Now she had a way of pronouncing that rogue’s name as if he were a saint or a king, and for some reason this rasped on my nerves greatly. So I said nothing.
“Were Roger O’Farrel here,” she prattled on, “we should have naught to fear, for no man on all the Seven Seas is his equal and even John Gower would shun the issue with him. He is the greatest navigator that ever lived and the finest swordsman. He has the manners of a cavalier, which in truth he is.”
Robert E. Howard, “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom”
Stephen Harmer had begun to feel attracted to the she-pirate Helen Tavrel, despite her ruthless profession, at the time she delivered the above panegyric, and the green-eyed monster was biting. He needn’t have felt jealous, as he discovered. O’Farrel was Helen’s foster father, and fifty while she was twenty, though still in good shape and handsome. She loved him in a daughterly way.
O’Farrel, it appears, was one of those men who are just too much of and too good at everything to be liked by a more ordinary fellow – which Steve was, despite being stalwart and brave. Calling O’Farrel the greatest navigator that ever lived, in a world that had already known Columbus, Magellan and Vespucci, was pitching it high, and claiming he was the finest swordsman of all time another possible exaggeration. Even in Howard’s stories, O’Farrel came decades after Solomon Kane, and I doubt he’d have beaten that somber man from Devon. Helen was prattling; Stephen Harmer, prejudiced or not, wasn’t wrong.
She had reason to think her foster father a walking marvel and a paragon of nobility, though. “He took me off a sinking ship when I was a baby and raised me like his own daughter,” she recounts. “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. But the love of adventure is in my blood and though Fate made a woman of me, I have lived a man’s life.”
The infant Helen had nearly died on that sinking ship. It happened off Cornwall, when her Royalist kindred fled Cromwell’s retribution and a Parliamentary warship waylaid them. O’Farrel, sailing for the Irish Confederacy, first drove the navy vessel off, and then rescued the screaming two-year-old who was the sole survivor, followed the Roundhead craft, and sent it to the bottom with all hands. Afterwards he took Helen to Brussels, and the rich, splendid New World city of Havana, where he (and she) mingled with the highest society.
He possessed the manners and breeding for it. Roger O’Farrel was a scion of the lords of Annaly, a princely line with a splendid coat of arms, but they were deprived of lands and title by the English king (James I) just four years before Roger was born. He had education – at the University of Padua – in medicine, math and astronomy. He spoke Gaelic, English, French and Spanish. His tutor, a poor but accomplished French gentleman, schooled him in music and the use of the sword. He had learned sea-fighting as a privateer for the Irish Confederacy through the savage Eleven Years’ War, against the Parliamentary navy, beginning before he was twenty. Then he moved to the Caribbean and sailed for the Spanish Captain-General of the Indies – again battling Cromwell’s navy.
O’Farrel’s feud with Christopher Myngs became a legend among the Caribbean buccaneers. Myngs, an Englishman, was born in Norfolk, probably in 1625. He first went to sea in colliers and coastal traders, then joined Cromwell’s navy. He rose from insignificant rank to become an officer, and we can suppose he served in western waters against the Irish privateers out of Wexford – one of whom was Roger O’Farrel. Roger never heard of Myngs in those years, but Myngs certainly heard of the notorious O’Farrel, damned by Parliamentarians as a child of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, pirate, murderer, warlock formally pledged to the Devil, etcetera. Myngs may have taken that superstitious cant with salt, but he knew for a fact that O’Farrel had sent friends of his to the bottom of the sea, and he didn’t forget.
Christopher Myngs then served in the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54). During that conflict, he went to the Mediterranean in the 38-gun warship Elizabeth, and as that vessel returned to England in May 1653, she encountered a Dutch ship. Bloody close-quarter action ensued, in which the captain was killed. Myngs took command, won the fight, and brought the Elizabeth safely to England. He was confirmed in the captaincy, and then, in October 1655, promoted to command of the frigate Marston Moor, a brand new ship launched in 1654, mounting 44 guns. (Her armament was increased later.) She had just returned from the Caribbean expedition under Venables and Penn, and Myngs was promptly ordered back to Jamaica with her. He went, after insisting that those of the crew who did not lie under close arrest be given their long unpaid wages. They immediately said to each other, with salty oaths no doubt, “I like this skipper.”
