Post-classical history


Hellfire Is Prepared: Turning Turk on the Barbary Coast


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,”1 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.2

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.3 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.”4 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.”5 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.”6 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.”7

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.8

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].”9 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.”10 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.”11 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.12 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.”13 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.”14

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.

Whenever a Christian converted to Islam before the sultan in Istanbul, the imperial scribe who recorded the fact sprinkled gold dust over the black ink in celebration.15 After reciting the shahada (“There is no other God than God, and Mohammed is his messenger”), the new Muslim was presented with a ceremonial purse of coins, a length of white muslin with which to make a turban, and a cloak that, in the case of the more distinguished converts, might be lined with sable and brocaded in silver and gold. (Female converts were given slippers instead of turbans.) Men were then whisked away to a convenient corner by the waiting imperial surgeon, who circumcised them on the spot. It was common, particularly among Europeans, to confirm and celebrate conversion to Islam by adopting a new Islamic name.

The moment when John Ward was honored by the glory of Islam in the Tunisian qasbah might have been less formal than the ceremonies at the Ottoman court, but even shorn of gold dust, sable, and silver brocade, the basic elements remained the same: the devastatingly simple profession of faith; the symbolic reclothing of the convert to signify his new identity and a new life in the community of Islam; the ritual mutilation. Ward took the name Yusuf, the Arabic form of Joseph—and also the name of Uthman’s son-in-law and heir, who succeeded as dey of Tunis around the time of the pirate’s conversion.

News that the arch-pirate had apostasized reached England toward the end of 1610. In his regular newsletter to the doge, the Venetian ambassador to England, Marc’Antonio Correr, wrote on December 23 that “there is confirmation of the news that the pirate Ward and Sir Francis Verney, also an Englishman of the noblest blood, have become Turks, to the great indignation of the whole nation.”16

This was the ultimate betrayal, as far as the English were concerned—worse, even, than robbery or murder. Turning to crime was bad, but for Ward to compound his crimes by voluntarily handing over his immortal soul to the enemy was beyond horrible. We can get a hint of the righteous fury that his conversion provoked in the opening lines of “To a Reprobate Pirate That Hath Renounced Christ and Is Turn’d Turk,” a 1612 poem by the satirist Samuel Rowlands:

Thou wicked lump of only sin, and shame,

(Renouncing Christian faith and Christian name),

A villain, worse than he that Christ betray’d . . .

At least Judas eventually acknowledged Christ, says Rowlands, before going on to condemn his reprobate pirate as a “cursed thief ” and a “devouring monster” who was “worse than devils.” The poem ends with a prediction:

Receive this warning from thy native land;

God’s fearful judgments (villain) are at hand.

Devils attend, hellfire is prepared:

Perpetual flames is reprobate’s re-ward [sic].17

Ward earned himself another damnation in Thomas Dekker’s comedy about hell, If It Be Not Good, the Divel Is in It, which also appeared in 1612. “Where’s Ward?” asks Pluto, lord of the underworld, to be told the pirate is still alive and doing his bidding by flaying merchants; when he’s done he will bring down with him “fat boats of rich thieves.”18

The year 1612 was a good year for consigning Ward to hell. His most spectacular appearance in Jacobean literature was the work of a rather minor playwright who wrote for the Whitefriars Playhouse off Fleet Street. As its title suggests, Robert Daborn’s A Christian Turn’d Turk took as its centerpiece Ward’s conversion, to which he was driven—according to Daborn at least—by his lust for Uthman’s beautiful but duplicitous sister, Voada. Too dreadful to depict in words, the pirate’s apostasy was presented to London audiences as a lurid and prop-laden mime:

Enter two bearing half-moons, one with a Mahomet’s head following. After them, the Mufti, or chief priest, two meaner priests bearing his train. The Mufti seated, a confused noise of music, with a show. Enter two Turks, one bearing a turban with a half-moon in it, the other a robe, a sword: a third with a globe in one hand, an arrow in the other. Two knights follow. After them, Ward on an ass, in his Christian habit, bare-headed. The two knights, with low reverence, ascend, whisper the Mufti in the ear, draw their swords, and pull him off the ass. He is laid on his belly, the tables (by two inferior priests) offered him, he lifts his hand up, subscribes, is brought to his seat by the Mufti, who puts on his turban and robe, girds his sword, then swears him on the Mahomet’s head, ungirts his sword, offers him a cup of wine by the hands of a Christian. He spurns at him and throws away the cup, is mounted on the ass, who is richly clad, and with a shout, they exit.19

The next step should have been the convert’s circumcision. Since Jacobean audiences were incapable of distinguishing between circumcision and castration, that left Daborn’s all-for-lust plotline with something of a problem, which he solved by having Ward substitute the end of a monkey’s tail for his foreskin during the ritual, which took place discreetly offstage.

