless high seas. Yet it was the little-known John Ward who was to have the most surprising career of all.

Born into an impoverished family c1553, his early life was spent fishing the tidal waters of his native Kent. An out-and-out wastrel who spent much of his time getting drunk, he would “sit melancholy, speak doggedly … [and] repine at other men’s good fortunes”.

The first inkling of his future talents came with the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Ward was one of many mariners who turned to privateering – a semi-legalised form of piracy in which Queen Elizabeth I issued licences to anyone intending to plunder ships that belonged to the hated Spanish.

A pirate’s life

The deal was simple: the Crown received five per cent of the loot and the Lord Admiral’s agents took 10 per cent. The rest was divided between the ship’s owner and the crew. It is not known whether Ward was successful as a privateer, for these formative years of his career have been lost to history. Yet it was certainly during this time that he learned his piratical tricks.

Ward’s seafaring life took a knock in the summer of 1604 when the Anglo- Spanish war came to an end. James VI and I – successor to Elizabeth I – banned all privateering expeditions and Ward found himself out of work. According to an acquaintance, Andrew Barker, he bemoaned his ill fortune.

“Where are the days that have been … when we might sing, swear, drink, drab [whore] and kill men as freely as your cake-makers do flies?” Ward yearned for the recent past, “when the whole sea was our empire, where we rob at will”.

Ward was lodging in Portsmouth when he heard a rumour that was to change his life. A small merchant ship was anchored in the harbour, and it was stashed with the possessions of a Catholic merchant about to move from England to France. Ward persuaded 30 of his seafaring comrades to seize the vessel and its treasure. His little band stormed the ship that very night, overpowering the two watchmen and clamping them in irons. They then set sail into the English Channel.

Pirate or privateer: what’s the difference?

The distinction between pirate and privateer is subtle but important. A pirate is a lawless robber who preys on ships with the intention of stealing the vessel and its cargo. A privateer is acting under a commission, known as a letter of marque.

This semi-legal commission empowers the privateer to attack enemy shipping, on the understanding that the booty will be shared between the crown, ship owner, captain and crew.

Privateering reached its zenith in the aftermath of the Spanish Armada, when many of England’s illustrious sea captains turned to privateering. Sir Francis Drake was the most famous, but others were no less successful.

When Ward went to examine his ill-gotten treasure, he received a rude awakening. The ship’s Catholic owner had got wind of their plot and moved all his possessions ashore. Ward had stolen a vessel with no valuables whatsoever. Off the Isles of Scilly, his men spotted a French merchant ship. Ward hailed her, gave the sign of friendship and passed “many hours in courteous discourse” with the captain. But he eventually revealed his true colours, raising his piratical battle-cry for the first time. Within seconds, his men grappled the vessel and boarded it, seizing both ship and crew. Ward had scored his first success.

A big ship required a big crew. Ward sailed to Cawsand in Cornwall and convinced a band of smugglers and fishermen to sign up for what he promised would be the voyage of a lifetime. Their destination was the Mediterranean, where there were known to be rich pickings. Traders, merchantmen and galleons – all were to be targeted by Ward and his band.

Their first prize was a coastal trader laden with merchandise. Their second was a two-masted transport ship used to carry galley slaves. With these ships in tow, Ward headed for the port of Algiers, which had been a haven for pirates for many decades. He was out of luck. Just a few months earlier, the city had been attacked by an English privateer named Richard Gifford, and the city’s governor was understandably ill-disposed towards Englishmen.

The port of Algiers
Algiers was formally part of the Ottoman Empire, but practically a city state ruled by the Barbary pirates (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

Ward sailed instead for the port of Salé on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, another locale frequented by vagabonds. Its pirates had been attacking merchant ships for years, and had grown so bold that they’d started to raid the shores of England and France, seizing entire villages and selling them in the great slave markets of North Africa.

In Salé, Ward found himself in like-minded company. A number of English and Dutch pirates were already living in the port and they agreed to join his team. Ward sold his booty, trimmed his ships and headed for Tunis, in which he hoped to make his base. It was a voyage that would transform his life.

A titan of Tunis

Tunis was nominally ruled by a pasha appointed by the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul but, by the time Ward arrived in 1605, the real power lay in the hands of Uthman Dey, leader of the janissary soldiers (janissaries being the Sultan’s household troops and bodyguards) garrisoned in the city. Wily and ruthless in equal measure, Uthman Dey had created a powerful guild of corsairs, and they preyed on shipping across the Mediterranean.

Uthman Dey may well have had second thoughts about welcoming this mixed band of Cornish smugglers and West Country ruffians. Toothless, heavily bearded and wearing a bizarre array of stolen velvet doublets and silken waistcoats, Ward’s pirates looked starkly different to the fabulously uniformed janissaries who patrolled the city.

Nonetheless, Dey recognised that Ward was a skilled pirate and allowed him to use Tunis as his centre of operations, just so long as he got a share of the loot.

Ward began capturing an astonishing array of vessels, including an English merchantman named John Baptist, richly laden with luxurious damasks. Ward renamed her the Little John, after the English folk hero. Another captured vessel was renamed the Gift, suggesting that Ward, though reportedly morose, had a sense of humour.

Many other ships were seized in the early spring of that first year in Tunis. One of the largest was the 300-ton Rubin, heavily laden with pepper, indigo and luxury goods purchased in Alexandria and destined for Venice. Also seized were the Elizabeth, Charity and Pearl, along with the Trojan of London: her English crew “were made slaves for shooting off but one shot in their own defence”.

