The Superb Roger O’Farrel –- Part Two Essay
“The ocean is of blood! See how it swims red in the rising sun! Oh my people, my people, the blood you have spilt in anger turns the very seas to scarlet! … It is more than a mortal sea - The Superb Roger O’Farrel –- Part Two Essay introduction! Your hands are red with blood and you follow a red sea-path, yet the fault is not wholly with you. Almighty God, when will the reign of blood cease?”
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Robert E. Howard, “The Dark Man”
The Roundheads had achieved their conquest of Ireland. It began with the massacres of Drogheda and Wexford on the east coast, where Cromwell himself was the commander. Some have apologized for the red slaughters on the grounds that they were not unusual for the times, or that Cromwell had not ordered them. But even after Wexford (where Roger O’Farrel’s wife Labhrain and their infant daughter had been killed), Cromwell did not punish his soldiers for their bloody excesses. And Cromwell was not the man to tolerate breaches of discipline as a rule. In fact he justified the butcheries as “a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood, and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds for such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret.”
O’Farrel did his utmost to occasion Cromwell’s men regret, if not remorse. His vessel the Tisiphone became a dreaded shape on the seas to the parliamentary forces. Many a supply ship and troop transport lay rotting under the water because of him. His friend Brychan Tavrel was dead; his other main henchman, Muiredach Myagh, had lost a hand. Myagh replaced it with a triple-pronged steel claw forged for him in Munster, and would become known as “Taloned Muiredach” because of it.
Before this, O’Farrel and Myagh had more than once found harbor and friends in the Scilly Isles, a long-time haven of pirates and recent scene of determined resistance to the parliamentary forces, like mainland Cornwall itself. Lord Hopton’s score of ships had harassed parliament’s merchant vessels and men-of-war out of Scilly, until Cromwell had finally sent 2,500 soldiers and a combined English and Dutch fleet to break the resistance, in April of 1651. The Royalists held out valiantly but were forced to surrender at last. O’Farrel had to avoid Scilly thereafter.
Before his execution, King Charles I had praised the loyalty and courage of the Cornish, but now they were being punished for it by grim Cromwell’s men. Ancient family lands in Cornwall were sequestered and given as rewards to Roundheads. Despite the danger of the times, great Cornish families like the Trelawnys, Godolphins and Killigrews stayed loyal to the exiled Charles II, who to them was the king no matter what parliament said. The Tavrels of Fowey, though less great and powerful, also held by the Royalist cause. They were cousins of Roger O’Farrel’s slain comrade, Brychan Tavrel, and they more than once took messages by sea to Charles II in the Netherlands. They were betrayed in the end, in 1654, and Cromwell sent men to take them. O’Farrel, who kept in close touch, learned of it and sailed to Fowey to offer assistance. The Tavrels had fled, but a warship pursued them, and caught them off Falmouth. Roundhead soldiers boarded the Tavrel ship against fierce resistance; those aboard knew they would receive no mercy.
O’Farrel in the Tisiphone entered the fight while the Tavrel ship was burning. He sent a broadside into the Roundhead warship and forced it to withdraw, foundering, then sprang aboard the Tavrel ship, in which no-one still lived except the screaming, two-year-old Helen. O’Farrel carried her into the Tisiphone, then pursued the parliamentary warship and made sure it went to the bottom.
Like Roger’s murdered daughter, Helen Tavrel had grey eyes and golden hair, and she was little if any older than Finola O’Farrel had been. He swore on that day to care for her as if she were his own. But where? There was no safety in Ireland or England, and France had made peace with England under the Lord Protectorate.
O’Farrel took himself and Helen to Brussels, where he resided for a time. The portrait painter John Wright had just arrived in the city after a decade in Rome; he painted O’Farrel in 1655, in the romantic costume of an Irish chief, or Wright’s notion thereof. Shortly afterwards, Wright went to London on a mission to procure artworks for Archduke Leopold of Austria, then Governor of the Spanish Netherlands.
