The Superb Roger O’Farrel –- Part Five

It’s the silver o’ starlight, the mist o’ the morning
All gossamer webs, and the deep coral caves,
The winds and the wonder o’ reef-riven thunder,
The emerald sheen o’ the snow-crested waves.

The gold that I gathered that mankind had minted,
It slipped through my fingers like sands on the beach;
But the silver o’ starlight was ever unstinted,
And the gold o’ the sunset was ever in reach.

“A Dying Pirate Speaks of Treasure,” by Robert E. Howard

Roger O’Farrel returned to Cuba in 1668, after chasing the dreaded buccaneer l’Ollonais for over a year and finally bringing him to his end at the hands of Indians in Darien. He had earned the promised reward of 25,000 Spanish dollars or “pieces of eight.” However, the Captain General of Cuba, Francisco de Avila Orejon y Gaston, double-crossed him over the reward. Claiming that he had not actually been “in at the death” of l’Ollonais, and had not brought back his head either, he tried to fob O’Farrel off with 5,000 dollars. Like Browning’s Pied Piper, O’Farrel answered, “No trifling!  I can’t wait, besides … and folks who put me in a passion, may find me pipe after another fashion.”

De Avila considered that insolence. He reminded O’Farrel that at the beginning of the chase, he had held aloof while l’Ollonais worked his will along the southern coasts of Cuba, and later allowed a galleon to fall into the Frenchman’s hands. De Avila could make indictable offences of these if he desired, and he advised O’Farrel to take care. “Accept five thousand pieces of eight while the offer is good, Captain.”

“Keep them, magnifico,” O’Farrel said shortly. “Buy yourself a cloth-of-gold shroud and a fine coffin.”

His defiance might have suited a younger man better. O’Farrel was then forty-six, though he looked younger and his hair remained dark. He was enraged, however, having just finished a year-long hunt fraught with danger, a voyage in which some of his men had died, and his foster daughter, God help him, had stowed away and might have died herself. To be cheated now … and he had thought better of Francisco de Avila.

Perhaps his opinion had been correct, once. De Avila had held his office for five years, in a physical and social climate where men went rotten quickly, and turpitude grew rank as the jungle. He probably told his conscience that, after all, many men would not have offered O’Farrel the five thousand, and if he refused it, well, his fault, and what could he do against the Captain General of Havana?

Clearly, even after associating with him for years, de Avila did not know his man.

O’Farrel sold his fine Havana house and moved to the southern part of Cuba, which should have warned de Avila in itself. Santiago was the second greatest city in the island. It had its own Captain General, or Governor; in practice the two were often the same, the military authorities functioning as civil and political officials as well.  They were even given to assuming the Viceroy’s functions in their own regions. Spanish colonial officers, too, were notorious for touchy jealousy. The Governors of the two cities were each other’s detested rivals.

Santiago’s position was precarious. From a distance the shoreline seemed an unbroken line of verdant jungle. Closer in, it consisted of strings of islands whose beauty covered fatal rocks, reefs and confusing twisted channels. Many buccaneers knew them intimately and first hand. They made perfect hideouts, to lurk in ambush, to take refuge, to repair and careen. Just about every notorious raider of the time had used the South Cays with impunity. Christopher Myngs sacked Santiago late in 1662, with a fleet of eighteen ships. Henry Morgan was almost certainly one of the captains with him on that occasion. Roche Brasiliano spent months among the South Cays in 1663. Edward Mansfield led his pirate fleet there two years later. Henry Morgan, now with the status of a buccaneer admiral, returned there in 1668 – the very year Roger O’Farrel arrived in Santiago, fuming against Captain General de Avila.

He began by enlisting a force of hardy fighters who would stop at nothing – not difficult in that area. Many ostensibly lawful men were expert smugglers who had long dodged the Spanish crown’s taxes and trade restrictions. The cattle ranchers inland, los senores de hatos, as a matter of course engaged in illicit traffic with foreign traders. Their mestizo cowboys were outstandingly tough. The escaped African slaves who lived at large in the mountains of Cuba were, if anything, even tougher. Many had labored in the copper mines of El Cobre, where a few years before there had been a slave revolt. O’Farrel had fought beside such men in the mountains of Jamaica for a year (1657-58) with Cristobal Ysassi. He knew them.