Myngs sailed for Jamaica in November 1655. O’Farrel had arrived in the Caribbean already, a fighting sea-captain of long experience who had taken service with the Spanish Viceroy in Havana. He still had not heard of Myngs, but that would change.
Myngs joined Vice-Admiral Goodson in Jamaica in late January, 1656. He found the Caribbean ringing with Roger O’Farrel’s name as a pirate. He remembered it from the ‘forties, and hoped to see O’Farrel swinging from a gibbet, for the sake of Myngs’ dead shipmates and also because the Irishman was a bitter, inveterate enemy of the Roundhead cause. (Cromwell yet held supreme power in England, which meant that as an English naval officer Myngs was serving Cromwell.)
Goodson and Myngs set out to raid Spanish settlements along the Main, in the ships of the Jamaica squadron. They struck at Santa Marta (in what is now Columbia) and then at Rio de la Hacha, where pearls from the region’s fisheries were gathered by private contractors and treasury officials. Goodson knew the Spanish were eager to retake Jamaica, which had been Spanish before Penn, and Venables captured it, and he believed in attack being the best defense. Myngs thoroughly agreed with him. However, while they were absent from Jamaica, Roger O’Farrel came ashore, crossed country, raided Spanish Town, or Cagway, as it was then called (it would not become Port Royal until the Restoration) and freed scores of Irish slaves sent by Cromwell to the Indies. O’Farrel, on that occasion, neither attacked the fortifications nor sought to loot; Spanish Town held no great wealth as yet, anyway. His main intent was a gesture of defiance and contempt against the English.
Returning to Cagway and hearing the news, Myngs was enraged. He undertook to hang O’Farrel. Myngs perceived that he needed the buccaneers of Tortuga – they were already a force on the waters of the Indies – to defend Jamaica against the Spanish in these precarious early days. In exchange he offered them support, a haven, and a safe place to squander their loot. O’Farrel, though, was another matter. Nothing would have induced Parliament to grant him amnesty or accept him, any more than O’Farrel would have become the Roundheads’ ally.
Hunger, bad administration and dissension plagued Jamaica in its early days as an English outpost. There was doubt whether England would even be able to maintain it. Goodson and Myngs made an effort to waylay the Spanish treasure fleet off Havana, and were thwarted, in large measure because of Roger O’Farrel, who met them in his frigate Tisiphone and fought them tooth and nail as one of the treasure fleet’s guardians. Myngs swore furiously at the sight of the notorious flag bearing the O’Farrel golden lion. (Cromwell would have had his tongue bored for his language.) His curses did not place a single Spanish coin in his hands.
Goodson, then in poor health, sailed for England early in 1657. Myngs returned to England with him – briefly – but was back in Jamaica by February 1658, as senior officer of the Jamaica squadron. The latest governor, D’Oyley, supported Myngs in drawing the buccaneers (English ones, for preference) to Jamaica as allies against the Spanish. O’Farrel remained Myngs’ personal gadfly.
This was no children’s game of Robin Hood, however, and Myngs was no inept, choleric Sheriff of Nottingham. On the contrary, he was an expert pirate himself, and thought like one. Both men were outstanding sea-fighters, clever, resourceful and ruthless in battle. Myngs came close to sinking or taking O’Farrel half a dozen times. He never quite did.
Once, with the help of a treacherous highly-placed Spaniard in Cuba, Myngs tried to have Helen Tavrel kidnapped in order to force O’Farrel to surrender. The girl was then six or seven. The Spaniard’s long mistreated wife, who detested him, betrayed the scheme to O’Farrel. O’Farrel would have abducted the man, taken him to sea and keel-hauled him to death, but he needed the haven and support of Cuba. Instead he insulted him, fought a duel, ran him through, and then became his widow’s lover. It caused him some social difficulties, but the many English merchant ships he took as prizes helped smooth the matter over.
He avenged the attempt to kidnap Helen by raiding Cagway and burning two of Myng’s prized warships to the waterline, in the very harbor. O’Farrel had long been expert in incendiary skills. Then he sent Myngs word that if Helen Tavrel was endangered again, he would spare not a soul aboard any English vessel he captured in future. Myngs heeded that promise.