O’Farrel was then 33, a famous fighting seaman or notorious pirate, depending on one’s point of view. Helen was three, an enchanting, spirited child by most accounts, and the light of O’Farrel’s life. She adored him. O’Farrel thought of settling down, even though he had quickly grown restless in Brussels, but then the Spanish government offered him a commission in the Caribbean. It mistrusted Cromwell’s intentions there. O’Farrel went, taking Helen with him, and they arrived safely in Cuba.
Havana (San Cristobal de la Habana) was the seat of the Spanish governors of the Indies, the Captains General. When O’Farrel and Helen arrived, they were welcomed by the (acting) Captain General, Don Ambrosio de Sotolongo. O’Farrel found the man bearing this exotic name to be elegant, fairly able, as capable of sentimentality as of cruelty. Little Helen touched de Sotolongo’s sentimental side. The Captain General’s lady, Dona Lorenza, was charmed by the child as well. O’Farrel began to fear he had made a mistake in bringing her to the Caribbean, though, when he heard that a fearful epidemic (probably of yellow fever) had devastated Havana half a dozen years before. But he knew well that children died like flies of disease in Europe too.
As a city, Havana was then the richest, most splendid in the Caribbean. The annual treasure fleet, by royal decree, assembled in Havana Bay from May to August, and left for Spain with the best weather. Gold, silver, emeralds, mahogany, alpaca wool, spices, dye and cocoa, all flowed through Havana’s magnificent harbour, impregnably fortified by the 1650s. Six hundred regular soldiers garrisoned the forts, with ten companies of trained, well-armed militia. Havana boasted palaces, rich private houses, wide plazas and – of special interest to O’Farrel – it was the greatest ship-building centre in the West Indies.
There was little time to socialise or relax, however. Before O’Farrel even arrived, an armed fleet was sent from England to Barbados on a mission of conquest – his “Western Design” as Cromwell called it. The main purpose was to establish a secure military base and weaken Spanish power in the New World. Command was shared by Robert Venables and William Penn, with two and a half thousand infantrymen embarking from England with them. Fifteen hundred of these, though, were raw recruits, a disadvantage of which Venables – a veteran of the Irish Wars – complained strongly before leaving. He was ignored. Eighteen warships and twenty transports set forth at the end of 1654. In Barbados and the other English colonies of the Caribbean (where Cromwell had sent thousands of Irish men, women and children as slaves) some four thousand volunteer troops were raised. The ancient army cliche probably applied: “I want volunteers, you, you and you.”
Venables and Penn were free to choose the objectives they thought most promising, once they reached the Indies. They chose Hispaniola, and in April 1655 they arrived off Santo Domingo, but heavy, violent surf forced them to make their landing about eight leagues further west, and then march for three days with sorely inadequate water. Many soldiers fell ill. Upon reaching Santo Domingo they were ambushed and forced to withdraw. A second assault failed miserably, and the soldiers refused to make a third, so Penn and Venables resolved to take Jamaica instead. The island was a relatively easy objective, not considered important by the Spaniards, poorly fortified and garrisoned. The English arrived in Kingston Harbour on the 10th of May.
From half-way around the world and a remove of centuries (it’s always easy at that distance) the whole business looks to have been badly handled by the English and the Spanish. The Captain General in Havana was lucky Penn and Venables failed at Hispaniola; he responded too late to do anything if they had succeeded. He sent an (inadequate) force of ships and soldiers to relieve Santo Domingo, and Roger O’Farrel went with them, in command of his Tisiphone. The Roundhead fleet had gone to Jamaica by the time the Spanish arrived. They gave chase, Roger grim with memories of his wife and child, slain at Wexford six years before.