If he no longer had a ship of his own, that was a common predicament of pirates, and one they knew how to solve. O’Farrel had done so before. He acquired two cedar piraguas able to carry fifty men each, and manned them with smugglers, fishermen, loggers, and Cimmarones from the mountains. He hijacked a fast sloop armed with eight small cannon and sent for his former crew, who were only awaiting his word. Then he ventured among the South Cays, found a Dutch pirate careening his ship, and relieved him of it once the work was finished. The Jezebel, a brigantine, it carried twelve cannon and three swivel guns.

Working out of Santiago, O’Farrel smuggled hides, tobacco, and indigo. He waylaid merchant ships, lifting their cargoes but sparing the crews if they yielded. Although he had plundered French vessels in the past, he left them alone now, for he had Tortuga in mind as a refuge if ever Cuba should be barred to him. Remembering de Avila’s conduct, he did not trust the Governor of Santiago a finger’s length. Within two years he achieved some prosperity again.

O’Farrel decided he was ready for a major coup and a farewell to Cuba. Once he had battled Englishmen to defend a Spanish treasure fleet. Now he was motivated the other way. By royal decree the fleet gathered in Havana Bay between May and August, and left with the first fine weather – but August fell within the hurricane season.

The so-called Tierra Firme fleet from Spain went to Cartagena (in modern Colombia) where it took on the treasures of the Spanish Main until its timbers creaked. Then it sailed north-west for Cuba. O’Farrel lurked patiently on the eastern side of Cozumel, a flat limestone island covered with mangrove forest; in the sloop he had named the Eithne after his first vessel. One piragua was with him. A little further north, in a mainland cay of Yucatan, lurked the Jezebel under the former slave Seamus Browne. Across the Yucatan Channel, at the western extremity of Cuba, the second piragua waited.

Luck was with O’Farrel. A storm parted the flotilla from the Main. He intercepted one of the treasure vessels and an escort warship, listing and leaking from damage. The warship offered a tenacious fight, sinking the sloop Eithne before being boarded by pirates who gave no quarter, since they had been resisted. They got splendid booty of gold, emeralds, pearls, cacao and mahogany from the treasure ship alone, and more from the escort warship. But forty of O’Farrel’s pirates had died and a greater number been injured. For the survivors, by the articles of O’Farrel’s crews, the captain received three shares and each ordinary crewman one, along with compensation for lost limbs and other maiming. O’Farrel gained 9,000 silver pesos (pieces of eight or Spanish dollars). This does not sound a great amount, but in the real world few pirate captains won immense riches and fewer yet left buried treasure.

Naturally that meant the end of O’Farrel’s Spanish affiliations. But he had become weary of the dons anyway. He departed with his little fleet and headed for Tortuga. Helen Tavrel went with him, for she would, she said, be double damned if they parted now!

Tortuga by that time – 1670 – had a varied history. It had been a buccaneer haven for decades. Cattle hunters from Hispaniola turned pirate (the original buccaneers) used Tortuga for a base as early as the 1620s. Since then it had been shared between English and French governors; was on occasion retaken by the Spanish; and Louis XIV, the “Sun King” had appointed Bertrand d’Ogeron as its Royal Governor in 1665. D’Ogeron knew the breed he had the task of settling down. He offered them funding to become planters, and imported mail order brides from France on the theory that wives would keep them stable. “Chains for these rascals,” he said.

Rafael Sabatini makes use of Governor d’Ogeron in his pirate novel Captain Blood. That is anachronistic, though, as Peter Blood’s pirate career came after the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, and the real-life d’Ogeron died in 1676. I wonder if Sabatini did not base his fictional Captain Blood on O’Farrel as much as on Henry Morgan. O’Farrel, like Blood, is Irish, a swordsman and seaman, and has medical training, for all of which we have Helen Tavrel’s word (“The Isle of Pirate’s Doom”) – and unlike Blood, O’Farrel roved the Caribbean in the real Bertrand d’Ogeron’s term of office.

The two became friends. Bertrand welcomed him to Tortuga, discreetly forgetting any French ships O’Farrel had looted. O’Farrel thereafter left the Sun King’s subjects alone. This involved no conflict with his friendship for Prince Rupert and Samuel Pepys in England, since the monarchs of France and England had signed a secret treaty at Dover (though not so secret that O’Farrel was ignorant of it). It ended hostilities. Louis agreed to pay Charles 200,000 pounds annually, while Charles undertook to ease English laws against Catholics, support the French against the Dutch, and become Catholic himself.

