Who knew Captain John Smith, he of Jamestown and Pocahontas fame, fought as a mercenary for the Holy Roman Empire in Transylvania, Slovenia, and Hungary? And that he was injured and captured by the Crimean Tatars who then sold him into slavery? I certainly didn’t, but as often happens when I’m doing research for my books, I unearthed a fascinating nugget I didn’t realize existed. In this case, I was researching the Moldavian Magnate Wars—the powder keg that led to the Battle of Cecora in 1620—for Book 3 in the Winged Warrior Series. It was here that I happened upon John Smith’s exploits before he made his mark in the New World.
Smith began his adventure in 1600 at the age of 20 when he heard of the war between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottomans. He struck out to join the fight in Austria, and along the way did a little pirating on the Mediterranean Sea. His career as a pirate earned him enough to continue his journey to join the Christian army.
He fought so bravely that he was knighted and given the title of “Captain” by Sigismund Batory, Prince of Transylvania and nephew of Stefan Batory. The latter was the King of Poland and the man responsible for creating the Polish Winged Hussars we know of—the ones who dominated the battlefield for over a hundred years.
In 1602, Smith was wounded and captured by the Tatars who sold him to a Turk. His Turkish master, in a bid to impress his fiancée, presented Smith to her as a gift. It seems she became smitten with Smith and sent him to her brother to be converted to Islam and trained as an imperial guard. However, the brother wasn’t too fond of Smith and visited all sorts of abuse on him. One day Smith overpowered and killed the brother, escaping on the dead man’s horse. He would travel across Muscovy, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, France, Spain, and Morocco to return to England in 1604.
Captain John Smith’s name is best known for his hand in establishing the colony of Jamestowne, for his mapping of the Chesapeake Bay, and for his encounters with the Powhatan and Pocahontas. Who knew that before he became that Captain John Smith, he was a pirate, a mercenary and a slave?
For more on his life, including his adventures in the Holy Roman and Ottoman Empires, check out the article on the U.S. National Park Service’s Jamestowne website: Captain John Smith – Historic Jamestowne Part of Colonial National Historical Park (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)
It’s surprises like these that make it so fun to write these books!