Pirates of the Caribbean: Discover the real pirate who inspired Jack Sparrow


We know that Johnny Depp was partly inspired by Keith Richards for his character of Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” saga. On the other hand, we do not know that much of his character has a very real inspiration: the English pirate John Ward (1553-1622), also known as “Birdy” or “Sparrow”.

Pirates of the Caribbean : the great piracy franchise

Pirate movies have been around for as long as the cinema itself existed, and were a prolific genre between the 1930s and 1950s. But since the second half of the 20th century, adventures of pirates and privateers have become rare on the big screen. , with often unfortunate experiences. In 1995, the very funny Pirate Island by Renny Harlin is crippled by criticism. It is also a complete commercial failure, with $ 88 million in losses. It is therefore with very average confidence that Disney launched in 2002 in the production of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. To almost everyone’s surprise, the film is critical and commercial success, five times nominated for the Oscars 2004, and notably in the category Best Actor for Johnny Depp.

Not bad for a film based on the attraction of the same name and from which we weren’t expecting much. A great prolific franchise is developing, with five films to date all of which have met with worldwide success, and the character played by Johnny Depp who instantly becomes cult: Captain Jack Sparrow!

Pirates of the Caribbean © Walt Disney Pictures

Grandpa the Polecat, Keith Richards … and the pirate John Ward

We know the official inspirations of the character as composed by Johnny Depp: Grandpa the polecat and Keith Richards, the charismatic composer and guitarist of the Rolling Stones. Between the cartoon character with questionable morals and the borderline and charming nonchalance of the musician, we indeed find all the richness of the character, heroic pirate but also selfish delinquent, capable of the best and the worst. If we move away from these contemporary cultural references, we find in history a real privateer turned pirate who shares many similarities with the star character of the saga. Pirates of the Caribbean : John ward.

John Ward was born in 1553 in Kent, on the English coast. He is first of all, like many of his peers, a fisherman. In 1588, he became a privateer, that is to say “private” sailor under the orders of Queen Elizabeth I, in charge of attacking Spanish ships. In 1603, this activity was made illegal. Forcibly enlisted, John Ward deserted with several of his fellow companions, seized a small ship and began years of piracy that will become legendary. Also called Jack Ward, Birdy, and Sparrow, his journey and his legend have nourished several aspects of the fictional character Jack Sparrow. Note that the research on the character’s inspiration was carried out mainly on the Turkish side, since it is the history magazine Derin Tarih who established this hypothesis in early 2010 before other media and websites popularized it.

Jack Sparrow: alcohol, talent and luck

Like Jack Sparrow, John Ward will build up a crew and a fleet to scour the seas and plunder at will. But left England, he sails on the Mediterranean Sea. Welcomed by the military chief of Tunis, he settled there in 1606 and converted to Islam in 1609 to become Yusuf Reis. He will then live under that name until his death in 1622. His greatest achievement: the capture in 1607 of an enormous Venetian ship loaded with goods, named the Reneria e Soderina. This take will make him very famous and very rich. He will thus build a magnificent palace in Tunisia. Because of his feats of arms, between lucky feats and taste for rum, and his conversion to Islam, the English songwriters and pamphleteers take great pleasure in mocking and criticizing him.

Pirates of the Caribbean
Berber pirates

The Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean is inspired by it in several ways. The first is that John Ward is one of the first famous pirates, before the Golden Age of Piracy and its big names. To be inspired by John Ward allows to use a historical figure without being too well known. Legendary pirate, his contemporaries do not know him well, having access only to the caricatural story that one makes of him. One day a genius of piracy, the next day he is considered an impostor. Exactly the reputation worn by Jack Sparrow in the Disney films. The second reason is as it seemed, in these accounts, quite exuberant. And as an English sailor who crossed paths with him in 1608 reports (The Pirate Wars, Peter Earle, 2003), John Ward is:

very small with little hair, which is white, and a receding hairline; the swarthy and bearded face ….

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