Penn and Venables handled matters poorly at Jamaica once again. The Spaniards there were too much outnumbered to fight, and knew it, so they negotiated surrender terms as slowly as possible to gain time. By the middle of May they had turned all their cattle loose in the wilderness and their African slaves too, so that the English would gain nothing from either. The richest Spaniards used the respite to take their valuables and flee to Cuba. The English had indeed taken Jamaica, and the Spanish could not dislodge them, though O’Farrel was in the forefront of the battle attempting it. These were Cromwell’s men, his hated enemies. They had made Ireland a slaughter-yard. O’Farrel had fought them for years, and thought to escape them in the New World. Now they had followed him even there! So be it, O’Farrel said to himself. I can fight them in the Caribbean too.
And ever a Face was floating before,
And ever my broadsword bit,
And it seemed at each stroke the skull I shore
Of the Bloody Hypocrite.
Soon after taking Jamaica, Penn and Venables returned to England – without orders or permission to do so. They went back separately. There had been considerable friction between them on the expedition, made worse, it was said, by Venables’ wife, who had accompanied them. She had criticized both commanders and seemed to think she should be in charge, a cause of derision and displeasure among the soldiers – who had not been happy in any case when they were forbidden to plunder. The commanders were clapped in the Tower by Cromwell on their unauthorized return.
O’Farrel was sorry they had not been beheaded. But he wasted no time moping. Returning to Cuba, he gathered intelligence – one of his strengths was that he informed himself thoroughly before he carried out his raids – and went to Barbados, where he descended on the island and lifted hundreds of Irish captives from a church meeting, one of the places they were allowed to gather en masse and unguarded. They were called “indentured servants” but in practice they were slaves without rights. Many of those he liberated were women and children. Scores of the men joyfully joined his crew. In his novel Captain Blood Sabatini describes condemned men involved in Monmouth’s rebellion being sent to the Indies as slaves by James II, but Cromwell had done it to many Irish decades before – those Irish he had not slaughtered or starved.
For the next five years O’Farrel ranged the Caribbean in his frigate Tisiphone, flying a flag which bore his family arms, the golden lion with red tongue and claws on a green field. He sank Roundhead ships where he found them, and harassed French shipping as well, with the excuse that France and Spain were at war – and France signed a treaty with Cromwell’s government in 1657, an added justification where O’Farrel was concerned. He liberated other Irish sold into slavery, not only in Barbados but St. Kitts’, Nevis and Jamaica, as well as raiding Virginia for the same purpose on one notable occasion. He had made a fine art by now of combining liberation with loot.
English governors of Jamaica in the first years after the Cromwellian conquest tended to be temporary. The first one, Sedgwick, died the same year he arrived, 1655. General Brayne followed him and died in 1656. D’Oyley came next, and being inured to the Caribbean climate he lasted longer. The former Spanish governor, Cristobal Arnaldo Ysassi, had been at large in the mountains of Jamaica all that time, allied with the folk the Spanish called los Cimarrones, escaped slaves of the former Spanish masters. It’s surprising they had not killed Ysassi and his men, but then they had been joined by other black slaves the Spaniards had turned loose at the time of the English conquest, though not out of the goodness of their hearts, and perhaps that influenced them. In any case they doubtless regarded the latest conquerors as no improvement, just one more gang of murderous thugs from Europe. If Ysassi was fighting them, the Cimarrones (Maroons as they became known to the English) were willing to make an expedient alliance.
Roger O’Farrel took a hand in that conflict too. He had witnessed too much Spanish arrogance and cruelty by then to be starry-eyed about his own allies, but he still regarded the Roundheads as worse. In 1657 Ysassi, with a force of about four hundred tough-handed fighters at his command – Spaniards and Maroons — sent a request to Cuba for reinforcements, as he planned to take back the island. They came, inadequate as usual, for the power of Spain had declined in the New World since the 16th century; one reason for the rise of the buccaneers.
