“Men say he is cruel and it may be so. But to me he has always been kind and gentle. And moreover he is a fine upstanding man, of high aristocratic blood with the courage of a lion!”
Robert E. Howard, “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom”
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After a dreadful plague epidemic, fire raged through London in 1666, as naval board member Samuel Pepys records in his famous diary. Roger O’Farrel, outlaw, pirate, intrepid fighting seaman, and friend of Pepys, was then in the Caribbean, where he had spent most of the previous eleven years. His age was forty-four. His foster daughter, Helen Tavrel, was fourteen. Except for brief spaces in the Low Countries and England, she had lived in Cuba and been extremely happy there.
O’Farrel also liked Cuba. He had served a number of Captains General of that island against buccaneers and the English alike. He had carried a long, dangerous feud against Christopher Myngs of the Jamaica squadron, but Myngs had just died fighting the Dutch, with a knighthood and the rank of Vice Admiral of the Blue to his credit.
O’Farrel had begun to think his darling Helen would give him the grey hairs that Cromwell and Myngs failed to bestow. She had loved boats and the sea since she was little; her terrifying experience on a burning, sinking ship at the age of two seemed to have left no fear behind it. Perhaps she associated ships solely with her protector and new father, O’Farrel, whom she adored. And Helen also loved adventure and swordplay. She had demanded at the age of ten to be instructed in the rapier, O’Farrel’s favorite blade, and it proved no mere whim. She practiced daily with a Spanish master of Havana, working hard, even though she was a volatile, impatient child in many ways. From the beginning there was nothing tame about her.
She was frequently in mischief. Sometimes it was dangerous mischief. It could have landed her in a convent or worse. Roger O’Farrel, though a Catholic, was an easy-going one, careless of dogma, and well aware that made it necessary for a man to watch his step with the Holy Office, a body more dangerous than all the pirates on the Main. He had detested Cromwell’s Puritans for their fanatical butcheries, not for heresy; he had a heretical streak himself, though he did not advertise it, and cautioned Helen against talking out of turn either.
Helen Tavrel deserves a post or two of her own, as does Black Vulmea. Leaving both for later, turning again to O’Farrel, he saw new names coming to the fore among the buccaneers now that Christopher Myngs had died in England. Henry Morgan, Myngs’ former apprentice and subordinate, was one, the Gower brothers two more. Another was Black Terence Vulmea. Yet another was Roche Brasiliano, brutal even by buccaneer standards. And there was the monstrous l’Ollonais. As Howard wrote in his poem “Untamed Avatars”:
They break from the pack and they seek their own track,
They are swifter than cormorants flying;
They range far and wide, they are fierce in their pride,
And they glory in slaying and dying.
Their love is a breath that is withering as death,
They take, but they never are giving.
Their hate is as fell and eternal as Hell.
Yet, gods, how they revel in living.
They jeer at the pack and they bend not the back
To the rule of the weak and the many;
From beginning to end they’ve no lover nor friend,
Nor feel they the needing of any.
They are beasts hard and lean and their talons are keen
To rage and to rend and devour—
Oh, mocking their mirth, for the best of the earth
Is laid at their feet in their hour.
The pirate known as l’Ollonais was assuredly one of the worst of the earth. His actual name was Jean-David Nau. Briefly, he was taken from his native France to Hispaniola in the Caribbean, an indentured servant, as a boy of fifteen. When his tenure of servitude ended, in about 1660, he made his way to the buccaneer haven of Tortuga, a hell-hole that could dispute its claim to utter wickedness on equal terms with Gomorrah. And began a psychotic career of torture and murder.
Tortuga (Turtle Island), about forty kilometers by seven, gained its buccaneer population when Hispaniola’s hardy hunters of wild cattle were driven out by the Spanish and turned to sea-roving – with a grudge against Spaniards. Tortuga had English and French settlers, both English and French “Governors” (in practice pirates with a license to license other pirates) and to compound the confusion was retaken by the Spanish now and then. Not a stable place, but then, for a pirate with roughly equal chances of dying in a fight, on the gallows, or from syphilis, that was a low priority. Tortuga was a splendid place to harbor, refit, careen a ship, dispose of loot, obtain crooked letters of marque, carouse and debauch, a buccaneer’s main needs. The Inn of the Gory Dagger, celebrated by REH in his ditty, “Murderous Mike and Crimson Eve,” was doubtless located there – or Port Royal in Jamaica, a similar cesspit.
