23 May 2008

Traitor. Pirate. Modern man?

LAC is full of talented people. Earlier in the week a notice came in about a book being launched by an LAC historian which asks: Can a man betray his nation but remain true to himself?

The notion is as controversial today as in 1603. It set me thinking about Leo McKinstry's contention that a true sense of identity lies in understanding your national story.

About the book. Here is the press release.

It was in 1603 that John Ward deserted his post in the English navy, fled to North Africa and offered lessons in gunnery and naval strategy to Jihadis. In 1610 Ward converted to Islam, provoking further outrage in England.

Barbary Pirate: the Life and Crimes of Captain John Ward, a new book by local historian Greg Bak, explores the nature of heroism, nationalism and religious belief against a backdrop of thrilling sea battles and international intrigue.

The military and cultural conflicts that shaped John Ward’s life seem entirely familiar today, but parallels between Ward’s times and our own are only one reason that Bak felt compelled to tell Ward’s story.

“He’s like an old friend,” Bak explains. “Well, maybe not a friend. Maybe he’s like the stringy-haired metal-head who tormented you in high school, and who later became an elite mercenary, training suicide bombers in a terrorist camp. You read about him in the paper and you think, ‘wow, he bullied me when he was a nobody.’”

Writing Ward’s biography took five years, during which Bak moved from Massachusetts to Ottawa, traded jobs three times, bought and renovated a house in Chinatown and became a father to twin daughters. But Bak first encountered Ward a decade earlier, while researching a PhD on English-Islamic history at Dalhousie University.

“Through to the 1800s John Ward was famous as an antihero of the age of sail,” says Bak. “Today he is virtually unknown, despite centuries of popular ballads, a play by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and even a Canadian novel.”

Since his death he has been viewed as an exemplar of English seamanship, a blood-stained, demonic pirate captain, and an opportunistic rogue. Perhaps only now, in our own era of religious rhetoric and warfare, can we make sense of John Ward's life.

Barbary Pirate exposes the hypocrisy of the ruling classes of the seventeenth century. Officially promoting an international Christian coalition against Islam, King James and his ministers followed their own agendas.

John Ward rejected the conventional morality of his day and shaped his own destiny. Can this justify his crimes? Barbary Pirate lets readers judge for themselves.

There will be a book launch for Barbary Pirate at Collected Works Bookstore, at 1242 Wellington St. West, on Sunday May 25, at 2:00 PM.

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