We all know about pirates from novels and films and probably all of us have heard some sailor stories. Pirates are not only the savage rulers of boundless seas but are also barbaric sailors who raid, seize and loot seaside settlements and ships for wealth and notoriety. We somehow idolize these characters, having seen them in movies and novels. One of the most famous examples of this is the character of Jack Sparrow in the film "Pirates of the Caribbean." His exciting personality and quirky behaviors, his iconic clothing and his passion for the sea - and his so beloved galleon - make him eccentric and more sympathetic than savage and barbaric. But Hollywood aside, do we know who the real Jack Sparrow is?
Jack Sparrow, whose real name is Jack Ward, was a famous sailor and pirate who was born in England and sailed across the Mediterranean Sea. He converted to Islam and served in the Ottoman Empire in the last years of his life, under the Algerian governor.
While little is known about his early life, a pamphlet written by a fellow sailor, as well as numerous songs and ballads, offer a glimpse into his life, his mannerisms and physical appearance. According to limited historical sources, James Ward was born around the year 1553 in Faversham, Kent in southeast England and earned a living working in local fisheries. Faversham was a haven for smugglers and pirates, and Ward somehow developed a passion for sailing, leaving his home in Faversham to secure a job as a privateer licensed by the Queen of England. At the time, England's invasion attempt against the Spanish Armada had recently failed. When the war came to an end, so did the duties of the privateers, though most of them did not want to leave their livelihoods of plunder.
Thus, Jack Ward returned to his hometown. After a short period of time, he was pressed for a new task under a license granted by the King. Still, he didn't choose the legal route, choosing instead to desert his colleagues in exchange for a completely new life. The young Jack from Faversham became one of the most infamous and fear-evoking pirates.
Later known by his nickname Jack Birdy, this young man quickly became famous among all sailors, especially in England, where balladeers sang about him. While attacking merchant ships in the Mediterranean, Jack Birdy made arrangements with a Muslim sailor to use a naval base in Tunisia which would allow him to capture more merchant ships more easily.
After this quest, he asked for a royal pardon from England's James I but his request was denied. Reluctantly, he returned to Tunisia. Osman Dayi ("Dayi" was a highest title of the Ottoman Empire ruler in the Algiers region) offered a safe haven to Captain Jack in Tunisia and Osman Dayi kept his word. The next year, Captain Jack converted to Islam with his entire crew and he started to be known as Yusuf Reis. After some plunders he remained in Tunisia, living in wealth until his death. There are some rumors that he helped Muslims and Jews trying to escape Spain due to death threats. Moreover, according to what we know about Captain John Smith, the famous explorer and writer, Captain Ward was hateful against Christians due to the constant fighting; namely, the wars between Protestants and Catholics. In 1612, a play titled "Christian Turn'd Turk" was written about his conversion to Islam by English dramatist Robert Daborne.
Captain Jack Birdy was obsessed with little birds during his time in Tunisia, so much that the locals would call him Jack "Asfur," Arabic for "sparrow." Hence, the name Jack Birdy became the character we know him today as, Captain Jack Sparrow.
The dramatization of Jack Ward comes from the travel notes of William Lithgow. Lithgow was a Scottish man and in his second visit to Tunisia, he met with Jack Ward, or Yusuf Reis. According to Lithgow, Captain Jack was a heavy drinker but he quit alcohol after his conversion and he wore a turban wrapped around his head as the Turks did (more like the Tunisians in his times).
Behind the comical action of the Hollywood hit movie "Pirates of the Caribbean" lies an interesting historical truth. While the historical character of Captain Jack Sparrow in the movie was an Englishman, historical facts indicate that he led an adventurous life and had converted to Islam.