Our goblets banged on the table tops, our laughter rose in a gust,
And now and then a shot cracked out and someone kissed the dust.
It made a man right nervous, ducking the cutlass cuts,
And every so often someone yelled with a sword thrust through his guts.
The hot oaths cracked the ceilings, the goblet burned at the lip,
And we reveled and killed one another in goodly fellowship.
But even those roughnecks felt ill at ease with l’Ollonais around. A vile butcher from the start, when merely another hand, he became worse when he achieved command of his own ship. His treatment of the unfortunates aboard vessels he attacked soon became a byword. While his dates are uncertain, l’Ollonais was storm-driven and shipwrecked on the Yucatan coast circa 1665, near Campeche, the same town Christopher Myngs had sacked in 1663. L’Ollonais managed to get most of his vicious crew ashore alive, but when the local Spaniards discovered their presence, and knew who they were, they slaughtered them all with musket volleys. L’Ollonais himself, wounded, covered himself with blood and sand and hid under the corpses of his men. Then he entered Campeche in disguise, set free a few French slaves, and escaped with them in a stolen canoe. Pursued by Spaniards in a sloop, he turned the tables, boarded the craft, and killed every man except one, whom he sent back to Campeche with the message that l’Ollonais would “never henceforward give quarter to any Spaniard whatsoever.”
Nor did he. Directly he had a ship again, l’Ollonais attempted to sack a town in Cuba, which had long been Roger O’Farrel’s home. The Captain General learned l’Ollonais was coming and sent a ten-gun warship to blast him to Perdition. Instead, l’Ollonais captured the vessel and killed every man aboard. He practiced awful tortures on captives, such as cutting them slowly to pieces or “woolding” them, which meant tightening a knotted rope around their heads until their eyes burst out. Once, having captured a number of Spaniards from whom he wanted information, he hacked the torso of one with his cutlass, tore out his heart and ate it, saying to the others that if they did not guide him as he wished, “I will serve you all alike.”
In 1667 l’Ollonais gathered a fleet of eight ships crewed by about 650 buccaneers. He led them to Maracaibo, a town in present day Venezuela. On the way he encountered a treasure ship, which he took and looted, treating those aboard in his usual fashion. Maracaibo felt secure because it was strongly fortified and protected by cannon, but l’Ollonais landed further up the coast, marched through the jungle with his men, and attacked the towns around Lake Maracaibo from the landward side. He interrogated the people by torture to find where they had hidden their loot, and after weeks of horror the pirates left Maracaibo with cases of jewels and fully a quarter million pieces of eight.
The Captain General of Cuba, Francisco de Avila Orejon y Gaston, sent for O’Farrel. He promised the Irishman twenty-five thousand Spanish silver dollars (or pieces of eight, from their value of eight reals) for the head of l’Ollonais. O’Farrel accepted the commission.
The buccaneers were more calculating in their raids than is generally believed; they informed themselves beforehand rather than descending on a town or roving the sea impulsively. O’Farrel was no exception. He knew much about l’Ollonais already – all of it bad – and he found out more from a couple of men who had sailed with the Frenchman and deserted. They were not the only ones. Buccaneers were hardly squeamish, and l’Ollonais led his crews to loot, all right, but nevertheless they often found a single foray with the atrocious madman quite enough. It seemed to O’Farrel that if he could make l’Ollonais’ next cruise turn sour, his followers would melt away.
Hunting that bestial madman, though, he needed the ‘courage of a lion’ Helen ascribed to him. Spanish sailors and soldiers defeated by l’Ollonais on the seas were often known to leap overboard and drown rather than face his sadism. And Spaniards of the day were no softies.
O’Farrel possessed another potential advantage. Buccaneers fought like devils, afloat or on land, and used crafty tactics, but they relied on hand-to-hand ferocity and their gunnery was often poor. O’Farrel’s gunners were good. The master, Deaf Tom Colclough, had fought Cromwell’s navy with O’Farrel in the ‘fifties and been with him ever since. He demanded of his gun-crews that targets like casks floating in choppy water be hit – and they had better be. The captain also made sure he had sufficient powder and cannonballs, with chain shot and grapeshot for good measure. This ordnance was not always easy for buccaneers to obtain. And O’Farrel’s men were as good as any with cutlass and boarding axe when the fighting grew intimate.