By the Treaty of Madrid between England and Spain, signed in the same year – 1670 — England agreed to suppress piracy in the Caribbean. The English Governors of Jamaica, the men on the spot, paid little attention to that. Lynch replaced Modyford in 1670, and gave out pirate commissions as freely as his predecessor.

One of the new stars in the buccaneer sky came to Tortuga in that same year. This was Jacob van Raven, a yellow-bearded giant of a Dutchman twenty years O’Farrel’s junior. He had been rescued from harsh indentures by Abraham Blauvelt, his first captain, and Blauvelt had died in 1663, after taking part in Christopher Myngs’ great raid on Campeche. It was Roger O’Farrel who boarded and burned his ship.

Van Raven had it in mind to pay that debt in kind. He came to Tortuga peacefully, under a pretense of wishing to settle on the island. After ascertaining where Roger O’Farrel’s brigantine lay in the harbor, van Raven made ready to sail around the island, saying he wished to look at likely plantation sites. Then he ran straight across the stern of O’Farrel’s Jezebel and blasted it with a five-gun broadside, after which he used grenades and incendiaries – such as firepots filled with rum, Barbados kill-devil over 100 proof, a technique of O’Farrel’s own. Van Raven left the Jezebel blazing like a lamp before she sank. His laughter boomed across the sea.

Roger O’Farrel was furious at first. Then he accepted the turn of events and even gave van Raven credit, wryly, for his effrontery. But once more, now, he lacked a ship. Helen Tavrel, eighteen, reckless and restless, set out on her own, roving with a number of pirate captains. O’Farrel both feared for her and knew he could not restrain her. She had stowed away on one of his ships in disguise when he sailed after l’Ollonais. She had killed men already. She was his little girl no longer.

He concluded that at his age, trade was better than piracy, and began dealing in commodities absolutely beyond price to the sea-rovers, medical supplies. No ship could do without a surgeon, or surgeon’s tools and opium. O’Farrel, who had studied at the University of Padua in his youth, did considerably better than that. He put together medicine chests whose quality became famous among the rovers. They were shortly valued at something comparable to the cliche, “their weight in gold.”

Always, too, though he said little about it, he feared for the life of his wild foster daughter, and so time passed until 1672.

Helen Tavrel made the mistake of sailing with Captain John Gower, a thorough swine who met his end searching for ancient treasure – which did not exist — on a remote island. Helen escaped alive with a new comrade, Stephen Harmer. She gathered a crew and returned to the sea in a sloop, a captain herself for the first time. Word of it came to O’Farrel, and so did news that old enemies were conspiring against Helen. John Gower’s brother Tobias was the prime mover, supported by John’s former mate. They made alliance with Moses van Vin, who had been second in command to the monstrous Francois l’Ollonais.

Tobias and van Vin both commanded larger ships, at the time, than pirates usually sailed, unless as the flagships of a fleet. Moses van Vin captained a three-masted square-rigger with twenty-four cannon and a crew of 215. Tobias Gower’s was bigger yet, a captured East Indiaman of 700 tons which could overawe any merchant vessel not swift enough to outsail it. The vessel mounted over 30 guns – originally more, but Gower had reduced the armament to increase the cargo room. He also planted a spy in Helen’s crew, and learned of her intention to strike at a wealthy sugar planter’s mansion on Barbados. He decided to overwhelm and destroy her. He blamed Helen for the death of his brother John, and van Vin also hungered to hurt Roger O’Farrel. Killing Helen would certainly achieve that.

They forgot that their vessels were conspicuous, and that nothing piratical on such a scale would pass unknown to O’Farrel. They were short-sighted enough; on learning he lacked a ship since van Raven sank the Jezebel, to look no further. They supposed he could do nothing – but Roger O’Farrel had never known a day on which he could do nothing.

He went straight to Bertrand d’Ogeron and pledged every coin he had, with assurances of ample profit later, for the immediate loan of a fighting ship. D’Ogeron granted him a just-converted Guinea Coast slaver, one deck reinforced and provided with thirty gunports. O’Farrel drew together Seamus Browne, Deaf Tom Colclough and some able gun-crews, besides any number of fatal hand-to-hand fighters. He readied a fireship as well, as fast as the former slaver, crammed with pitch, gunpowder, rum and lamp oil, remembering van Raven’s trick. The slaver’s reek repelled him, but they were built to be swift and agile for Atlantic crossings, even in those days, long before England made the trade illegal, and that was what he needed.

