The Perilous Helen Tavrel – Part One

“As for Roger O’Farrel … He took me off a sinking ship when I was a baby and raised me like his own daughter. And if I took to the life of a rover, it is not his fault, who would have established me like a fine lady ashore had I wished. ”

– Robert E. Howard, “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom”

Helen Tavrel had piracy and wild roving in her blood. Her kindred were the Taverels of Cornwall, who (among others) had operated out of Fowey port as pirates in the 14th and 15th centuries.  They were licensed to take French vessels while the Hundred Years’ War raged, but they continued without royal sanction after peace was made, and Edward IV had to take steps to suppress them – which included hanging a number.

Taverels were among the Elizabethan sea-dogs of Drake’s time (and Solomon Kane’s). They fought the Armada and plundered Spanish ports and shipping. Some of the Fowey Taverels made for the Munster coasts in Ireland at the beginning of the 17th century, when James I sought to suppress piracy as Edward IV had done before him. They became part of the Munster Brotherhood, a strong organisation of sea-thieves eventually crushed by the Dutch, who had wearied of their predations. Those Taverels who survived to come back from Munster (with an ‘e’ dropped from their name) settled in Cornwall again.

Like greater Cornish families such as the Killigrews, they held by the Royalist cause during the English Civil War, even after Charles I was beheaded. They smuggled arms to English Royalists and information to the exiled Charles II, but eventually they were betrayed.  They attempted to flee to the continent themselves, and were intercepted by a Parliamentary naval ship, in 1654. Helen Tavrel, then two years old, was one of those aboard.

The Cromwellian ship was driven off by the privateer O’Farrel, in the service of Confederate Ireland. He rescued Helen from her burning vessel and carried her aboard his own, the frigate Tisiphone. Golden-haired and grey-eyed, she reminded him searingly of his own infant daughter, Finola, who with her mother had been murdered by Roundhead soldiers in Wexford. The details, and much else concerning O’Farrel’s career, can be found in the series of posts “The Superb Roger O’Farrel.”

O’Farrel had been fighting the Roundheads on the seas, as a privateer, for nine years, and had battled the English before that, from 1641 to ’43, at the side of his father, until the elder O’Farrel was killed. Now he sailed to Brussels with the little girl he made his foster-daughter.  Helen never remembered anything about Brussels, though her terror aboard the blazing ship, and O’Farrel lifting her in his arms with a laugh and words of comfort, remained stamped on her mind and heart all her life.  In any case they were not in Brussels long. The southern Low Countries were a centre of the Counter-Reformation under the Hapsburgs, and O’Farrel, a Catholic with an impressive record of fighting heretics, found a welcome there. The Spanish mistrusted Oliver Cromwell’s intentions in the West Indies, and offered O’Farrel a commission in Cuba.  O’Farrel accepted.

The result was that Helen grew up in Havana, then the richest, most opulent port in the Caribbean. The Spanish treasure fleet gathered there each year. When she and O’Farrel arrived, the Captain General (acting) was Don Ambrosio de Sotolongo. De Sotolongo and his lady were charmed by Helen, and soon learned to value O’Farrel.  The Irishman found a Spanish-Indian couple, Ramon and Eulalia, to look after his house and foster daughter. They had a daughter of their own, Renata, of Helen’s age, that O’Farrel thought would make an agreeable playmate for his motherless girl.

He took care to attend mass regularly and in other ways stay on the right side of the Church; the Holy Office was a power in Spanish territories, and while O’Farrel, though Catholic, was scarcely an over-pious man, he met enough danger on the sea from buccaneers and the English to have no need of any from other directions.  Oliver Cromwell’s “Western Design” had brought about the conquest of Jamaica, and the new English authorities there were recruiting buccaneers – English ones for preference – to prevent a Spanish reconquest. Before long O’Farrel was engaged in a dangerous feud with Captain Myngs of the Jamaica Squadron. Helen knew nothing about this; playing with Renata and learning to handle boats were her chief pleasures, when she was not being instructed in the skills reckoned suitable for a girl in colonial Cuba. These she hated; needlework and prayer did not appeal to someone with Tavrel blood. Nor had her experience on the burning ship as an infant left any lasting terror. Helen loved ships and the sea as she loved her foster father.

Aged seven, she was threatened again. Havana society was dissolute despite its splendid cathedral and many churches. An aristocratic waster with gambling debts and expensive mistresses saw in Helen a way out of his difficulties. He offered to abduct her and deliver her to Christopher Myngs. With Helen in English hands in Jamaica, O’Farrel would be easy to coerce. At the least he would then cease his depredations against the English colonies. At the most he might attempt Helen’s rescue and be captured.

