Jack Ward: The Terrifying Master of Pirates


By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

Peace so often leads to piracy, at least in the short term, and in some cases, one option is to seek out non-European employers. One particularly horrifying example of this phenomenon, at least if you asked any pious English Protestant about it, was the example of John or Jack Ward, who converted and took the name Yusuf Rais.

A painting of a ship attacked by two Barbary galleys
Jack Ward stole a French ship and turned into a pirate. (Image: Théodore Gudin/Public domain)

Jack Ward: A Fisherman

Ward started off in life as a Kanjist fisherman. Probably by the prospect of better pay, he eventually became a privateer, but then was pressed into naval service on a ship called The Lion’s Whelp. Not caring for the Navy, he stole a French ship and turned outright pirate around 1604, heading for the Mediterranean on the assumption he’d be able to find a safe harbor there.

By 1606 he was in Tunis and had teamed up with Uthman Dey, the powerful Commander of the Tunisian Janissaries, who were elite soldiers raised from Balkan Christian Children. They were enslaved but they also held a great deal of social privilege.

Ward preyed mostly, but not exclusively on European ships. In 1606 he captured a merchant ship named John Baptist and renamed it The Little John after the character of Sherwood Forest fame, demonstrating a complex irreverence for his own national identity.

Ward paid his men and Uthman Dey. But we can only understand him as robbing the rich to give to the port if we allow him to settle old scores by paying himself. He became a corsairing admiral, eventually retiring to Tunis very wealthy.

Portrayal of Ward

Ward came to be portrayed as a hot and seductive pirate, but he was apparently an unappealing, violent jerk—albeit a good sailor. Here’s the only Anglophone eyewitness contemporary description that we have of him:

Captain Ward is about 55 years of age, very short, with little hair, and quite white; bald in front, swarthy face, and beard. Speaks little and almost always swearing. Drunk for morn until night, most prodigal and plucky. Sleeps a great deal and is often on board when in port. The habits of a thorough salt. A fool and an idiot out of his trade.

At the same time, as Adrian Tinniswood argues, he seems to have had some real power to persuade. He got men to follow him into danger again and again. He may well have been “a fool and an idiot out of his trade”, but within his trade, he knew his business.

The Venetian ambassador to London complained: “That famous pirate, Ward, so well-known in this port for the damage he has done, is beyond a doubt the greatest scoundrel that ever sailed from England.”

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of PiratesWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Ballads about Jack Ward

As Ward’s success as a Corsair grew, he made several attempts to negotiate amnesty and retirement to Europe, and ballads and pamphlets about his exploits began to circulate back in England. When he was, in point of fact, a criminal, the ballads treated him as brave, bold, someone speaking truth to power, someone ironically, like Little John. 

But in 1610, Ward’s status as a bad boy hero was compromised when it was known that he converted to Islam, slamming shut the door on any question of return and rehabilitation.

Jack Ward’s legend remained fascinating to the English. Robert Daborne’s weird but popular play, A Christian Turned Turk, which was from 1612 portrayed Ward as a brave, sexy, rags-to-riches type who converts to Islam because of love and later dies delivering an intense Islamophobic rant. Somehow, it doesn’t seem to have hurt the play’s reception that Ward was actually alive and well when it debuted in 1612. He married a renegade Italian woman and survived until 1622 dying at the ripe age of 70 in a palace decorated with marble and alabaster.

The bombardment of Algerian ships
The Dutch renegade Zymen Danseker, while based in Algiers, captured around 29 European vessels only in the first year of his career as a pirate. (Image: Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio/Public domain)

Working with Zymen Danseker

Though we have been dwelling on Captain Ward because he’s the most famous of the English renegades, but this doesn’t mean to give the impression that he was more prominent or influential than non-English personalities. His contemporary, the Dutch renegade Zymen Danseker was just as fearsome, for example, and was also fully famous and at least half-admired in England. 

Indeed, the two worked sometimes as allies, with Ward based in Tunis and Danseker in Algiers. They were paired in dramatic ballads as well. Danseker was nicknamed Deli Reis in Algiers—the Crazy Captain. His short career was enormously successful, capturing 29 European vessels in 1607, his very first year of piracy.

But while he worked on the same side as Ward, Danseker seems to have had a different, and more theatrical personality. He was arguably a little closer than the crude Ward to the dashing rogue stereotype. And then, in 1609, he suddenly decided he wanted to go home, perhaps missing his wife and children. 

He betrayed his Algerian allies, freeing their Christian captives, and steered for Spain, luckily capturing a rich Spanish prize along the way, which helped smooth his pathway home to Marseilles with a nice, big bribe for Henry IV. Unfortunately, he was later persuaded to return to sea to assist a French mission in the Gulf of Tunis. During negotiations, he was tricked to shore and rapidly beheaded—a final betrayal for the man who had betrayed many others.

Common Questions about Jack Ward

Q: How did Jack Ward turn from a fisherman to a pirate? 

Jack Ward began his life as a fisherman but probably became a privateer to make more money. He later served in the Navy. Dissatisfied with his job in the navy, he stole a French ship in 1604 to become a pirate.

Q: What does the mere description of Jack Ward say about him? 

The only description of Jack Ward claims that he is about 55 years old; he is a short man with little white hair that is bald in front. He talks less, curses more, is drunk from morning till night, and is very extravagant.

Q: What were the consequences of Jack Ward becoming a Muslim? 

When Jack Ward was a criminal, the ballads described him as a brave man. But in 1610, when it became clear that he had converted to Islam, his status as a bad boy hero was jeopardized. By doing so, Jack Ward closed all the doors of forgiveness and rehabilitation to himself.

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