The Legend of Captain Jack: From Birdy to Sparrow


In the late 16th century a young boy collecting scraps of wreckage from the docks wondered if he’d ever leave Faversham in the borough of Kent, the hottest place in the entire United Kingdom. It was a marshy place of little importance to anyone but the brigand. Its docks were a haven for smugglers and pirates and other such unsavory folk. That boy was John Ward, whose dreams would one day come true, though perhaps not in the way he had wanted; he would become Jack Birdy, the most fearsome pirate in the world, and towards the end of his life, Yusuf Reis, penitent Muslim, wealthy beyond any man’s dreams, spending the remainder of his life in his Tunisian palace.

The legendary Captain Jack Birdy, once sung about by every balladeer in England, might have all but been forgotten, yet his memory remains as the spirit behind the fictional character Captain Jack Sparrow played by Johnny Depp in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” film franchise. Who was Johnny Ward, the child rummaging through the fishing docks of Faversham? Who was John Ward, the British Naval officer? Who was Captain John Ward, the privateer endorsed by the Crown of England? Who was Captain Jack Birdy, the privateer turned pirate betrayed by that same Crown? And finally, who was Yusuf Reis, formerly Captan Jack Birdy, formerly Captain John Ward, who would rescue thousands upon thousands of Spanish Jews and Muslims fleeing the Moriscos and Conversos expulsion of the 16th and 17th centuries?These were all one man. With so many characters wrapped in one, the stories of his adventures are exponentially more exciting than anything a Hollywood film could capture.

What follows is a historical dramatization of William Lithgow’s second visit to Tunis as a guest of Captain Jack Ward, five years before his death. Some of the dialogue is interpolated but strongly based on historical fact. Some of the dialogue is verbatim from historical account. Every detail has been painstakingly researched for an accurate portrayal. It is a dramatization, but a historically founded one, no less. Though this begins towards the end of Captain Jack’s life, it is hopefully the beginning of your interest in this legendary man, fictionalized in Hollywood, demonized in Christendom, largely forgotten in the Muslim world. This is but one of many stories about him calling out from history yearning to be told…


“You see, mate. I’ve grown fond of a tiny little birdy, savvy?”
“Oh dear me. What’s her name and should I warn her?”
“No, you dinghy rat! A wee little birdy.”
Little birdy? Captain Jack, do you mean a SPARROW?”

The old man chuckled, not having heard himself addressed as Captain Jack in what seemed to be many a lifetime spent. For now, he was simply Yusuf Reis1, a nobleman of Tunis wealthy beyond any Englishman’s dreams, and husband to Jessimina the Sicilian who was, like him, a renegade from Christendom.2

“No…ummm…chicks.”
Chicks?!
“Yes. Chicks!

The zany old man, once a great pirate and commander at seas3—albeit, no less the zany one back then —was now just a tired silhouette of what he once was. He seemed happy though, as he lavishly entertained his guest, none other than myself, William Lithgow son of James4, not a pirate, nor a privateer, most definitely not a Turk5, but a Scotsman and a vagabond yearning to sojourn an endless trajectory. I have rummaged my way, by land and sea, from Scotland to the Levant, and now to Africa. Here in Tunis I would enter yet another chapter into my soon legendary journal, The Totall Discourse of the Rare Adventures and Painefull Peregrinations of long Nineteene Years Travayles from Scotland.6 This chapter would be about the eccentric old man before me, once the most feared Barbary Corsair in the world, John Ward – also known as Captain Jack Birdy.7 I had no idea what in Hades all this gobbledygook about “little birdies” was about, but I was eager to learn of his obsession with, for God’s sake of all things, chicks.

“Where are you leading me, Captain Jack? Am I following your drunken stupor?”
“Have you seen me sip gin or rum in the twice you’ve come? Since I traded captain’s hat for turban, I ne’er drank a drop ‘o bourbon.”
“Captain Jack is sober, and a poet no less. Has Christ returned?”

The old man smiled, and in an abstemious, yet telling, mockery of himself he coined something I shall merrily jot in my journal.

I drink water like an ass,
I am shoed like a horse,
I have a coat like a fool,
And a head like an owl!
8

Captain Jack was a notorious drunkard, cunning and cruel, and taken to tomfoolery. Yet now, water and unfermented nectar were all Captain Jack would drink. The faithful Turk drinks neither ale, nor porter, nor wine, nor ardent spirits of any kind. Yet, he did not need strong drink to be just as mad. “Shoed like a horse” was in reference to the Turk’s shoes which are studded with iron. It is a fearful sight, I must say, lest you find yourself under one. His coat, and Captain Jack always wore an Englishman’s coat, was now the coat of a Turk. This silly, opulent and vain coat made him appear to me a fool, but he seemed to revel and bemuse himself in my outrage. I will not shy from saying that his turbaned head did look like an owl’s.

