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 Orejón y Gastón, 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 Cristóbal 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.
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