After the Battle of Rio Nuevo in June of ’58, O’Farrel took his ease in Havana for two years with his foster-daughter. In 1659, Myngs went on another voyage of plunder along the Spanish Main, sacking the settlements of Cumana, Puerto Cabello and Coro in what is now Venezuela. Various buccaneer captains accompanied him, among them Henry Morgan, and two brothers even more brutal than Morgan or Myngs – John and Tobias Gower. Helen Tavrel was to sail briefly with John, and witness his demise, in “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom”. As for Tobias, he is almost certainly the “Captain Gower” celebrated by REH in his poem, “A Song of the Anchor Chain”, which describes his passing.
He sought to dream of flying ships
And winds that waver and dart,
But the rattle of death was under his lips
And Hell was in his heart.
And ever the vision rose and fled:
A craft on the outward tack.
And a ghostly skipper who swayed and said:
‘No man of our crew came back.’
And ever a vision followed fast –
A ship with a tattered sail
Idly flapping a broken mast –
And a plank was over the rail.”
Myngs’ and the buccaneers’ bloody cruise was successful. They netted immense booty; about a quarter of a million pounds. Myngs shared out the plunder with his crews and allies before he returned to Jamaica, directly counter to the Governor, Edward D’Oyley’s, orders. D’Oyley arrested Myngs and sent him back to England in the Marston Moor to face charges, but with opportune timing for Myngs, Cromwell had recently died, his son Richard proved a weak replacement, and the Restoration followed in 1660. Most of England rejoiced, and in the general jubilation the counts against Myngs were dismissed.
O’Farrel doubted exceedingly that these events would herald a fine new age of justice for Ireland. But he supposed his standing under the law might change, and his fortunes with it. Unlike Myngs, he had never ceased fighting against the regime that beheaded Charles II’s father, and he had always been on good terms with Prince Rupert of the Rhine. Rupert had quarreled with Charles in the 1650s, and retired to Germany, but with the Restoration the quarrel was mended and Rupert became a member of the English Privy Council. It was widely believed that Rupert and O’Farrel had sailed together in the Caribbean. That’s certainly wrong. Prince Rupert had indeed taken his privateer fleet to the Azores, and after that, across the Atlantic to the Indies, but he returned in 1653. Roger O’Farrel did not go there until 1655.
It also became part of O’Farrel’s legend that he had helped the fugitive Charles escape the Roundheads after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Charles made his way to safety disguised as a common farm laborer, but that involved wearing coarse hard shoes that nearly crippled him – they were too small by far anyway, and instruments of torture compared to the soft royal footgear to which he was used – and before long he could hardly walk. O’Farrel was said to have provided a distraction and gained the future Charles II precious time. As tall as Charles, and black-haired, he resembled him enough to be taken for the prince and draw Roundhead pursuit after him. O’Farrel’s skin was as fair as Charles’ was swarthy, but a little walnut dye altered that. O’Farrel reached his ship just ahead of a Roundhead troop, and Muiredach Myagh blasted it with Tisiphone’s guns as O’Farrel and his companions swam to safety. One of those stories that sound too good to be true, it may be a fable, but it is consistent with the general picture of O’Farrel’s generosity and dash. And it appears that after Charles was restored to the kingship, he and Prince Rupert – and Samuel Pepys, the most conscientious and hard-working member of the Navy Board under the new king – were all friendly to O’Farrel. Pepys, with no first-hand experience of the sea, found Rupert and O’Farrel’s advice invaluable.
Unfortunately, Roger O’Farrel had done a few things in the Indies and North America which made it difficult to include him in the general pardons. Most serious was his raid on Jamestown, Virginia, at the time a squalid, disease-ridden hell-hole where drunkenness was the only escape from wretchedness for many. O’Farrel took the Tisiphone, and another ship under Myagh, into Jamestown, where they burned planters’ docks and storehouses by the riverside, killing anybody who opposed them. When they put to sea again they took three ships fully laden with tobacco from the harbor to pay for the enterprise. They also freed over two hundred Irish slave women and children, taking them along too. Thus, although O’Farrel was persona grata with the king and two of the most important men in England, he still had to be discreet about entering the country. He could not do so openly. Charles and Rupert would have been embarrassed – and there were Puritan ministers in the House of Commons with long memories.
