Telling Tales of Captain Zachary

Most doctoral students, during their research, find a few things that are their ‘favourites’, little pieces they return to and mull over again and again. This is my absolute favourite from my dissertation. Allow me to introduce you to Captain Robert Zachary (or Sackirie, or a lot of other spellings).

Zachary commanded a ship for parliament against King Charles I during the civil wars of the 1640s. There were really no major battles at sea during these wars, but there was a lot of commerce raiding, and all sides in the wars hired merchant-ships and issued letters of marque to willing captains and ship-owners as a way of beefing up their seapower (for more on this, see Elaine Murphy’s book). Zachary was captain of the George Bonaventure, mentioned as part of parliament’s fleet in the Irish Sea in 1642 and 1643, and he commanded the naval ship John in 1645. In 1643, he captured at least two ships, one of them Dutch, sold to John Mann of Horseydowne, Southwark, and in 1644 he captured another ship, while in 1645 he was accused of seizing a parliamentarian supply ship and claiming it was his prize (these are mentioned in the depositions of William White, 4 May 1643 and 17 June 1643, and Robert Sackirie, 11 August 1643, in The National Archives HCA 13/58, and the depositions of John Haynes, 26 July 1644, and James Ansdell, 2 May 1645 in HCA 13/59).

So Zachary seems to have been quite good at playing fast and loose, but this got him into trouble.  Zachary and another parliamentarian, Captain Whetstone, went prize-hunting in the territorial waters of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, and were arrested by the Dutch in April 1644. This prompted a flurry of letters from both the parliamentarians and royalists to the Dutch government, the one side demanding their officers be freed, the other urging they be kept locked up (see the deposition of Hugh Peters, 12 March 1643[/4], in HCA 13/59; also in the Commons Journal, vol. 3, on 7 December 1643, 24 February 1644 and 23 March 1644; and the Lords Journal, vol. 6, on 13 July 1644. Zachary was mentioned in the first issue of the Military Scribe, too).

Copies of the diplomatic letters, from originals in Dutch archives, can be found in British Library Add. MS 17,677 R. The most exciting find – my absolute favourite – is on folio 230 of this manuscript. A letter from William Boswell, a royalist agent, to the Dutch States General on 14 March 1644, refers to the recent arrival in Amsterdam of ‘un Anglois nomme Zacharie, ordinairement reputé pour Renegado, et circoncis dans le loy de Mahomet’; that is, ‘ordinarily reputed for a Renegade, and circumcised in the law of Mohammed.’ ‘Renegades’ were Europeans who ‘turned Turk’, converting to Islam and often living in the North African Maghreb, at ports like Algiers and Tunis which were centres of corsair fleets (Nabil Matar’s Britain and Barbary is a good introduction to this topic). Given the popular hostility at the time towards ‘renegades’ and Magharibi corsairs, this is a stunningly powerful claim.

I was ecstatic when I found this. A Muslim parliamentarian? It raises so many intriguing questions. Is it true? If it is, when had he become a ‘renegade’, and why had he returned to England (a rather difficult thing to do for notorious renegades)? Did the civil war matter so much to him that he came back, or did he simply smell the profit from seizing royalist ships?

Well, before I get carried away, that first question has to be answered. I definitely want it to be true, but there are grounds for scepticism. For example, he is listed as a witness in 1637, resident in Horseydown, Southwark, where he was still living in 1643 (incidentally, both of these depositions suggest he was born in 1602: he was in his late thirties and early forties during the war). So if he had ever gone and ‘turned Turk’, he was back before the civil war began.

And yet, I cannot just dismiss it. A similar story turned up at the end of the same year. Mercvrivs Avlicvs, a royalist newspaper, on the front page of the last issue of 1644 mentioned ‘a Native Turke, who having been a Pyrate [and] thereby so qualified for the Rebels service…not only as he is a Turke (to this day unchristened) but because of his Piracy’. The parliamentarian newspaper Mercurius Britanicus, in an issue in January 1645, responded without actually denying the rumour: ‘He tells of a native Turke made by the good Earle of Warwicke, Captaine of the ship called the George Bonaventure, and how that he hath robbed his Majesty of his Ship. Observe Reader, with what viralency his malice is charged against that noble Lord; and the reason of it is, because he preserved the Navie for the Kingdom.

Neither calls Zachary by name, but he was captain of the George Bonaventure, so it must be him. Was he, in fact, not a renegade but a ‘native Turk’, born in North Africa or the Levant? That is an even more exciting idea than him being a renegade. This reappearance of Zachary – the only mention of him I have found in newspapers from the 1640s – is just as fascinating but just as difficult to interpret. If it was true, why didn’t the royalists make more out of this excellent propaganda? And if it wasn’t true, why didn’t the parliamentarians deny it outright?

Quite possibly we will never know. By 1646 Zachary was dead. His (presumably English) widow petitioned the House of Lords on 20 August asking for £200 ‘towards Reparation of her Loss, and Charges sustained.’ As so often in historical research, we end up with some amazing tales told, but not entirely sure whether we can believe them or what they mean.

But it’s still my favourite.


4 thoughts on “Telling Tales of Captain Zachary

  1. What an intriguing find! I’m sure this is obvious, but it might be worth checking the parish register for Horseydown (if it survives) for his birth or death. It might be even be available online via It wouldn’t really prove anything if he wasn’t there – he may have just been born/buried somewhere else. But if he _was_ there it is would suggest that he was a Christian and this was a malicious libel.

    • That’s a great suggestion – a quick look doesn’t bring up much, but I think I will have to keep digging. Incidentally, if anybody finds something about the Captain, please let me know!

  2. Pingback: Carnivalesque 94: No bishop, no king | the many-headed monster

  3. Hi there,
    I’m currently doing some research about the English Civil War and Captain Zachary has popped up at the rank of Vice Admiral with sixteen ships under his command at the siege of Scarborough Castle in 1645. This also happens to be where he was shot and killed on June 10th.
    I ended up looking for more information and found this treasure!
    Many Thanks

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