Black Vulmea - Robert E. Howard's Roughneck Pirate (Part One)


Terence Vulmea is one of my favourite Robert E. Howard characters, and he’s also one about whom I never wrote a post for “Robert E. Howard: Two Gun Raconteur”, so maybe it’s time.  Plenty of other people have reviewed the Vulmea stories, and the character of Vulmea himself, often very well, and in 1977 David C. Smith wrote a novel about him, THE WITCH OF THE INDIES, which I remember liking a lot.

In an attempt to find a new angle on the subject, after all that, I’ll start with an aspect that’s always a plus for me.  Black Terence Vulmea fights and ventures in the history we know – specifically, the second half of the seventeenth century, in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific, then dominated by Spain and haunted by pirates.  Vulmea appears in just two stories, “Swords of the Red Brotherhood,” which on my estimate is set in 1680, and “Black Vulmea’s Vengeance,” taking place four years later.  (There are contradictions in Howard’s references to dates in the stories, and if he’d revised them for publication he might have altered those.)

Neither was published in REH’s lifetime, and there is a clash of expert opinion as to whether Howard rewrote “Swords of the Red Brotherhood” as the Conan yarn “The Black Stranger”, or vice versa, but I admit to liking the Vulmea version better.  For one thing, Vulmea performs a physical feat that outdoes even Conan!  In “The Black Stranger”, Conan merely crosses the Pictish Wilderness to the Western Ocean in time to interfere in a squabble between two other pirate captains – but in “Swords of the Red Brotherhood,” Terence Vulmea, after being shipwrecked at the mouth of the Rio Grande, crosses the entire North American continent in three years, to the coast of California (apparently).  Of course he doesn’t do this completely without help; he lives with a few Native American tribes on the way.  Nevertheless, that would have meant crossing Texas for a start, the Mogollons and the Sierra Nevada later, and possibly being the first European to see the Grand Canyon for an extra. 

As it happens, neither in “Swords of the Red Brotherhood” nor in “Black Vulmea’s Vengeance,” is Vulmea shown operating on the Spanish Main.  Both are set on the Pacific side of the continent, the first on the California coast, probably, and the second on the coast of Ecuador.  I wish Howard had told of the pirate’s exploits in the Caribbean, too, such as the one in which he “sank a king’s ship off Hispaniola.”

Another reason I like Vulmea is that he’s an unabashed, out-and-out pirate.  Novels and Hollywood movies often portray pirates in a sanitized way as unfortunate gentlemen, victims of injustice, who raise the Jolly Roger to survive or to avenge their wrongs.  Even, like Doug McClure in “The King’s Pirate”, serving as secret agents to destroy nests of piracy.  The ultimate noble pirate was probably Sabatini’s Captain Blood, played by Errol Flynn, and while I’m a huge Captain Blood fan (Blood to the dragoon who arrests him: “If your wit were as big as your voice, my dear, it’s the great man ye’d be by this.”  Dragoon: “You may find that I’m great enough to hang you!”  Blood: “Faith, yes.  Ye’ve the looks and manners of a hangman.”) he was just so noble and fine and chivalrous to women, and fought so fair, that you sometimes wish he’d callously shoot someone in the back for a bit of realism.

Well, Vulmea doesn’t shoot people in the back, he hacks them down face to face, but he’s refreshingly hard and brutal and seems a lot more like a real pirate.  And he says so.  Captive before an arrogant English captain who intends to swing him, Vulmea listens – briefly – to the man sneer that no doubt he’ll claim to be a privateer sailing under letters of marque.  Vulmea’s having none of that.  He answers scathingly:

Save your breath, fish-eyes!  I hold no commission from anybody. I’m not one of your accursed swashbucklers who hide behind the name of buccaneer.  I’m a pirate, and I’ve plundered English ships as well as Spanish, and be damned to you!

This particular English captain, John Wentyard, is the one who hanged Vulmea once before, in Ireland, when he was a ten-year-old boy, and Vulmea remembers it.  He plays on Wentyard’s greed to catch him alone and at a disadvantage, meaning to kill him without mercy.  However, he finds that Wentyard has a wife and daughter who will starve without him, and he stares astounded at the locket with their pictures in it before exploding in wrath.

You’re an infernal dog!  I ought to split your skull!  For years I’ve dreamed of it, especially when I was drunk.  Your wife and daughter don’t mean anything to me. But I’m a fool, like all the Irish, a blasted, chicken-hearted, sentimental fool, and I can’t be the cause of a helpless woman and her colleen starving.

He assists Wentyard out of the mess he’s in and takes him back to his ship, still raging and fulminating – though he doesn’t allow himself to fall into Wentyard’s power again.  As he says, “John Wentyard lost in the jungle is one man; Captain Wentyard aboard his king’s warship is another.”

Read part two here.