He did not take the galleon Santa Barbara after l’Ollonais. She was swift, but drew a little too much water for the purpose, even though she was smaller than some. O’Farrel set out with two Havana fragatas, the Pilar and the San Patricio. These were a New World refinement, three-masted and square rigged, precursors of the 18th century naval frigates, of about 150 tons each. They were armed with cannon at the bows and others in a broadside row along the single gun deck. They maneuvered better in contrary winds than the larger, higher galleons.
The plunder from the Maracaibo raid of 1667 did not last long. O’Farrel had not expected it to. L’Ollonais and his fellows squandered it wildly in Tortuga. As Exquemelin wrote, “Their gains they spend prodigally, giving themselves to all manner of vice and debauchery, particularly to drunkenness … and as freely gratify their lusts … for all the tavern keepers and strumpets wait for these lewd buccaneers … ”
Once the plunder was gone he proposed a new expedition, and seven hundred buccaneers joined it, their greed aroused by his success at Maracaibo. Six ships set out. In the largest vessel, one he had captured at Maracaibo, l’Ollonais put three hundred men. His second in command was his old comrade Moses van Vin. Two more captains were the Gower brothers, John and Tobias. Another was the youngest leader, Pierre le Picard, and there was also another Moses, Moses van Clein. The last was Finlo Hilton, a Manxman known as Bloody Hilton, mentioned by Helen Tavrel as one of the captains with whom she had sailed.
Henry Morgan did not go with them. He was leading an expedition of his own in 1668. Besides, l’Ollonais was not to his taste, murdering scoundrel though Morgan was himself. Roche Brasiliano was not part of the fleet either, though l’Ollonais had sold him and his fellow Dutch pirate Jelles de Lecat a captured Spanish brigantine the year before. The pair may have been whoring in Port Royal or cruising the Antilles.
Seven hundred pirates could not be drawn together for any project without O’Farrel’s knowledge. He was soon apprised of their strength, their leaders, the quality of their ships and roughly where they meant to go. From Tortuga, much as expected, the buccaneers sailed along the southern coast of Cuba, seizing more ships as they went. O’Farrel let them get away with it; he wanted them further from home before he struck, and l’Ollonais was a man to approach gingerly. His intent was to copy Henry Morgan’s feat in sailing up the San Juan River to the Lago de Nicaragua, and sack the rich town of Granada at its northern end. O’Farrel could not have witnessed that without interfering, but the savage Frenchman’s plans began to miscarry from the start; he was becalmed off the Mosquito Coast and his ships drifted west along the northern shores of Honduras. O’Farrel was afflicted by the same calm, but when a fresh wind rose he followed l’Ollonais’s fleet anew.
L’Ollonais in the meantime had sent parties ashore to forage. According to the pirate chronicler Exquemelin, to provision they “entered, with their canoes, into the River Xagua, inhabited by Indians, whom they totally destroyed.” Sailing west, he captured a Spanish merchantman armed with cannon and swivel guns, after which he descended on Pedro Cortes and took it. Then, guided by terrorized captives, he took three hundred buccaneers inland against San Pedro Sula. Marching into the jungle, he took captives and met with ambushes, which he fought off, showing the Spaniards his usual mercy – none whatsoever. This was the occasion on which, demanding from his prisoners advice on how to take a route which would avoid the pesky ambushes, he cut out the heart of one and ate it before the others. His followers, even the Gower brothers, were appalled by that.
Reaching San Pedro Sula, he had his first attack repulsed, after which – against his avowed practice – he allowed the Spanish to evacuate the town under a flag of truce. But he burned it to the ground on entering it and finding the loot scanty and poor. He had counted upon riches.
While l’Ollonais was pillaging the region, O’Farrel took his two fragatas in against the pirate ships near Pedro Cortes. He blasted their masts and rigging with chain-shot, hurled fireworks and “carcasses” or fire-pots against the decks, then disappeared while the swearing buccaneers strove to extinguish the blazes. Each desperate one of them knew the golden lion flag. The Gower brothers in particular, who had been with Christopher Myngs in 1659 and again for his great raid on Campeche in ’63, knew O’Farrel’s way. He had harassed Myng’s fleet back to Jamaica and recovered part of the plunder taken. Now he was back to plague them in the Gulf of Honduras!