He cursed every interminable sea-mile of the way to the Windward Islands. Not since he was a young man, trying fruitlessly to fight his way into Wexford harbor to save his wife and infant daughter, had he felt like this. He had failed then. He would not fail now. Former scourge of Cromwell’s navy, thorn in the side of Christopher Myngs, and destroyer of Francois l’Ollonais, he raced across the blue ocean towards Barbados.

Helen Tavrel and Stephen Harmer were already there. They swarmed ashore with their crew of fifty, taking the sugar planter’s mansion, and made the slaves their usual offer. Any who preferred the risk of hanging to slavery could join them. As usual, a number proved eager to accept. Cutting and crushing cane was brutal labor.

While Helen’s crew looted the great house, her enemies arrived. Their crews outnumbered hers ten to one. The guns of either could blow her sloop out of the water. Gower and van Vin refrained from doing that, however, and led two hundred men ashore, intending to wipe out Helen’s force and then plunder freely around the coasts of Barbados before any warships from Bridgetown could contest them.

Indecision was never a fault of Helen’s. She saw that a pitched battle was insane and hopeless. Accordingly, she fired the mansion in her enemies’ faces and led her crew inland towards Mount Hillaby, where – if they followed her at all – she could hold the high ground against them. She abandoned the sloop. She could hijack another ship, and the authorities would be more concerned with Gower and van Vin than with her, precisely because of their greater force.

Gower followed her. Moses van Vin remained by the coast with their ships. As it happened, this made him unlucky, because he was there when O’Farrel arrived, drawn as though to a beacon by the smoke of the burning mansion. O’Farrel opened fire on the East Indiaman, then sent his incendiary ship to grapple and board, while he did the same on the other side, reckless of the devastating broadside he received himself. Then it was hand to hand across the bloody decks, O’Farrel’s practiced rapier flashing, his men at his back with pikes, boarding axes and pistols. The fireship flamed hotter each moment, and the pirates who tried to hack it adrift were beset by O’Farrel’s men, their skulls split and their guts torn out in the carnage of the melee. Soon the Indiaman was blazing … and then the fireship’s powder kegs began to explode.

O’Farrel’s crew retreated aboard their own ship and made their way clear. The raging van Vin in his three-master sent a broadside of chain-shot O’Farrel’s way, and O’Farrel’s mizzen came down. Canvas, spars and mast crashed across the deck. Chaotic hell prevailed. Ablaze beyond hope, the Indiaman began to sink, and Gower’s surviving men abandoned her. Swimming or in boats, they tried to reach the other ships, some of them succeeding.

O’Farrel met Moses van Vin on the blood-slippery deck and ran him through the body. Van Vin toppled, dying, but even as that occurred, one of his pirates aimed a blunderbuss at O’Farrel and fired. The charge ripped through Roger O’Farrel’s torso. He hurtled backwards against three other combatants, ribs smashed and lungs torn apart.

The East Indiaman, burning out, went aground in shallow water. Seamus Browne took command of O’Farrel’s men and got them back aboard the erstwhile slaver. They carried their dying captain aboard as well. Van Vin’s surviving pirates fled for the open sea with a single mast and sorry rags of canvas. A frigate from Bridgetown caught them, in the end, and those who did not die fighting were hanged by the harbor.

Seamus Browne saw and heard the signs of battle of Mount Hillaby. It was only four miles distant. He hurried to Helen Tavrel’s aid and attacked Gower from the rear. Tobias Gower, comprehending roughly how things had gone from Browne’s mere presence, abandoned the fight and led his remaining men – a hundred odd — across to Bathsheba on the eastern coast. There he captured a vessel and made for Martinique, a French island.

Helen Tavrel did not care, for the moment, where Gower was. She was weeping convulsively over O’Farrel’s body. She blamed herself for his death and wished she was dead beside him.

Harmer and Browne got the ship out to sea and set a course for Tortuga.  They gave Roger O’Farrel a double shroud, the golden lion banner of his family within sailcloth, a cannon ball at his feet. They held an Irish wake on deck and a sea burial somewhere along the Puerto Rico Trench. The man they considered the greatest pirate of the Indies would have reckoned it fitting, and had no regrets for the way he died – coming to his foster-daughter’s aid again.

Lover, grey lover, your arms are about me,
Through your green billows I sink to my rest;
Never again shall futilities flout me
Rousing dim torments to harry my breast.
Royal lost galleys about me are riding,
Tides ever surging their sea treasures bring.
Here I shall slumber the years without number,
Dreaming unharried like some magic king.

— Robert E. Howard

Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four