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John Ward, pirate of the Mediterranean

Home / History / People / John Ward, pirate of the Mediterranean

Issouf Reis of Tunis, fervent in his devotion to Islam, was so wealthy that that by 1615 he had built himself a ‘faire Palace, beautified with rich Marble and Alabaster stones’. His household was so big that when he had guests for dinner, it was served not by a demure maidservant but by 15 male waiters. Very short, white-haired but nearly bald, he had a swarthy complexion. 

A typical North African, you might think. Only he wasn’t. He had been born and bred in Faversham, and his real name was John Ward. The exact date of his birth isn’t yet known, but it was around 1553. Maybe he was the John Ward who is recorded as living on the west side of Preston Street on 31 December 1573 and 31 May 1574 and by 22 December 1574 had moved to Court Street - and then disappears from view.

Europeans enslaved by their North African captors - two mosques in the background
Europeans enslaved by North African captors - two mosques in the background

Like so many others, the Faversham Wards were seafarers - Bartholomew in 1580 was the 20-year-old apprentice to the owner of the hoy Peter, and a few years later Richard skippered a local vessel.

John, who started his career as a fisherman, was no exception. Later at Plymouth he joined the Royal Navy, serving eventually as a petty officer on the Lion’s Whelp, built in 1601. By the standards of the day he was already an old man, but this did not deter him from commandeering the ship and turning to piracy, in which he was to have a brilliantly successful career. He began by capturing a large French ship, which he re-named the Little John.

There were rich pickings to be had in the Mediterranean, and so he made Tunis his HQ. By 1606 his flagship was a 28-gun vessel and his fleet was crewed by 500 seamen - English, Dutch, Spanish and Turkish.

He was interested not only in prizes and their cargoes but also in their crews - who, if not recruited to his fleet, could be enslaved. At a time when the English were starting the West African slave trade, he was busy making "slaves of many poor Christians" - Englishmen among them.

Later in 1606 Ward / Reis made his fortune by capturing the Rubin, a 300-ton Venetian argosy out of Alexandria with a cargo of pepper, flax and 3,000 pieces of gold. Her he converted into a warship to add to his fleet. His success became incremental.

The Rainbow (left) unsuccessfully engaging Ward's flagship.
The Rainbow (left) unsuccessfully engaging John Ward's flagship

The following year he took two more Venetian argosies. One of these, with her cargo, was reputedly worth £100,000 - an astronomical sum at the time. Ward, the old Faversham sea-dog and arch-pirate, must have been a superb seaman and admiral. By 1610 his fleet numbered 15, his crews 1,500.

At the instigation of the Venetian government, England’s King James I tried to bring Ward’s Mediterranean reign of terror to an end. The pirate offered to cease operations if he was given an amnesty and paid £40,000 (the equivalent of £40 million today). His offer was rejected and instead the Royal Navy sent a vessel, the Rainbow, to engage him. She limbered up, but her 50-gun broadsides made no impression, and, as recorded in a contemporary broadside ballad, Ward simply toyed with her:

"Our Royal King of England,
Your ship’s return’d again
For Ward’s ship is so strong,
It never will be ta’en."

Dr Arthur Percival,
Director, Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre, Faversham

Further reading

You can read more about John Ward in Barbary Pirate, by Greg Bak (Sutton Publishing, £18.99), available from Faversham's Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre. Bak, a librarian in Ottawa, Canada, and formerly a curator at the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies, seeks to separate the facts and the legend of Ward. 

The Dictionary of National Biography includes Ward.

Ward is the subject of an article appearing on masud.co.uk by the Islamic scholar Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter), entitled Ward the Pirate.

Ward’s life was dramatised in the Jacobean play A Christian Turn’d Turk, first published in London in 1612. The British Library has a copy and a 1973 facsimile by the De Capo Press of Amsterdam and New York. The Bodleian Library, Oxford, has the 1973 facsimile.




John Ward