We first received news of Captain Jack’s and Sir Francis Verney’s apostasies in 1610 when the Venetian Ambassador to England, Marcantonio Correr, wrote the following invective to the Doge and Senate on December 23:

“There is confirmation of the news that the pirate Ward and Sir Francis Verney, also an Englishman [but] of the noblest blood, have become Turks, to the great indignation of the whole nation.”9

Nevertheless, I always thought Captain Jack turned Turk to jeer King James I, who would not pardon him10 and to gain quarter with the King of Tunis, Uthman Dey. Yet, now I see a man adherent to these ways and finding comfort in them. He is refined and lazy in his old age and married to a noblewoman of Palermo to the shock of every sea dog who ever heard his name. Captain Jack married? The Kraken be tamed! Yet, it was true. Captain Jack was a Lord of Tunis living in a palace of the finest varieties of marble and alabaster, and no longer a scourge of the sea. He was what the most madcap of jesters could not concoct: a freebooter and a saint.

We entered a dank barn-like structure that was quite sweltering for this pleasant September day in the year 1615. Ten of Captain Jack’s servants rushed in to help us view what had to have been the most uncanny sight I ever witnessed.  Before us were nearly 500 eggs hatching before my eyes within dozens upon dozens of incubators crafted with the unhallowed science of the Turk. The heat from each oven was answerable to the natural warmness of the hen’s belly; upon which moderation, within twenty days they come to natural perfection.11 Captain Jack, the greatest scoundrel to ever dominate the seas, was now raising chicks. For all the Turks’ barbarism, of which I have heard plenty, I have seen nothing in Barbary but mercantilism, incessant praying–it seems they never stop–and, quite frankly, ordinariness. The stories we hear in England of the Turks’ devilry and excesses are nowhere to be found and my eyes grow tired searching for them. I had hoped to write a tantalizing chapter or two about these provocative oddities but, alas, my inkwell is still full.

It is no mystery to me now why so many from Christendom found succor in the realm of the Turk. Captain Jack, his mate Sir Francis Verney, not to mention Captain Jack’s entire crew, the Dutchmen Meinart Dircxssen now Hasan Reis, and Jan Marinus of Sommelsdijk now known as Assam Reis, the Belgian Murad Flamenco of Antwerp12, as well as the scores of other Christians, all turned renegade from the faith and boasting the Kilij13 of the Corsair and following the religion of Mahomet. The tumult we have seen between Catholic and Protestant, and the flipping between the two as our Kings and Queens pass, are things they will not miss. Though I esteem the Turk to be a marauder who will slay for pittance, they all clamor to pray in their domed Djemats, the courtyards of which, dare I say, are places wherein I could get lost in reflection. They molest neither Protestant nor Catholic here, and Tunis has, this year, become a haven for Conversos, Jews forced to become Catholic or leave Spain under pain of death. Whether it be tolerance or indifference, man is not branded by his God here. Tunis is a bizarre place, yet it is nothing I was told of by my countrymen and brethren in faith. Today, this has further been confirmed to me by the legendary Barbary Corsair who is my host, Captain Jack Birdy, also known as John Ward, privateer then pirate, now Christian turn’d Turk.

As we left that strange aviary and walked through the floral pathway with fountains and rivulets on either side, I looked in the distance and saw Captain Jack’s palace that would turn the Kings and Queens of Christendom green with envy. I had so much to ask Captain Jack, yet such little time it seemed. The sun was now setting. As we approached the grandiose Casbah, Captain Jack stepped off the path towards a fountain, slipped off his iron studded Turkish boots, and handed me his coat. The blasted thing was heavier than it looked.

“I beg your pardon, but we have to make a stop.”
“I follow your lead, Captain Jack.”
“I must pray.”

I marveled at what little was left of the great Captain Jack Birdy in this penitent man. He began washing himself in the way Turks do before prayer. As we entered the citadel Captain Jack looked up to its spiraling minarets and squinted.

“You know, Will. Five years ago to this day I became Muslim in this very citadel, in the Djemat El-Kabir you see over there.”
“That was your choice, Captain Jack, and I will not say it does not vex me. For Christ be the Savior of the world and I feel your heart knows this, as does every gentleman in his core.”
“Mate, the innards of a man are known only to God and the fish who eat them. What I have seen on the high seas, the wars between Pope and Crown, and how they could give each other quarter but could afford me no pardon. I want none from them.”

It is the greatest irony that Captain Jack was seen as the most notorious renegade and traitor of England, yet he believed himself grassed by his country. His scowl of disgust quickly turned to a devilish smirk.

