John Ward or Birdy (c. 1553 – 1622), also known as Jack Ward and under his Muslim nameYusuf Reis, was a notorious English pirate around the turn of the 17th century who later became a Muslim operating out of Tunis during the early 17th century. His real name was Captain Jack Ward and he was also known as Jack Birdy. He was on the run from the church when he converted to Islam in the late 16th Century. His entire crew also converted to Islam with him. Captain Jack Birdy was obsessed with little birds during his time in Tunisia (where he fled). So much that the locals would call him Jack Asfur, asfur being Arabic for sparrow. This is where the name Captain Jack Sparrow comes from. His Muslim name was Yusuf Reis, he was married to another renegade from Christendom who also converted to Islam, Jessimina the Sicilian.Whilst Captain Jack Birdy was known as a great drunkard, he stopped drinking alcohol when he converted to Islam. He was instrumental in rescuing thousands of Spanish Jews and Muslims fleeing their expulsion from their lands in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Early lifeLittle 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. 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 theSpanish Armada in 1588, he found work as a privateer, plundering Spanish ships with a license from Queen Elizabeth I of England. WhenJames 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.
PiracyAround 1603, Ward was pressed in to the Royal Navy in where he was placed into the Channel Fleet and served aboard a ship named theLyon’s Whelp. After two weeks he and a group of about 30 of his colleagues deserted and stole a small 25-ton barque, from PortsmouthHarbour. Ward’s comrades elected him captain, one of the earliest precedents for pirates choosing their own leader. 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 Dey 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 of 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 offGreece 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 Dey offered Ward a safe haven. Ward however offered James I of England for a royal pardon which was refused and he reluctantly returned to Tunis. Uthman Dey kept his word and Ward was granted protection by Tunis.
During the next year ballads and pamphleteers condemned John Ward for turning corsair. He 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.
LegacyTo his contemporaries Ward was an enigmatic figure, in some ways like a Robin Hood (Who also was Muslim, in historical background), 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.
Before dying of the plague in 1622, Jack Ward (like many other Christians who sailed North Africa) abandoned his religion and adopted the Muslim religion Islam.
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