Besides being wicked, the scheme was badly conceived and worse put into effect. The man’s wife detested him. She informed O’Farrel, in which she only confirmed what he had learned already from other sources.  O’Farrel sought the man, insulted him in public, and killed him in a duel with swords and daggers. Although he did not intend that Helen should know, she too missed little that went on around her, and spied on the fight from the shadows. She saw the man die.  Knowing the cause, she worshipped her foster-father even more thereafter.

Between 1658 and 1660, O’Farrel remained in Havana with Helen.  Upon the Restoration in England, he visited London, taking her with him.  His record of fighting the Roundheads made him congenial to Charles II, Samuel Pepys and Prince Rupert, but not to Parliament.  Helen did not like England; she found it cold and rainy after the Caribbean, and was glad to return.  She had missed her playmate Renata.  Between the ages of eight and ten, though, she found plenty of undisciplined mischief to get into with the mestiza girl, some of it dangerous.  The pirate blood of the Tavrels combined with her adoration of her foster father inspired her to run wild, and at ten she sought to emulate his skill with a rapier also.  She pleaded with him to instruct her, and he did, thinking she would probably lose interest, as she had with a few other enthusiasms; she was a child, after all.

Helen did not lose interest.  She had talent for the blade and soon developed a real love for it; so much so that O’Farrel prevailed upon a fencing master to teach her daily when he was away at sea.  Christopher Myngs returned to the Caribbean at that time – 1662 – and sacked Santiago de Cuba, on the island’s southern coast.  O’Farrel was able to retaliate in the following year, when Myngs led twenty vessels in a looting expedition against Campeche.  O’Farrel, with a mere five ships, still recovered some of the plunder and sank three of the buccaneers.

When Helen was thirteen, she began to strut the sun-drenched streets of Havana dressed as a boy, her golden hair covered by a black wig, her small rapier at her side.  Renata often accompanied her, sometimes in trousers and shirt like her friend, sometimes in a skirt.  The inevitable happened; they were waylaid by a group of young hell-raisers with lewd intentions towards the mestiza.  Helen resisted, drew her rapier, ran one youth through the shoulder and slashed the face of a second.  Afterwards, the pair escaped through the narrow, twisting alleys and over the roofs.  The group swore obscene revenge, but they did not know against whom. Then.

Helen began training with pistols at thirteen, also.  Her hands had been too small for them at ten, but now she practiced with firearms under a professional master, and soon learned to hit her target.  She enjoyed shooting, but loved the rapier with a passion.

Roger O’Farrel was her idol, and it was chiefly because of him that she yearned after the pirate life.  She doubtless heard stories of the pirate queen of Connacht, Grace O’Malley, from her foster father.  She also developed an admiring fascination for the flame-haired female pirate Jacquotte Delahaye, originally from Saint-Domingue.  Jacquotte was said to have become a pirate after her father was murdered, and led a crew of cut-throats for years, until the Caribbean waters became too hot for her.  She escaped pursuit by faking her own death, but returned after a time, and received the nickname “Back From the Dead Red”.  Before long her followers numbered hundreds, and in 1656 they had taken over a small island, with the intent of turning it into a freebooter republic.  Jacquotte died defending it in a gory action when Helen Tavrel was about nine, so they never met, but Helen loved the stories and ballads about her.

Another female pirate who roved the West Indies during Helen’s young girlhood was Charlotte de Berry.  Charlotte was born circa 1636, and in her teens fell in love with a sailor, whom she married against her parents’ wishes.  In the best romantic tradition, she disguised herself as a man, sailed as his shipmate, and fought in naval actions beside him.  An officer discovered their secret but did not divulge it, moved by lust for Charlotte.  He gave Charlotte’s husband the most dangerous tasks in an effort to get him killed, and when that did not succeed fast enough, he accused the young man of plotting mutiny, for which he was flogged to death.  Charlotte put off the officer’s further advances until they reached port, whereupon she knifed him – fatally — and jumped ship.

Dressing in women’s clothes again, Charlotte soon found that had been a mistake, for a brutal merchant captain kidnapped her and subjected her to a forced marriage.  His amorous methods, apparently, would have been considered coarse by a razorback hog, and Charlotte freed herself by doing in fact what her former husband had been accused of doing – fomenting a mutiny.  During a voyage to Africa she inspired the crew to rise against captain and officers, decapitated the former, and became captain by acclaim, as the best leader there.  She remained captain for years, until a disastrous shipwreck reduced the starving survivors to cannibalism before they were rescued, by a Dutch ship.  When other pirates waylaid the Dutch, Charlotte and her fellows stood by their saviours and fought the attackers until they were driven off.  What happened to her after that is uncertain.