Was John Ward the real Captain Jack Sparrow?

John Ward was the inspiration for the character of Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Ward’s nickname was ‘Sparrow’ and he was known for his flamboyant style – much like the Hollywood icon.

Ward so ingratiated himself with Uthman Dey that he was given a large plot of land in Tunis. He now set to work building himself a mansion on a scale and opulence that would have been unthinkable in his native England. One compatriot who visited the place described it as “a very stately house, far more fit for a prince than a pirate”. It was dripping with luxury, “a fair palace beautified with rich marble and alabaster stones”.

As for Ward himself, he began to play the role of swaggering Oriental potentate, living in “a most princely and magnificent state”. He also looked the part. “His apparel is both curious and costly, his diet sumptuous and his followers seriously observing and obeying his will.” In common with the greatest of lords, “he hath two cooks that dress and prepare his diet for him, and his taster before he eats”.

In April 1607, Ward was cruising along the Turkish coast when he spotted a vast merchant vessel on the horizon. As he set sail in pursuit, her faint outline slowly sharpened into view. Neither he nor his crew could quite believe their eyes. The Reniera e Soderina was “a great argosy of fourteen or fifteen hundred tons” – a veritable leviathan of a ship – and she was sailing from Aleppo with a cargo of silks, indigo and cotton. She was so heavily laden that she couldn’t manoeuvre in the light wind, making her a sitting duck for Ward’s more nimble vessels.

Ward shouted his battle-cry and the guns opened fire, blasting cannonballs directly into the hull. They pierced the ship’s timbers fully five times, setting light to bails of hay inside. The Reniera e Soderina fired back, but was unable to score a single hit.

After three hours of intense bombardment, Ward’s men prepared to board. As they did so, the Reniera e Soderina’s captain offered his crew the choice of fighting or surrendering. When they vowed to fight, he handed out small arms and deployed the bulk of his men on the quarterdeck.

Moments before Ward’s men grappled the ship, his gunners fired six rounds of lethal chain shot. It tore into the rigging and sails, but it also tore into the crew. Two men were shredded to morsels, causing those around them to drop their weapons in panic.

At this very moment, Ward himself leaped aboard. “In the deadly conflict he did so undauntedly bear himself,” one of his men said later, “as if he had courage to out-brave death.” The battle was long and fierce, but Ward was set on victory. “In the end, our captain had the sunshine: he boarded her, subdued her, chained her men like slaves.” Soon after, he sailed her back to Tunis in triumph.

Naval battle between Barbary pirates and a European vessel
Battles between the Barbary pirates and the European sea powers became more common as the 17th century wore on (Photo by Alamy Library)

The capture of the Reniera e Soderina was the zenith of Ward’s piratical career. He would never quite match this success. After refitting the ship in Tunis, he hired a crew and accompanied her on her first voyage as a pirate ship.

But that maiden voyage was also to be her last. Ward’s structural alterations to the cannon deck had so weakened the vessel that she broke up in a storm and sunk with the loss of 350 men. Ward himself slipped back to Tunis on one of the smaller vessels in his fleet.

Turning Turk

News of the disaster irreparably damaged Ward’s reputation and he became an object of hatred for many in Tunis, especially those who had lost loved ones in the disaster. Ward found himself in desperate straits and became increasingly reliant on the protection of Uthman Dey.

Around 1610, he and his crew took the momentous decision to ‘turn Turk’, converting to Islam and settling permanently in Tunis. Ward himself changed his name to Yusuf Reis and married for a second time, even though he still had a wife in England. One who saw him in his later years described him as a shadow of his former self. “Very short with little hair, and that quite white, bald in front.” He spoke little, and when he did it was mostly swearing. “Drunk from morn till night … a fool and an idiot out of his trade.”

Ward’s legend blossomed even within his own lifetime, and he became the subject of plays, pamphlets, ballads and books that in turn demonised and romanticised his exploits as a corsair.

One of the best known is Captain Ward and the Rainbow, in which the King sends a ship called the Royal Rainbow after the perfidious pirate. Ward prevails, naturally, the rhyme ending with the lines: “Go tell the king of England, go tell him this from me, If he reign king of all the land, I will reign king at sea.”

These words provide a fitting epitaph for the man who, up to this point, might have been England’s most notorious pirate. For much of his long and troubled lifetime, Captain John Ward was indeed king of the sea.

Who were the Barbary corsairs?

The Barbary corsairs were pirates and privateers operating out of the three principal ports in North Africa (Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, all in the Mediterranean) and the port of Salé, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco.

In the 16th century, they were mainly Muslim privateers who operated with the sanction of the Ottomanappointed rulers of the Barbary states (such as Oruç Reis and Hayreddin Barbarossa). They found easy prey in the richly laden and usually Christian ships plying the Mediterranean.

These early corsairs were later joined by large numbers of Dutch pirates and English privateers: the latter flocked here when forbidden from attacking Spanish shipping after the peace of 1604.

The Barbary corsairs reached their peak in the early 1600s. They were superb navigators and sailed enormous distances in their quest for plunder. Many of their estimated one million (at least) victims were sold in the great slave auctions of North Africa. Few ever returned home to their loved ones.

Giles Milton is a writer and author who specialises in narrative history

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This content first appeared in the November 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed