Mr. Tink Robinson, the Scripture Reader, is a well-informed man. He knows Scripture and a good bit besides. I come to realize this as we sit together in the vestry of St. Botolph's, Aldgate, and I search the ink-corroded leaves of the ancient burial registers for stray facts concerning Humphrey Rowland, horn-breaker, who once gave bail for Christopher Marlowe. The Scripture Reader beguiles the dull intervals with strange fragments of London lore, while the livelier pages of the register show us some curious things. Here, for example, we run upon the burial (1582) of a certain Michael Johnson, 'a duch woman, called the great hulck.' A sobriquet amusing but not perhaps unnatural in a seafaring neighborhood; for Mr. Robinson reminds me that this parish went in those days right down to Wapping. One can picture the mourners towing that ponderous vessel of mortality in to the haven of St. Botolph's, to lay her up for good.... I turn more leaves ... What have we here? Burial of William Wooful, sometime assistant to a haberdasher 'in Gracious strete, who sufred at Waping for piracy on the High Seas.'
'Ah,' says Tink Robinson, 'it was down at Execution Dock where they hanged the pirates.' He was formerly of St. George's, Wapping, and is well up on the local history. 'I remember my old aunt telling me about the last pirate they hanged there. She was just a girl at the time. Down Old Gravel Lane through the crowd came the cart, slow, and in it was the pirate: high hat, frock coat, and buttonhole bokay. But her mother wouldn't let her look out of the window. "Oh, Mother," says she, "here's a fine sight—maybe the only chance I shall have—of a man to be hanged for a pirate, and you won't even let me look out on him!" But she heard it all from the others afterwards.' Mr. Robinson's aunt's mother evidently did not believe in the salutary effect on children of witnessing executions. She differed in this regard from the Sicilian mothers who, it is said, made a practice of taking all the young ones to such spectacles, and immediately thereafter administering a general thrashing—to make the children lay to heart what they had seen.
The ordinary or land criminal was of course gibbeted at Tyburn (which we now euphemistically call Marble Arch). It was only the pirate who suffered at Wapping. The Elizabethan Samuel Rowlands animadverts upon the latter place in graceful rime:—
For though Pyrates exempted be
From fatall Tyburne's wither'd tree,
They have an Harbour to arrive
Call'd Wapping, where as ill they thrive
As those that ride up Holbourne Hill,
And at the Gallows make their Will.
Wapping's full name, as John Stow reminds us, is Wapping-in-the-Woze (Woze meaning 'ooze' or 'mud'); and he describes it as 'the vsuall place of execution for hanging of Pirats & sea Rouers, at the low water marke, there to remaine, till three tides had ouerflowed them.'
One might readily presume from this that the unfortunate pirates were to be twice executed—once by the grip of the noose, and again by the rising of the tide; but the real reason for giving the high-seas robber a gallows to himself on the mud flats was that he was under the jurisdiction, not of the usual criminal courts, but of the Lord High Admiral. Crimes committed at sea and on the foreshore fell within the Admiral's cognizance, and sentence of death was therefore carried out also within the limits of his authority: that is, on the strip of land which lay below high-water mark.
But what has become of Rowland the horn-breaker, whom I was hunting through the registers? Gone; driven out by pirates. John Stow, Saint Botolph, and Tink Robinson have comspired to abet the sea rovers, and my thoughts are now salty and romantic. Where shall I find the truth of the Elizabethan pirate and his exploits? Where but in the Rolls, or Record Office in Chancery Lane, that vast magazine of romance fresh from life?
To the Rolls! I take my leave of Saint and of Scripture Reader, and in the rushing channel of Aldgate High Street I board a Holborn bus. To run up the companion ladder to the swaying deck is to realize that only a seafaring nation could have developed this wind-swept, exhilarating, and precarious means of travel. The Londoner has reason to love his bus. 'Ennymaw fehz, plings? ... Keogh!' These sounds mean that the purser, in the white cap of a ship's officer, wants tuppence. Satisfied, after a first attempt in which I nearly deposit the tuppence on the deck, he goes below, leaving me to reflection. Though there may not be a berth in the Navy, nor yet among the amphibious Marines, for every able-bodied Englishman, a conductor's lot is quite a happy one. Happy, but not without its dangers; for to-day's Observer whispers, as I open it, of a bus rolling so heavily in a stormy passage from Liverpool Street to London Bridge that the conductor went over the side. I feel obscurely that the body should be buried with naval honors. There might be a prayer 'for those in peril in the street.'
Yet the hazards of the buses—that great red fleet of broad, swift, and quiet barges—are as nothing now to what they were in and after the thirties of the last century. To-day we live in jeopardy of life and limb, but in those days there was peril of pocketbook as well. For, though Shillibeer's Original Omnibuses rolled through London streets in politeness and efficiency, there were pirates abroad. Pirates, bearing the same inscription as the Shillibeers, preceded by the word not in very small letters. These overcharged passengers and met protests with abuse. New York's 15-5 taxi pirate is not an original villain.
To-day bus piracy is dead. The London conductor may be brisk, but he is neither brusque nor brutal. Boarding a bus one hot summer's day and clambering toward the cool impériale, a young woman of my acquaintance was met by an extruded head and a cockney cry of 'Full up on top; roight dahn inter the incubytor, Miss!'
Chancery Lane—and I am following its curving descent past the ancient gateway of Lincoln's Inn, beckoned on by the white Gothic towers of the archives of England. Pirates a plenty, I remind myself, are to be found in the records; but I not unnaturally want to make the acquaintance of a sea thief par excellence. Yet I want no Francis Drake. He had his reward, in gold and honor. No Captain Kidd. He has had more than his share of notoriety for the small amount of actual piracy he had to boast of. My pirate must be not only a great one, but also one who has been more or less lost in undeserved neglect, and therefore somewhat fallen from his bad eminence.
With this resolution, I make for the list of criminal records of the High Court of Admiralty. Here they are, eighty-five volumes and bundles of trials for piracy and other crimes committed on the high seas. And here are the papers of Dr. Julius Cæsar, Queen Elizabeth's Admiralty judge. Most of Cæsar's papers are written in Latin; but an interesting sample from among those in English is the' following itemized bill of the Sergeant of the Admiralty for executing five pirates:—
| Imprimis for thexecuting of them, and cutting downe, being v after ijs a peece |
Item, for burying iiij of them
Item, for the Tollers and pynnyon ropes for each, vjd
Item, for ij mynisters
Item, for bread and wine to communicate
Item, the mynisters dynner and officers
Item, bread and drinke to the warders
Item, for the Marshalls horse and v men
Item, for carrying of bills to and froe
Item, for the loane of a ladder and carrying the same
| xs |
Somma lvs iiijd
Executed and cut down, five; buried, four. What became of the odd pirate? Was he claimed by his sorrowing friends and relations? Or was he cut down, only to be set up somewhere else for an example, as the French put it, pour encourager les autres?
You notice that the ministers, officers, and warders were allowed to make quite a festal affair of this execution. They dined to the tune of eighteen shillings and fourpence,—albeit March 22, 1583/4 fell on a Sunday, and a Sunday in Lent at that,—whereas the last supper of the five poor pirates cost the Queen only sixpence the lot. A very niggardly send-off for lads of Drake's calling. In fact, the more I read the more I am persuaded that good Queen Bess's glorious days were more specious than spacious, and that Bess herself was a right mean queen. Look again at that bill. She even borrowed the ladder from which they were turned off! But I may be doing her an injustice. Perhaps she is only emphasizing her queenly preference for larceny of the grandest kind. Those who rob the Spaniards on a large scale, you remember, she knights. But these little fellows, who meddle with small shipping nearer home, she callously turns off borrowed ladders, to wag hemp in the wind.
Doubtless a stimulating method in its effect, and one which made of the English good sailors and better pirates. Scaliger, a sage Italian observer, said, 'nulli melius piraticam exercent quam Angli'; and Edward Chamberlayne in his Angliœ Notitiœ, remarks, 'Some of those who have more Wit than they can apply well, and a bold dexterity above all Europeans, are the most exquisite Pick-Pockets in the World, and the most daring Thieves and Pirats.' Sea thieving became so popular that Elizabeth's successor, James, who loathed piracy on any scale, and desired to make a friend of Spain, struggled throughout his reign to stamp out what he termed 'this accursed plague introduced by Queen Elizabeth.' But he found it had so deeply infected the spirits of his people that not only did it increase under his eyes, but almost all his seafaring subjects who went to serve foreign princes sooner or later took to piracy.
One might expect, then, to find interesting freebooters in James's reign; and indeed it was here that I found the pirate I was looking for. He was lurking in the State Papers, Domestic, and the Venetian State Papers. The reason why he was there and not in the criminal records of the Admiralty is a simple one: this pirate—the greatest of his generation, and one whose name was babbled with terror in most of the Romance tongues, and horribly mispronounced into the bargain—was never captured, but lived and died a pirate king.
Before plunging into the documents, we may advantageously introduce our sea rover with a short view of the Mediterranean piracy which just preceded his career. Of the terror of the Barbary corsairs history and romance have told us much. It is not, however, generally realized how restricted their menace was in the sixteenth century—restricted by their ignorance of navigating sailing vessels of a high freeboard. These African Turks were masters only in handling galleys, whose cruising radius was limited. A great change came at James's accession to the English throne. His threatening proclamations against piracy by his subjects drove English sea dogs farther afield. They found their way to Tunis and Algiers, where they initiated the Barbary corsairs into the art of sailing a ship.
The prime mover in this momentous action was the very man we are following, Captain Jack Ward, the archpirate of Tunis. Andrew Barker, a merchant captain who was Ward's prisoner in 1609, some six years after the English pirate's arrival in the Mediterranean, testifies to the former unskillfulness and insufficiency of the Turks in navigation; 'yet,' he continues, 'of late to my wofull experience, I can witnes, they haue beene readied by the instruction of our apostate countrimen, (I meane of Ward and others who haue beene their commanders) to tackle their Ships, to man and manage a fight.'
It is from Barker, too, that we have all that is known (and a lively picture it makes) of the beginnings in piracy of Jack Ward, 'whose desperate actions hath caused terrour to trauellors by Sea, and whose name hath bred feare in the Marchants at home.' Born poor in Feversham in Kent, he went as a man to Plymouth, where he took a house; 'although,' Barker observes, 'I have neuer heard that he paid his rent.' Most of his time was spent in the alehouse, and 'all the reputation that his owne crue held of him, was but this, that he was a mad rascall, would swear well, drinke stiffe, stick toot, and like a good cocke, hee would neuer out of their damnable pit, If there were either money in his purse, or credible chalke in his hosts hand, being once in.'
At the beginning of James's reign, Barker tells us, Ward took service in a small ship of the Royal Navy, the Lion's Whelp. Here he conceived a plan of mutiny and gathered a choice gang of malcontents about him; whereupon 'the poison of his heart disgorged itselfe thus: "My mates, quoth he, what's to be done? here's a scuruy world, and as scuruily we liue in't ... where's your brim cup, and your full carouse that can make a merrie heart? where are the daies that wee cryed Cargo in? ... when we might sing, sweare, drinke, drab, and kill men as freely, as your Cakemakers doe flies? ... when we might lawfully doe that, we shall bee hangd for and we doe now; when the whole Sea was our Empire where we robd at will?"'
This exhortation fell on ready ears; and, to be brief, Ward and his fellows captured a bark, and later two other vessels, and made for Tunis. Here he entered into agreement with the Bey by which, in return for safe harbor and crews to man the ships, the pirate was to sell his booty only to the Turkish officials.
In the three years 1603-1606 he made an unexampled reputation for undaunted and successful piracy in the Mediterranean, taking such rich cargoes that, despite the cheap rate at which he disposed of his 'purchase' to the Turks, he grew fabulously wealthy. But the richest prize fell to him in the summer of 1607—a great Venetian galeazza di mercantia, the Reneira Soderina, of about fourteen hundred tons burthen, with cargo to the value of five hundred thousand crowns: riches beyond the dream of Alnaschar, and a sum which makes Captain Kidd look a mere beginner.
Upon this crowning feat of depredation Ward and his crew of Davy Jones's natural children (who then numbered about three hundred) were inclined to rest. Their leader was no more than human, and hoped to enjoy his wealth in peace. What is more, he was a true-born Englishman, and hankered for home. Urged by both of these desires, Ward began to make secret overtures to the British Government toward securing James's pardon. But it was precisely this affair of the Soderina which exasperated Venice to the point of implacability against him, and it is at this juncture, in the autumn of 1607, that Ward makes his picturesque appearance in the copies of Venetian dispatches in the Public Record Office.
A merchant commissioned by Ward came to England and laid before the Venetian ambassador, Zorzi Giustinian, the pirate's offer: if the Doge and Senate would not hinder him in getting a pardon from King James, he would restore to their owners all Venetian goods in his present possession. But at the same time Ward at Tunis was pushing forward ominous preparations for greater piratical raids, in case his proposal were not accepted. He was converting the lofty Soderina into a fast cruiser by cutting away her half decks, knocking out many of her knees, and mounting forty pieces of artillery on her lower deck and twenty on her upper. She brought the number of his fighting ships up to six.
Meanwhile the news of the pirate's intentions had come to Venice, and on November 5 the English ambassador Sir Henry Wotton, addressed the Doge and Senate in the following words: 'Most Serene Prince and your Excellencies. 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.' After a short account of Ward's naval preparations, and his simultaneous endeavors to return to King James's favor, he continued, 'Ward wants to return home and also to keep his plunder, but the King will never assent to that. But if your Serenity could see a way by which he could in part give satisfaction to the gentlemen and citizens who are owners of the booty he has plundered, I do not think the return to the King's favor would be so difficult a matter.' To which the Doge replied, 'Ward will meet with a warm reception if he comes into these waters.' And the Senate gave as their answer: 'The Republic trusts his Majesty to grant no pardon until those who have suffered are fully indemnified.' Venice was in no forgiving mood.
Through some accident or oversight, James did not formally proclaim and banish Ward as a pirate until the winter of 1607-1608; but he assured Giustinian that he would never pardon Ward without the assent of the Republic although he added that the politic pirate was spending large sums in Court bribes to obtain the King's grace.
By February 1608, Captain Ward's fleet had grown to eight sail, and the corsair's menace was so instant to any Venetian shipping that ventured beyond Corfu that the Senate ordered three great galleys, specially fitted out with gunners, to reënforce the other men-of-war in convoying the merchant fleet to the Levant. In March, after another ship had fallen a prey to the sea-sharkers, Sir Henry Wotton wrote home to England that 'the hatred of him increaseth, and fully as fast, the feare of him.' And to show that Ward's own enmity to the Venetians was also growing, Wotton adds the account of an English captain named Moore, just arrived in Venice, whose ship Ward's racing cruiser fetched up and spoke a little outside the Gulf. 'Tell those flat-caps,' shouted the pirate, 'who have been the occasion that I am banished out of my country, that before I have done with them I will make them sue for my pardon!'
Shortly after this threat, Ward's fortunes received a check, which, however, he surmounted in a fashion truly Napoleonic. His squadron was off the coast of Crete when it was overtaken by a storm. Ward, for reasons best known to himself, left the Soderina at the height of the storm in a small boat. Within a short time the great argosy, weakened as she was by having her timbers cut away, went to the bottom with her crew. Of the four hundred Turks and English on board, four Turks on a raft survived to tell the tale. All Christendom hoped that Ward had been drowned. But not so: the imperishable picaroon had got to one of the other ships in safety. Of course when he put in at Tunis, where the news of the disaster had preceded him, there was a more serious storm to weather. The Tunisian mob, not doubting that he had planned the destruction of the Turkish crew, were ready to tear the Englishman to pieces. Yet by dint of personal courage and an unsurpassed ability to 'swear through a nine-inch plank' Ward not only saved his skin but kept on the right side of the Turkish Government.
To get his breath after this hair-raising escape, Ward appears to have cruised up to Ireland—at this period a notorious pirate headquarters—in quest of more ships and men. London merchants were in despair. Few dared venture a cargo out of port, and no one would insure except at ruinous rates. One of the obvious remedies suggested for the intolerable situation was that of heavily arming the merchant vessels. 'This,' wrote Giustinian, the Venetian ambassador, 'finds favor with the nation, which hopes that in this way it may be possible to return to buccaneering; and they are incited not merely by their natural instinct towards it, but also by the rumors of Ward's riches.'
What could James do with a people of this kind? If he armed ships to resist the pirates, they would turn privateers themselves as soon as they got out of sight of land. The King was obliged not only to abandon this plan, but even to publish ordinances against piracy, which included the following provisions: 'Ships are to be examined before being allowed to sail, so as to discover whether they are armed or not. On the slightest suspicion ships and crews to be seized. Such ships not to be allowed to sail without caution money to twice the value of the ship.' And he finished by ordering all English ships 'to pursue and engage the pirate Ward as the man who above all others has inflicted heavy damage on Christians.' One wonders, after reading the earlier ordinances, how the English ships could engage any enemy, let alone the most terrible pirate in the world!
Upon this, Ward made his last bid for repatriation, offering King James the enormous sum of forty thousand pounds for a pardon. James, being made of sterner stuff than Elizabeth, refused the magnificent bribe, and afterward prided himself not a little on the firmness of his stand. To lose his last hope of being received again in England was a blow to the homesick pirate; but he made one ultimate effort to regain a footing on Christian soil. Applying himself to the Council of Florence, he asked permission to settle in Italy, offering, in return for guaranties that he should not be molested, to bring with him one hundred and fifty thousand crowns in plunder. But, after some dallying with the proposal on the part of the Italians, negotiations were dropped. The supreme hope was gone, and Ward turned Turk. He had made his bed as a renegade, and had now to lie in it. The exasperated Christians, moreover, by various cunning means, strove to make that bed as thorny as possible. The crook-backed Earl of Salisbury sent an English captain named Pepwell to Tunis, to persuade Ward and his confederates 'to forsake their wicked course of life.' Needless to say, he failed; whereupon he did his utmost to destroy Ward. He succeeded in prevailing on a certain Kerson, a German lieutenant of Ward's who hated his chief, to promise to kill the archpirate in return for protection in England. But while the clever Pepwell was thus occupied in plotting his assassination Ward, by distributing gifts and glowing promises among Pepwell's own English sailors, was winning them over en masse to the piratical career. As for the murderous Kerson, he was shortly after captured by the Venetians and hanged at Zante. Extraordinary skill and devilish luck were Ward's!
After these abortive English attempts, and in that same summer of 1609, the Portuguese took a more successful flyer at the pirate. Don Luis Fasciardo cruised down the African coast with twelve galleons; and, anchoring in the Gulf of Tunis, sent in all the ships' boats under cover of night with artificial fire, and burned the pirate fleet without suffering any loss himself. For any other sea robber this disaster might have spelled ruin, but not for Ward. By the following spring he was out again with a new force, scouring the sea lanes of the Levant trade.
Such a supreme talent as his transcends the circumstances of his time, and has an importance for all history. James no doubt acted according to his lights when he condemned the rascally renegade in unmeasured terms; but events have shown that in reality the puissant pirate was Britain's unconscious benefactor—a forerunner of the great empire-builders. For it was thanks to his endeavors that England, to protect her trade from the Turk, soon found that she had to acquire Gibraltar and Minorca, two priceless imperial possessions, as naval bases. Ward, in training the Turks in improved English piratical methods, unwittingly strengthened England against the world. Julian Corbett, the authority on English sea power in the Mediterranean, reminds us that Harley, as plenipotentiary to the Congress of Utrecht, 1713, was instructed to insist on English possession of Gibraltar and Port Mahon; and adds the remark, 'So in all the pomp of a European concert the seal was set on the work which Ward had disreputably begun.'
What finally became of our fascinating and scoundrelly empire-builder, whose name in its infinite variety of Ward, Vuerte, Vuer, Vor, Guarda, Guart, Duarte, and so forth, was the terror of the Straits? Nobody knows. News was, however, brought of him in 1615 by William Lithgow, who, in his Totall Discourse of the Rare Adventures & Painefull Peregrinations of long Nineteene Yeares Travayles from Scotland to the most famous Kingdomes in Europe, Asia and Affrica, has the following circumstantial paragraph:—
Here in Tunneis I met with our English Captayne, generall Waird, once a great Pyrat, and Commaunder at Sea; who in despight of his denied acceptance in England, had turned Turke, and built there a faire Palace, beautified with rich Marble and Alabaster stones: With whom I found domestick, some fifteene circumcised English Runagates, whose lives and Countenances were both alike, even as desperate as disdainfull. Yet old Waird their maister was placable, and joyned me safely with a passing Land conduct to Algiere; yea, and diverse times in my ten dayes staying there, I dyned and supped with him, but lay aboord in the French shippe.
All things considered, it is no doubt pleasanter to read about Ward than to visit him in his alabaster palace; and, though the peregrinating Scot found the old ruffian 'placable' and willing to issue a passport, you observe that he preferred to sleep on board his own ship.
So far as we know, the pirate's active days were now almost done. Another cruise in 1617: we get a glimpse of Ward, under all sail, booming down on the Foscarina of Venice, and leaving her a blazing hulk. A more fleeting glimpse of another raid in the following year, and we lose him. Did he die fighting, or in the Oriental splendor of his palace? Who can tell? Imagination is lost in the golden shimmer of an African sun.
The coasts of high Barbary have faded in the distance. Ward is gone, and his roaring crew. I am in Chancery Lane. This is the Record Office, commanded by the Master of the Rolls. Here are no bertons, or tall ships of Tunis.
But surely there is more than a breath of the sea about the place. Listen. Down the corridor comes a great rattle of block and tackle. A pause; then a voice sings out, 'Heave—ho!' and something is hoisted away to be stowed.... Again, a shrill whistle, as of a boatswain's mate, floats down an iron companion. One of the men goes quickly.... Now they bring in a long heavy bale of mouldering parchment, 'under canvas': it is covered with a thick dunnage of duck, made snug by a line rove through grommets.
After this need a body be surprised to find some of the attendants wearing the flat, round, beribboned cap of the seaman? Or to catch them in the washroom, ridding their hands of the document dust, and to discover what the sober uniform jacket has concealed? Belt? Braces? Far from it. Their equators are bound with sashes; and the skin of their arms is fantastically tattooed in blue.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.