Roger O’Farrel had lived a fairly quiet life – for him – in Havana between 1665 and 1667, when Helen turned fifteen.  Then he was offered a large reward by the Captain General of the city, Francisco de Avila Orejon y Gaston, if he would seek and destroy the pirate l’Ollonais, a bestial madman with a hatred for all Spaniards.  He had sworn no quarter to any, an oath he barbarously kept.  O’Farrel accepted, and embarked on the mission.  (See “The Superb Roger O’Farrel – Part Four”.)

Helen, then fifteen, was tired of life ashore and delighted by her foster father’s deeds.  She wanted to share in them.  Knowing he would never allow her to sail in pursuit of the fiendish l’Ollonais, she disguised herself as a black-haired boy again and went aboard one of O’Farrel’s ships as a powder monkey, demonstrating that she knew the skills of the job and was nimble.  She did not crew in O’Farrel’s own ship, the San Patricio, where he would have recognized her, but in the second one, the Pilar.  Both were fragatas, a type of three-masted New World ship, precursors of the 18th century naval frigates, of about 150 tons each.  They carried cannon at the bows, with others in a broadside row along the single gun deck.  They maneuvered better in contrary winds than the larger, higher galleons.  O’Farrel did have the use of a galleon at the time, the 400 ton Santa Barbara, but he left her behind.  Her draught was too great for his purposes this voyage.

Helen took no weapon aboard but a practical dirk.  Her beloved rapier would have betrayed her identity at once.  The Pilar’s commander, Seamus Browne, a former slave freed by O’Farrel, knew the comely blonde girl Helen Tavrel, but made no connection between Helen and the scruffy black-haired boy before the mast – and Helen kept out of his way.

L’Ollonais sailed from Tortuga with a fleet of six vessels, manned by seven hundred rogues.  Three hundred manned the largest, his flagship, a Spanish craft he had captured at Maracaibo on his last foray, marked by his usual mass murders and torture.  His captains included Moses van Vin, the Gower brothers John and Tobias, the Manxman Finlo Hilton (“Bloody” Hilton) and Pierre le Picard, the youngest.

(Moses van Vin and another Moses, Moses Vanclein, along with le Picard, are those of l’Ollonais’ captains on his last cruise that are known to history.  Bloody Hilton and the Gower brothers are fiction, the creations of Robert E. Howard.  At least, Bloody Hilton is mentioned in connection with Helen Tavrel in “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom,” in which John Gower meets his end, while a different “Captain Gower” is described as dying aboard his ship in the poem “A Song of the Anchor Chain.”  I’ve assumed this was Tobias Gower, John’s brother. )

With the odds weighted against him, O’Farrel had to be circumspect, and he followed the vile l’Ollonais’ sea trail until he was well clear of Cuba, hoping to catch him at a disadvantage.  At one point the Frenchman’s fleet and O’Farrel’s two fragatas were both becalmed for a while.  When a fresh wind rose, O’Farrel resumed the pursuit, but paused to intercept a Dutch merchantman and relieve it of water and food supplies, leaving its crew just enough to make land.  That hardly satisfied Helen’s lust for action.  Events at Pedro Cortes, in the north-western corner of modern Honduras, pleased her better.  L’Ollonais left his fleet on the coast and marched inland against the town of San Pedro Sula.  O’Farrel took his ships into the harbor and devastated the pirate ships’ masts and rigging with chain-shot.  He also used incendiaries, doing a good deal of damage.  As a powder monkey, Helen was kept gleefully busy during this action. Then O’Farrel retreated.

While a waiting game did not suit Helen’s temperament, or her youth, she saw it could be effective.  O’Farrel knew that l’Ollonais was careening his main vessel before he continued his voyage. O’Farrel sent back to Cuba for a decoy ship, a decrepit old galleon, and l’Ollonais took the bait.  He captured the ship, but again he was frustrated; the cargo was worth little and the timber was riddled with shipworms.  However, it mounted forty-two cannon, which l’Ollonais stubbornly kept, though their weight made them a liability more than an asset.  Some of his captains, including the Gower brothers and Picard, deserted him, weary of the unsuccessful cruise.  O’Farrel finally outplayed l’Ollonais and stranded him on a savage coast where he was murdered by Indians.

Not until nearly back at Havana did O’Farrel discover his foster-daughter had been in the Pilar all the time.  He was thunderstruck.  If his project had gone awry, Helen could have fallen into the hands of the vilest monster in the Caribbean.  Helen was unrepentant; her only regret that there had not been more direct action.  O’Farrel gave the girl one of the very little whaling she had ever received from him.  She took it without tears or resentment, but O’Farrel saw she was the true offspring of her Cornish pirate ancestors and there was no settling her ashore as a fine respectable lady.  Helen was what she was – and it was partly due to his example, no doubt.

Read Part Two