“William, will you join me? Here is where all journeymen such as yourself and I find themselves peace.”
“Pray to Whom you pray, Captain Jack. I will pray to Whom I pray for your salvation.”
“And I for yours. Very well.”

I waited for Captain Jack as he repeatedly bowed and prostrated like a Turk. Looking around at the splendor of the Sultans I marveled at how they had not yet taken the world from end to end. The thought of supping with the nobles and elite of Tunis made me pang with hunger. They were to have yet another lavish party for me as they did thrice before. I could not tire from their scrumptious wheat middling, succulent roasts and glistening fruits, the likes of which I have never seen. As my mind immersed in a leg of lamb, Captain Jack emerged with a grin and a strange glow.

“Come, Will. Supper will be served shortly.”
“This isn’t going to be like the party Yusuf Dey had for Simon the Dancer last year is it?”14
“That is not something to be a rib-ticklin’ about, mate. What happened to Simon Danseker is of no coziness to me or my men, but it was a debt paid. Simon would have had us all hangin’ from the yardarm and feedin’ the fish. He chose his way, savvy?”
“Aye, Captain. Pardon the jest.”

I had to quickly change the subject for it appeared that I had incensed the Captain. There was something about which I dearly wanted to hear: The little known and undocumented journeys of Captain Jack in the unchartered waters of the Western seas.

“Tell me of this proclamation for your capture that mentions ‘piratical activity in the West Indies.’15 I have a copy of it with me.”
“I have no need to see it. I lived it. The Caribbean. Knowing of Sir Francis Drake’s fortunes therewithal, the young scallywag that I was, I wanted to plunder those seas…and I did…quite well.”

As intriguing as this was, and as I was possibly the first person to get true details regarding his journeys in the Caribbean, for some reason I couldn’t get over his obsession with the little birds I had witnessed in the aviary only a few hours before.

“At least now I know why they call you ‘Birdy’.”
“William, do you know what they translate ‘Birdy’ to here? `Asfur. Some locals jokingly call me Jack `Asfur. Jack Sparrow. What an utterly stupid name. I guess that’s what I’ll be remembered as, eh?”
“I think not, Captain Jack. If they tell stories about you, they will most definitely not call you Captain Jack Sparrow.”

We approached the gate and as Captain Jack’s companions, all once Christian, all renegades turned Turk, drew the bridge for us to enter and greeted us with much merriment, the Captain turned to me with the smirk of that fiend whom I thought was all but forgotten.

“Shall I tell you about the Pirates of the Caribbean?”


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  1. Pirates of Barbary, Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean, Adrian Tinniswood, p 48 []
  2. Ibid, pp. 51-52. []
  3. Ibid, p. 52. []
  4. Born 1582, Lanark, South Lanarkshire, Scotland; Died 1645, Location disputed. []
  5. “The vast majority of English men and women had no knowledge of Islam. There were no mosques in England. There was no English-language version of the Qur’an­—nor would there be until the 1649 publication of Alexander Ross’s poor English translation of a poor French translation from Arabic, The Alcoran of Mahomet. The word ‘Muslim’ was virtually unknown, English speakers preferring the generic ‘Turk’…To seventeenth-century England, every follower of Islam was a Turk, every Turk a follower of Islam. [Ibid, p. 50] []
  6. Frontispiece from William Lithgow, ‘The Totall Discourse of the Rare Adventures and Painefull Peregrinations of long Nineteene Years Travayles from Scotland’, London, 1632, National Library of Scotland. []
  7. 7. Born 1553, Faversham, Kent; Died 1622, Tunis, Ottoman Empire. []
  8. 8. Barbary Pirate: The Life and Crimes of John Ward, p. 199 []
  9. 9. Ibid. p. 175. []
  10. James I, A Proclomation against Pirats [sic], January 8, 1609. []
  11. The Totall Discourse of the Rare Adventures and painefull Peregrinations of long Nineteene Years Travayles from Scotland, p. 359. []
  12. Pirates of Barbary, Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean,  Adrian Tinniswood, p. 59. []
  13. Kilij – Ottoman sword. []
  14. Simon the Dancer, also known as Simon Danseker, was a companion of Captain Jack Birdy, and equally infamous. He would later turn on the Barbary Corsairs in favor of the royal families of Europe. His betrayal ended up in his doom at the hand of Uthman Dey’s son and heir, Yusuf Dey, who scolded him before a Janissary executed him. Pirates of Barbary, Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean,  Adrian Tinniswood, pp.64-65. []
  15. Bibliotheca nautica: Books, prints and manuscripts relating to naval battles and the science of naval warfare, shipbuilding and the art of navigation, pirates, buccaneers, and privateers, shipwrecks and disasters at sea, p. 54. []

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