An apostate pirate could hardly be allowed to live happily ever after. At the end of the final scene (a Jacobean bloodbath, which leaves a total of seven corpses strewn about the stage) Ward is betrayed by Voada. He kills her and then stabs himself before Uthman can carry out a promise to torture him to death. With his dying breath he recants, curses the “slaves of Mahomet” for their ingratitude to one “that hath brought more treasure to your shore / Than all Arabia yields,” and delivers a dire warning to his fellow pirates:

All you that live by theft and piracies,

That sell your lives and souls to purchase graves,

That die to hell, and live far worse than slaves,

Let dying Ward tell you that heaven is just,

And that despair attends on blood and lust.20

Daborn’s account of Ward’s Faustian fall, like the pirate’s repudiation of Islam, was greatly exaggerated. While A Christian Turn’d Turk was playing off-Fleet Street, its subject was living happily in Tunis. But anger and horror in Europe at the idea that a Christian was capable of such a terrible piece of treachery was the normal response to news of an Englishman turning Turk; and when one was in control of one’s world, as Daborn was, death and damnation were bound to follow.

Not in the real world, though. Direct contacts with Muslims, as opposed to the stage-Turks who fascinated and appalled, were few and far between. Apart from the occasional renegade or native-born Barbary corsair whose rotting corpse dangled in the breeze at Execution Dock, the only real-life Muslims Londoners would have seen were the sixteen members of the Moroccan embassy who visited the city in the summer of 1600 in search of an Anglo-Moroccan alliance against the traditional enemy of both nations, Spain. Throughout its six-month stay in London, the embassy, which was led by the sultan’s secretary, Abd al-Wahid Annun, was regarded with suspicion and hostility. The Moors were “very strangely attired and behaviored.”21 They were mean, because they didn’t bring rich presents for the queen or give alms to the English poor. They were sinister because “they killed all their own meat within their house . . . and they turned their face eastward when they killed anything.”22 It was generally reckoned that their real purpose was to gather intelligence about the market for sugar, which was one of Morocco’s main exports to England, so that their merchants could raise their prices; and when the time came for them to continue on their way to Aleppo in the Levant, which was their next destination, no English ship could be found to take them, because merchants and mariners “think it a matter odious and scandalous to the world to be friendly or familiar with infidels.”23

The vast majority of English men and women had no knowledge of Islam. There were no mosques in England. There was no English-language version of the Qur’an—nor would there be until the 1649 publication of Alexander Ross’s poor English translation of a poor French translation from the Arabic, The Alcoran of Mahomet. The word “Muslim” was virtually unknown, English speakers preferring the generic “Turk.” A different faith, different cultures, different nations, were all lumped together in a single indiscriminate Other, a non-Christian, anti-Christian empire that stretched from the Persian Gulf to the borders of the Holy Roman Empire and threatened the very fabric of Christendom. Islam was the enemy, and turning Turk was treachery.

Words betray their secrets. To seventeenth-century England, every follower of Islam was a Turk, every Turk a follower of Islam. Moors were “barbarians,” both in the sense that they were Berbers and hence came from Barbary, and more contemptuously because they were beyond the boundaries of Christian civilization. The word “renegade” or “renegado” or “runnagate” originally meant “apostate,” one who deserts his or her religion—except that the West never referred to the rare Muslim convert to Christianity as a “renegade.”

Sir Francis Verney, the “Englishman of the noblest blood” whose conversion to Islam was reported along with John Ward’s, aroused particular consternation in England. Sir Francis was unusual for a Jacobean pirate, in that not only did he come from further up the social scale than most—his family had a long and respected pedigree as Buckinghamshire gentry—but he had absolutely no previous experience of seafaring. In 1606, when he was twenty, he got into a fearsome row with his stepmother over the rights to a small field. (He was married to her teenage daughter, so the stepmother was also his mother-in-law.) The dispute over this field went all the way to Parliament, and when Francis lost the case, he sold his estates in a fit of pique and, in 1608, walked out on his wife and his stepmother/mother-in-law.

According to family tradition, Sir Francis went to Morocco and joined up with a band of English mercenaries who were fighting for Mawlay Zidan, one of the claimants to the sultanate of Morocco. The legend gains credibility from the fact that he was related to the commander of the mercenaries, Captain John Giffard, and also to his second-in-command, Philip Giffard. Both men were later killed in a desert skirmish, and the same family tradition suggests that Sir Francis then made contact with another Giffard kinsman—Richard, whose attempts to set fire to the Algerian fleet as it lay at anchor in its home port had caused so many problems for John Ward. According to this version of events, it was Richard who was responsible for launching Sir Francis Verney’s career as a pirate.