O’Farrel, as usual, was present and active, with his comrade from the old days on the Irish Sea, Muiredach Myagh. The Spanish force landed on Jamaica’s northern coast, as before, at a place called Las Chorreros. The English Governor, Edward D’Oyley, had received word that Spanish warships had arrived, and sailed north to meet them with around nine hundred men. He defeated Ysassi’s force, and O’Farrel’s Tisiphone, badly outgunned, was pounded to pieces and sunk. With Myagh and some other survivors, O’Farrel made it to shore and fled into the mountains with Ysassi, who had also survived the day. D’Oyley captured the other Spaniards; they were ransomed and returned to Cuba later, but as O’Farrel knew well, he would have received no such clemency if taken.
He spent something over a year in the mountains of Jamaica with Ysassi and the Maroons. They raided and fought the English in pinprick actions for the entire time. Then as on other occasions, the medical training O’Farrel had received at the University of Padua in his youth saved numbers of lives. He had always treated his own men’s wounds, and long since added vast practical experience to his theoretical knowledge. He had nursed Muiredach Myagh in Donegal when Myagh lost his hand in a battle.
One of O’Farrels first actions was to travel south on foot with Myagh, a weather-beaten character tougher than teak. Under cover of darkness, they stole a fast single-masted Bermuda sloop from an English harbor. Taking it around Jamaica to the northern coast again, they hid it in a quiet cove against the day they would need it. They suspected they would not have long to wait.
The day arrived in June of 1658, when Ysassi and his guerillas, again supported from Cuba, made a final attempt to take back Jamaica from the English. The action lasted two days, again with D’Oyley leading the English, and is still remembered as the Battle of Rio Nuevo — the largest ever fought on Jamaican soil. The English were victorious again. Muiredach Myagh was killed by cannon fire as he manned the walls of Ysassi’s stockade at O’Farrel’s side. O’Farrel urged Ysassi to escape with him, but the Governor refused, returned to the mountains, and continued to hold out until 1660. O’Farrel went back to Cuba in his lifted sloop and spent two relatively peaceful years in his house in Havana with Helen, the light of his life, who had reached the age of eight when the Restoration placed Charles II on England’s throne.
Roger O’Farrel was now thirty-eight, and for some time gave serious thought to making peace with the English crown — even seeking credit for his constant battle against the Cromwellian regime. But it swiftly became apparent that the new king was not about to restore to any surviving owners the vast expropriations Cromwell had carried out in Ireland, or even manumit the Irish sent to the Caribbean and North America by Cromwell as slaves – in fact if not in name. He might nevertheless have taken advantage of the Indemnity and Oblivion Act of 1660, a free and general pardon for crimes committed during the Civil War and Interregnum, if he could. Alas for O’Farrel, the pardon did not apply to murder, piracy, sodomy, rape or witchcraft, and he had many times committed the first two, at least, as when he had raided Virginia, the instance most difficult to forget.
Men O’Farrel considered much worse than he were sitting pretty despite their hideous crimes. Christopher Myngs, for instance, was very much on the Caribbean scene at the time. Myngs had served in the English navy through Cromwell’s dictatorship; he commanded the Elizabeth during the First Anglo-Dutch War and later arrived in the West Indies as captain of the 44-gun frigate Marston Moor. Myngs had commanded the Jamaica naval squadron since January 1657. With his own Marston Moor and two other warships, he had carried out a savage voyage of plunder from Central America to the coasts of present day Colombia and Venezuela, in 1659. The Spanish government held him to be a common pirate and mass murderer, as did Roger O’Farrel. He hated Christopher Myngs’ guts, and Myngs fully reciprocated. But an account of their feud would take a post of its own.
Another man who had reached the Caribbean by then was a fellow Irish pirate of O’Farrel’s, about eight years his junior. The stories are vague and contradictory as to whether they ever met. The younger man was Black Terence Vulmea. Again, Vulmea deserves one post at least to himself; his career was as wild as O’Farrel’s, and lengthier than that of most pirates. Many described him, with curses, as impossible to kill.
Roger O’Farrel had also lived through long, bloody years that would have killed another man twenty times over, and his odyssey was far from complete.
Read Part One, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five