The Anglo-Spanish War had officially ended. That fact did not impress many Englishmen in the Caribbean, and none of the buccaneers. Myngs returned to Jamaica in command of a ship called the Centurion, in 1662, and Roger O’Farrel was there ahead of him. O’Farrel again resided in Cuba with his foster-daughter (who had visited England with him). He and Myngs would soon be pitted against each other once more. Myngs still believed in opposing Spain by giving the buccaneers a free hand, and the latest Governor of Jamaica, Lord Windsor, backed him as Goodson and D’Oyley had done. Myngs led a pirate force against Santiago de Cuba, and although it was strongly defended they sacked it.
O’Farrel was given command of a squadron of warships by the then Captain General of Cuba, Rodrigo Flores de Aldana. De Aldana held the office for little over a year (1662-3), but O’Farrel’s appointment was confirmed by the next Captain General, Francisco de Avila Orejon y Gaston. O’Farrel’s spies informed him that a new buccaneer fleet under Myngs was being gathered, and careless talk in Port Royal – as Cagway had been renamed – let O’Farrel know the target was Campeche. Myngs gathered the greatest pirate fleet yet seen in the Caribbean. His own Centurion and the smaller Griffin led it. A dozen or more ships crewed by English buccaneers joined the endeavor; four French vessels and three of Dutch privateers increased its strength to 20 ships and almost two and a half thousand men. They arrived off Campeche in February of 1663.
O’Farrel came to oppose them with a mere five ships; two crewed by his Irish pirates and three by Spaniards. His former ship Tisiphone, in which he had fought the Roundhead navy all around Ireland and up the Channel, and taken across the Atlantic to continue the fight in the Indies, had been sunk off the northern coast of Jamaica in the late ‘fifties. But Captain General de Avila had made O’Farrel master of a swift galleon built in Havana, the 400-ton Santa Barbara, the largest ship O’Farrel had yet captained. His henchman Seamus Browne, whom he had freed from servitude in Jamestown, Virginia, a man branded on the cheek with “R” for runaway, had charge of the 150-ton fragata the Pilar.
Against the far larger fleet there was a limited amount he could do, but he engaged Myng’s 40-gun Centurion while Myngs himself was leading an attack against the city ashore. He damaged the flagship, then had to break off his attack, and he sank two smaller ships, one French, one English. Myngs, leading a thousand men, looted the city, though he was injured in the fighting. Over a fortnight the town of San Francisco de Campeche was sacked and fourteen vessels removed from the harbor. The buccaneers thought O’Farrel had fled, but he merely lurked at a distance after the town’s surrender, and followed in the buccaneers’ wake when they departed. He sank another ship and recovered four stolen ones, among them a vessel containing 40,000 pieces of eight from the loot of Campeche. The wounded Myngs and his associates – Henry Morgan, Edward Mansfield and Abraham Blauvelt – continued back towards Jamaica with the greater part of the plunder, about 150,000 pieces of eight. O’Farrel, under cover of darkness, struck again when they had almost reached Port Royal, and caught Abraham Blauvelt’s ship lagging behind the rest of the pirate fleet. He boarded and burned it; Blauvelt was killed. Half a dozen other buccaneers pursued him, but O’Farrel showed them a clean pair of sea-heels.
The Captain General had to admit that no-one could have done more with O’Farrel’s few ships, and most leaders would not have achieved as much. Spain expressed such outrage, and O’Farrel put the Spanish case so eloquently in private with Prince Rupert, that King Charles expressly forbade any more such expeditions by the English in Jamaica, with or without buccaneer allies. During Sir Thomas Modyford’s tenure as Governor (1664-70) the ban received lip service only; Modyford was hand in glove with Morgan and others, giving out letters of marque against the Spaniards as freely as a fire gives sparks.
The long feud between O’Farrel and Myngs ended when the latter returned to England in 1665 – just in time for the Great Plague of London. He survived that scourge as he had survived long, dangerous years in the bloody waters of the Caribbean. Myngs was promoted to vice-admiral and knighted, news which O’Farrel no doubt received with an ironic smile and a quip, for he gave Myngs credit as a formidable and worthy foe, much as he regretted never having been able to sink him. That frustration went both ways; Myngs had never been able to catch and hang O’Farrel either. An asset to England’s navy, he served in the Second Anglo-Dutch War until wounded in a sea-fight in the Channel in 1666. He subsequently died of his wound in London. If O’Farrel had never been able to finish his old enemy, at least he outlived him.
Art by N.C. Wyeth
Read Part One, Part Two, Part Four, Part Five