L’Ollonais returned to Pedro Cortes. Enraged to hear of O’Farrel’s action, he went looking for him, swearing horrible retribution, but found no trace of the San Patricio or Pilar and turned back to the coast. His usual torture of prisoners had gained him the information that a galleon was due to arrive in the Bay of Amatique, and he decided to waylay it. However, the vessel was not expected for months, so l’Ollonais posted lookouts and took his flagship to the other side of the gulf for a careening. He desired to be able to outsail the galleon when it came, and he did not want to be caught at sea by O’Farrel, if he should return, with his hull foul and overgrown.
But O’Farrel had the same information as l’Ollonais concerning the galleon. With time in hand, he sent Seamus Browne to Havana for a decoy vessel, an ancient galleon, a crank and heavy sailer afflicted with shipworms. It was armed, however, with forty-two cannon. O’Farrel had it arrive just as l’Ollonais had finished careening, to the madman’s pleasure, but his jubilation did not last long. The galleon fought off l’Ollonais’ flagship of twenty-eight guns in the first engagement, and after two more its crew fled helter-skelter in boats. The buccaneers boarded it in triumph, only to find nothing but a meagre amount of wine, paper and iron pigs. Nor was the galleon itself much of an asset, in spite of its armament. It would slow the pirates down.
Pierre le Picard, youngest and least patient of the buccaneer captains, grew disgruntled. He suggested to his crew that they decamp. They agreed with very little hesitation. At sunset, le Picard’s ship remained with the fleet; in the morning it was gone.
L’Ollonais made the error of keeping the decoy galleon, as O’Farrel hoped he would, tempted by its forty-two guns. The Gower brothers and Moses van Vin all advised against it, but l’Ollonais was obdurate. More dreary months passed with little success, and word came to the fleet now and again that O’Farrel had been sighted. While he refrained from attacking again, this failed to reassure the Gowers. They knew him.
“He’s waiting,” Tobias asserted. “O’Farrel’s a dog of the Spaniards, and the Spanish viceroy wants l’Ollonais’s guts. What if we have more men and guns? O’Farrel’s the better seaman. His gunners can shoot a melon off a masthead.”
“I’m not feared of O’Farrel.”
“Nor I, John. But this cruise has gone ill. First we’re becalmed, then we get sorry plunder from San Pedro Sula – which should ought’ve been profitable, as you know. Then we wait months for a galleon, and that too pays us little when it arrives. Nor l’Ollonais won’t leave it, though it’s slow as a three-legged horse. I tell you true. It’s l’Ollonais I’ve had enough of.”
“Well, that’s true,” John Gower conceded. “Things haven’t gone well, and there’s no sign they’ll go better.”
They found their crews in agreement. The Gower brothers were next to leave. Moses van Clein soon followed their example. Only van Vin and Bloody Hilton now remained with l’Ollonais, and about half the original seven hundred men who had begun the expedition. He needed swift success to save his enterprise.
O’Farrel made sure there would be no such good fortune for the mad killer. The time was right to descend on him. O’Farrel attacked off the Isla de las Pertas, outsailed the captured galleon with insolent ease, holed it a dozen times and forced it onto a sandbar, where it stuck fast. Then he lay off the island to observe. The buccaneers worked with a will to float the galleon again, but this proved impossible, even after they lightened it of cannon and other weighty content. L’Ollonais abandoned van Vin and all but a hundred men, leaving them to break the galleon apart and make boats of the timber, if they could. O’Farrel left them in peace and continued to pursue l’Ollonais.
The latter and his hundred rogues came to what Exquemelin calls the “River of Nicaragua”, hounded still by O’Farrel. He intended, now, to sink them without mercy, but before he caught them, a grimmer kind of justice overtook the most atrocious pirate of the Indies. Ashore, his band was attacked by Spaniards and Indians, most of them being killed quickly. L’Ollonais was taken alive by a tribe of completely untamed Indians, who had nevertheless heard of him, and the way he dealt with their people. They treated him as he treated others, ripping him apart bit by bit and throwing the pieces into a fire, until he perished without trace. O’Farrel, of whom the Indians had also heard, was able to parley with them and confirm the fate of l’Ollonais from a couple of buccaneers who had been with him in his last moments. He ransomed them from the Indians for cutlasses and cloth and gave them passage back to Tortuga. His undertaking to destroy l’Ollonais had taken him more than a year, but he had fulfilled it to the letter.
And the brains of men who saw it clear
Grew frail and grey with horror and fear,
And shadows white beat back the night,
And over the ocean the dawn drew near.
Art by Howard Pyle, Frederick J. Waugh, N.C. Wyeth
Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Five