Dress Down Friday

Avast, me hearties! Let’s go and look for Captain Ward!

Happy International Talk Like A Pirate Day! To celebrate, here is the wonderful Spiers and Boden, singing their version of Ward the Pirate, on their new album, Vagabond.

Who was Ward the Pirate? To help answer that question, here’s a quick introduction to the history of English piracy.

For a nation without a large standing navy, pirates are very useful people to have around. States periodically commissioned “privateers” during war time, chartering them specifically to attack enemy shipping, as an act of war. Such public-private partnership pirates were self financing. Piracy also had an element of deniability: a monarch could argue that a privateer who went too far was acting outside the scope of his charter, had “turned pirate”, and was therefore nothing to do with him. Above all, after the war was over, privateers might be tamed and brought back into the fold, bringing their valuable fighting experience with them.

That’s how it was supposed to work, at least.

In reality, what tended to happen was that, as wars ended and peace treaties were struck, privateers simply carried on regardless, and showed themselves understandably unwilling to go into retirement. Some because free agents, and succeeded in avoiding repression for some time: partly because they were fast and cunning, and partly because local aristocrats in places like Devon and Cornwall (and in one case, a senior naval officer) were pirate patrons, and funded their ventures. Indeed, when Queen Elizabeth set up a commission to look into the problem of piracy, a number of worthies with links to piracy were appointed to that body. Well, they were the best available experts, I suppose.

When domestic piracy was finally suppressed in England, the pirates just sailed to other countries. Because piracy requires a base, many simply hawked themselves around to the highest bidder: any local regent who was prepared to offer them sponsorship.

Piracy also had a religious dimension. The pirates who operated out of Malta, under the command of the Knights of St John, justified their crimes as a continuation of the crusades. The Muslim corsairs who operated out of Rais, Tripoli, Salé and Algiers were equally able to claim religious inspiration. Some of these pirates were pious warriors; others were simply profiteering.

Peter Earle, in The Pirate Wars, published in the wake of 9/11, draws a parallel with contemporary jihadism. It is a comparison well made. Pirates were usually state sponsored to some degree. They often were hugely popular, particular near their land bases, because they injected wealth into the local economy, while supplying it with cheap stolen goods, including slaves. As long as they weren’t robbing you, you’d regard them as local heroes. As we’ve seen, religious pirates could also rely on a theological justification for what they were doing; to others, faith gave them a convenient alibi. Like today’s suicide bombers, some of them were western converts to Islam. As with contemporary jihadis, their mere existence placed a huge economic burden on enemy trade, with minimum effort. As a merchant, the chances of being caught by a pirate were very low. However, to guard against them required very heavily armed – and therefore uneconomic – ships, or state protection which was expensive and only rarely provided. That made merchant ships easy prey.

Here’s where Captain Ward fits in. Ward was a privateer who had fallen on hard times. Pressed into the Royal Navy, he escaped, and by 1605, became a pirate operating out of Salé . He became hugely popular in Britain, as a folk figure, and was the subject of plays, poems and ballads. The song that Spiers and Boden perform dates from about 1680, but there were certainly contemporary English songs and ballads that celebrated Ward’s achievements.

Was Captain Ward a Muslim? There were a certain number of European pirates who did convert. Some clearly did so sincerely. Others did so opportunistically. Ward, I’d say, was a bit of a chancer. He was certainly not a Muslim during the bulk of his career as a North African pirate. Peter Earle quotes a sailor who met Ward in Tunis at that time:

“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 “

Greg Bak, in Barbary Pirate, a biography of John Ward, catalogues the pirate’s many attempts to buy a pardon from King James I and return to England. That would have been impossible if Ward had converted to Islam. Even European slaves who converted in North Africa under intense pressure from their captors, were given up for dead, and sometimes tortured as heretics if they returned.

It appears that Ward eventually gave up the struggle to retire in his home country, converted, changed his name to Yusuf Reis, ended his piratical career, and took up residence  in Tunis. This was not a popular decision in England. Here’s a snippet of a short poem by the satirist Samuel Rowlands, on the subject of Ward’s conversion:

Thou wicked lump of only sin and shame
(Renouncing the Christian faith and Christian name).
A villain, worse than he that Christ betrayed,
His master, for God’s son, he never denied
But did confess him just and innocent
When with his bribe back to the Priests he went.
Thou that art worse than devils, they confessed
Christ was the Son of God, thou Hellish Beast
That has lived cursed Thief upon the Seas
And now a Turk, on shore dost take thine ease
Live a devouring monster in a den
All that thou hast being spoils of other men.
Thou that dost serve both Turk and Devil so well,
Thou seekest to draw (as they d0) souls to Hell
Having a garment ready in the hall
For him that next from Christian faith doth fall.
Receive this warning from thy native land:
God’s fearful judgements (villain) are at hand.
Devils attend, hellfire is prepar’d
Perpetual flames is reprobates re-Ward


It is very odd, in this day and age, for equivocal figures like Ward to be regarded as heroic. In the past, privateers like Sir Frances Drake were held up for schoolboys to emulate. Now, we tend to take a more balanced view of their exploits.

But he has certainly impressed Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad, formerly Timothy Winter and now the Muslim chaplain to Cambridge University. In his 2003 essay, on Ward the Pirate, Murad asks of the converted European Barbary corsairs, “Were they pirates, or were they warriors for Islam”. Murad is clear on the answer to that question. Having sketched the tortures and punishments which recaptured converts could expect on their return to England, and recalling the cruelty of the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain, he concludes:

Later generations of English Muslims, both at home and in North Africa, admired him as a superb mariner, fearless in battle, and a doughty warrior for the Crescent against those who expelled the Moriscos, and sought to impose their implacable and cruel customs on the free lands of the South, where church, mosque and synagogue coexisted for centuries, and where humble birth was no barrier to glory.

Uh huh.

First, there were no doubt some pirates who found, in Islam, a more attractive faith than the Christianity they had left. Their conversion was utterly sincere. They were also no worse, morally, than the Christian pirates, who had no monopoly on virtue, and could justify piracy in terms of their faith just as easily as Muslim corsairs could. Indeed, the Maltese pirates attacked Greek shipping on the grounds that they were apostates.

However, for pretty much the whole of his career, Captain Ward was not one of those pirates who was motivated by their new found faith. He could easily have become a Muslim, but only “turned Turk” in his declining years, when all hope of buying his way back into Royal favour had evaporated.

Secondly, Murad concentrates on the cruelties inflicted on converted Englishmen who refused to re-embrace Christianity. He might also have mentioned the enslaving of Muslims at the hands of the Christian Maltese pirates. However, according to Giles Milton’s White Gold, the North African pirates captured and enslaved in the region of one million European Christians, most of whom were subjected to pretty barbaric treatment in order to encourage them to convert. Their pillages continued until the US Marines sailed to the shores of Tripoli, and put them out of business.

However, as far as Murad is concerned, the Englishmen who enslaved their fellow countrymen and sold them in the North African slave markets were freedom fighters, pledged to defend and avenge the Muslim survivors of the expulsion from Spain – “the greatest act of racial brutality seen in Europe prior to the Nazi Holocaust” – and who willingly risked martyrdom at the hands of Christains.

Jihadi or crook, Captain Ward was that rarest thing: a pirate who died in his bed. He was an enterprising seaman, and a clever fighter.

It is fitting that we celebrate his life this International Talk Like A Pirate Day.

UPDATE: Go to Facebook. Click on Settings. Click on the Language tab. Select “English (Pirate).