Unfortunately for the accuracy of the story, Richard Giffard was stuck in a Florentine jail from 1607 to the spring or summer of 1610, which rules him out as Sir Francis’s piratical mentor, since in 1609 the English embassy in Madrid reported that Sir Francis was operating as a pirate and that he had captured three or four ships from Poole in Dorset and one from Plymouth. In October the same year, London was gossiping about the rumor that “Sir Francis Verney, who is become a strong pirate on the Barbary Coast, hath seized the provision of wine coming for the King from Bordeaux”;24and six weeks later the rumor was confirmed, and it was said that Sir Francis had also taken “a much richer prize.”25 King James I was so alarmed that he dispatched a man-of-war to escort an English merchant convoy en route for the Levant; and the Venetians reported that the corsairs had recently been joined by “a certain Francis Verney, an Englishman of very noble blood” who had squandered his fortune.26 Around the same time Sir Francis was said to be living in Tunis, as part of John Ward’s entourage.

Verney’s fall was as meteoric as his rise. Six months later he lost two or three ships in the space of a few days, and was described as living in great poverty and deeply in debt to the Turks. For his family and friends in England, the news of his conversion to Islam set the seal on a real-life Jacobean morality tale of a wild young man who made an effortless transition from gentleman to outlaw to outcast. He was dead to them.

The last account we have of both Sir Francis Verney and his captain, John Ward, comes from a Scottish traveler, William Lithgow, who arrived in Tunis in 1615 en route to Algiers and was invited to supper by Ward. Sprawled on cushions in the cool interior of a palace that shone with marble and alabaster, he chatted with the pirate as he sat surrounded by his entourage of English renegades, fifteen in all, “whose lives and countenances were both alike, even as desperate as disdainful.”27 Ward himself was mild and agreeable: during Lithgow’s ten-day stay in Tunis, the old man entertained him to dinner or supper a number of times, and when he heard that the Scot wanted to travel overland to Algiers, he personally arranged for him to have a safe-conduct signed by the pasha.

Lithgow described the man he met in the palace by the qasbah as “once a great pirate, and commander at seas,” and the truth was that by 1615 Ward’s career was all but over. If his conversion to Islam had been a cynical attempt to curry favor with the new dey, following the death of Ward’s mentor Uthman in 1610, it didn’t work. The dey, Yusuf, surrounded himself with young and ambitious renegades—Genoese, Corsican, French, Venetian, Ferrarese. They held all the high state offices; they controlled the Janissary corps; they commanded the harbor at La Goulette. But there was no place at Yusuf’s court for an Englishman in his sixties who belonged to yesterday.

Too tired to go out on the cruise anymore, and too notorious to sue for peace with James I and go home, Ward made a life for himself in Tunis, marrying a renegade woman from Palermo called Jessimina. Perhaps he used the profits from piracy to finance new ventures; perhaps, as one rumor had it, he taught gunnery and navigation to a new generation of corsairs. Most likely he lived in quiet retirement with his desperate and disdainful entourage, swapping old men’s stories of death and fire on the high seas. William Lithgow, who stopped off again in Tunis on the way back from his trip along the Barbary Coast, left a final vignette of Ward. Twice while he was in Tunis this second time, says Lithgow, Captain Ward dispatched one of his servants to show him 300 or 400 chickens’ eggs as they hatched after being kept in ovens. The heat from each oven, said Lithgow, was “answerable to the natural warmness of the hen’s belly; upon which moderation, within twenty days they come to natural perfection.”28 There is something oddly moving about the idea that a brutish, violent man like Ward, who had been the death of so many, many people, was so fascinated at the end of his life by chicks in an incubator. Still settled in Tunis, he died of the plague in the summer of 1622.

There are worse fates. On his way home from Tunis, William Lithgow called in at Sicily, where he found Sir Francis Verney close to death in the Great Hospital of St. Mary of Pity at Messina. Sir Francis’s career as a pirate had ended soon after he converted to Islam in Tunis. Taken at sea by Sicilians, he spent two years as a slave on their galleys before being redeemed by an English Jesuit who made him promise to return to Christianity. After another year or so as a common soldier, he fell sick and applied for admission to St. Mary of Pity, where, on September 6, 1615, he died.

Lithgow arranged for his burial in the grounds of the hospital, and his turban and slippers were sent home to his family in England. Whatever they thought of him, the Verneys kept the things. They’re still in the family home today, treasured heirlooms in a glass case, souvenirs of a wrong but romantic ancestor.

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