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

Read part one here.


“Swords of the Red Brotherhood” appears to take place before “Black Vulmea’s Vengeance.”  It’s essentially the same story as the Conan yarn “The Black Stranger”, recycled with a different protagonist.  In both stories, a tainted noble with a relentless enemy has fled to a distant, savage coast and hidden there, until a three-cornered fight between three different pirate captains over a fabulous treasure brings the story to a bloody conclusion, after the usual shifting alliances and double-crosses.  Vulmea cheerfully takes his own full part in the double-crosses, coming out the winner in the end, with a pirate ship and a pirate crew to follow him, about to return to the Spanish Main.

As in “Black Vulmea’s Vengeance”, he alloys his ruthlessness towards his male enemies by helping out a noble lady and her little ward, taking them back to civilization with a generous stake towards a new start.  Maybe he wasn’t so unlike Peter Blood after all.  That is certainly what Blood would have done.  But Terence Vulmea would surely never have quit the rover’s trade to become Royal Governor of an English colony!  When he told Wentyard, “Damn you and your prating of ‘His Majesty!’ Your English king is no more to me than so much rotten driftwood,” he meant it.  He’d never forgotten the English crown’s abuses of his countrymen, or the sudden, arbitrary noose an English officer awarded him when he was a boy of ten.  REH might have had Vulmea in mind when he wrote “A Buccaneer Speaks.”

I’ve had my pleasure in slaughter and wreck,
And all undaunted my end shall be,
With the broken sword on a bloody deck
Or the raven’s croak on the gallows tree.

When the two Black Vulmea stories were printed together in 1970s collections – from Zebra Books, for instance – another story, “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom” was included with them.  This is the only Howard yarn to feature the young female pirate Helen Tavrel, adopted daughter of another Irish pirate, Roger O’Farrel.  (O’Farrel, evidently, is educated and high-born, while Vulmea is purely roughneck peasant stock.)  Both, in my estimation, would have been Terence Vulmea’s contemporaries, O’Farrel a full generation older and Helen a few years younger.

This doesn’t matter, in the context of a review of the “Vulmea” stories, but as with most of REH’s yarns, there are a lot of casual references that would have made entire novels if Howard had chosen to write them.  The other pirates in “Swords of the Red Brotherhood”, well-born Frenchman Guillaume Villiers and Bristol gutter-rat Dick Harston (who hate each other) must each have had a bloody and interesting career in his own right.  We’re told that “unless rumour lied”, Villiers had once been a familiar figure at Versailles.  And the names of (fictional) pirates known to Vulmea are mentioned in passing in “Black Vulmea’s Vengeance.”  We receive the most information about the Dutch buccaneer, van Raven, in whom Captain Wentyard is intensely interested.  Vulmea immediately sees that this is because van Raven had taken treasure from a Spanish plate fleet – the sort of achievement that not just every sea-rover could claim, so the Netherlander must have been an outstanding sea-thief as well as a restless, impulsive one.  Vulmea says, “Van Raven?  He’s a bird of passage.  Who knows where he sails?”

He also asks, knowing the answer anyway, why Wentyard is interested in van Raven and not a number of others more destructive to English shipping, like Villiers (we can suppose Wentyard doesn’t know Villiers died in “Swords of the Red Brotherhood”) or “Tranicos”, or “McVeigh.”  L. Sprague de Camp rewrote “The Black Stranger” as “The Treasure of Tranicos”, but the "Tranicos” mentioned in “Black Vulmea’s Vengeance” sounds as though he might have been Greek, perhaps with a history of fighting his Ottoman overlords, and I picture “McVeigh” as a dark, dour little Scots Presbyter, quoting scripture and devilishly handy with a dirk.

Well, Robert E. Howard never wrote anything about these rogues except their names, so we cannot know, but it would have been interesting if he had.  At least we have his two stories about Black Terence Vulmea.  Like most fans who’ve read them, I found them memorable and Vulmea a powerful, fascinating character.  He’s quite a bit more than just a Caribbean version of Conan.