Post-classical history


Where Are the Days? The Making of a Pirate


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. . . .1


Tunis, with the harbor of La Goulette in the foreground. The National Library of Israel, Shapell Family Digitization Project, Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dept. of Geography, Historic Cities Project

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.2 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.3

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.”4 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.”5

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.6

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.”7

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.”9

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.”10

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?11

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.”12

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.”13 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.”14

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.”15

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.”

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.”16 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.”17 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.18

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.19 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.”20

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,”21 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.”22

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.”23 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.24 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,”25 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.” 26 Over a hundred years later an English historian could still talk of “the corsories or pirates of Tripoli.”27

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.28 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.”29

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.”31

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,”32 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,”33 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.”34 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.35

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.”36 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.”37

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.”38 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.39 (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.”)40 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.41 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.”42 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.43 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.”44

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.”45 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.”46

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