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John Ward (pirate)

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John Ward (pirate)

John Ward
— Pirate —
Nickname Birdy
Type Barbary Corsair
Born c. 1553
Place of birth Faversham, Kent, England
Died 1622
Place of death Tunis, Ottoman Empire
Years active c. 1595 -1610
Rank Admiral
Base of operations Mediterranean

John Ward or Birdy (c. 1553 – 1622), also known as Jack Ward and under his Muslim name Yusuf Reis, was a notorious English pirate around the turn of the 17th century who later became a Barbary Corsair operating out of Tunis during the early 17th century.


Early life

Little is known about Ward's early life. What little is known comes from a pamphlet purportedly written by someone who sailed with him during his pirate days. That said, Ward seems to have been born about 1553 probably in Faversham, Kent, in southeast England.[1] Like many born in coastal areas, he spent his youth and early adult years working in the fisheries. Then, after the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in 1588, he found work as a privateer, plundering Spanish ships with a license from Queen Elizabeth I of England. When James I of England assumed the throne in 1603, he ended the war with Spain and in effect put the privateers out of business. However, many of them refused to give up their livelihood and simply continued to plunder. Those who did were considered pirates because they no longer had valid licenses – called letters of marque – issued by the state. Ward appears not to have turned immediately to piracy but instead once again become a fisherman, working out of Plymouth.


Around 1603, Ward was pressed into the Royal Navy in where he was placed into the Channel Fleet and served aboard a ship named the Lyon's Whelp. After two weeks he and a group of about 30 of his colleagues deserted and stole a small 25-ton barque, from Portsmouth Harbour. Ward's comrades elected him captain, one of the earliest precedents for pirates choosing their own leader.[2] They sailed to the Isle of Wight and captured another ship, the Violet, a ship rumoured to be carrying the treasure of Roman Catholic refugees. However, the ship turned out to be empty of treasure, but the enterprising Ward used her to cunningly capture a much larger French ship.

Ward and his men sailed to the Mediterranean where he was able to acquire a warship of thirty-two guns which was renamed The Gift and began attacking merchantmen for the next two years. While at Salé, Morocco in 1605 several English and Dutch sailors, including Richard Bishop and Anthony Johnson, joined Ward's crew and the following year (August, 1606) Ward arranged with Tunisian ruler Uthman Bey to use Tunis as a base of operations in exchange for one fifth of Ward's loot. From this base, Jack Ward was easily able to capture several valuable merchant ships, including the 60 ton Reniera e Soderina.

Following his return to Tunis in June 1607, Ward was informed during the winter that the now rotted Reniera e Soderina had begun to sink. With several of his officers, Ward deserted the ship to one of the French prizes he had captured. The Reniera e Soderina later sank off Greece as 400 crew members, of which 250 were Muslim and 150 were English, were lost. Ironically, Ward lost his own ship, as well as two others captured by Venice, several weeks later.

While many in Tunisia were angered by Ward's desertion of the Muslim sailors aboard the Reniera e Soderina, Uthman Bey offered Ward a safe haven. Ward however asked James I of England for a royal pardon which was refused and he reluctantly returned to Tunis. Uthman Bey kept his word and Ward was granted protection by Tunis.

During the next year ballads and pamphleteers condemned John Ward for turning corsair. He accepted Islam along with his entire crew , changed his name to Yusuf Reis and married an Italian woman while he continued to send money to his English wife. In 1612 a play called A Christian Turn'd Turk was written about his conversion by the English dramatist Robert Daborne.

Ward continued raiding Mediterranean shipping, eventually commanding a whole fleet of corsairs, and whose flagship was a Venetian sixty-gunner. He profited by his piracy, retiring to Tunis to live a life of opulent comfort until 1622, when at the age of 70 he reportedly died from the plague.

In literature and popular traditional


An English sailor who saw him in Tunis in 1608 described Ward as "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...The habits of a thorough salt. A fool and an idiot out of his trade." [3]

To his contemporaries Ward was an enigmatic figure, in some ways like a Robin Hood, but in the 16th and 17th centuries many English pirates operated out of the mouth of the Sebo River and preyed on Mediterranean shipping. Ward was supposed to have spared English ships while attacking "papist" vessels. John Ward and Simon Danseker are credited with introducing Barbary corsairs to the use of square-rigged ships of northern Europe.

The ballad Captain Ward and the Rainbow is very likely based on Jack Ward.

A fictionalized account of Ward's career appears in Thomas Costain's historical novel "For My Great Folly", which was published in 1942, became a bestseller with over 132,000 copies sold, and of which the New York Times reviewer stated that "there will be no romantic-adventure lover left unsatisfied." .


Further reading

  • Bak, Greg. Barbary Pirate: The Life and Crimes of John Ward, the Most Infamous Privateer of His Times. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing Ltd. 2006. ISBN 0-7509-4350-5
  • Costain, Thomas, For My Great Folly, 1942
  • Tinniswood, Adrian. Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean. Riverhead Hardcover, 2010. ISBN 1-59448-774-X

External links

  • Captain John Ward
  • John Ward
  • (same article)
  • John Ward the Pirate
  • Pirate History: John Ward

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