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‘A Cruel Six Hours’
Francis Drake, Robert E. Howard and Errol Flynn

One of my favorite Conan stories has ever been The Black Stranger, a fantasy that is almost identical to the pirate yarn Swords of the Red Botherhood, featuring Black Vulmea, by the same author. The Black Vulmea version blends the fate of an Italian explorer operating under French colors from the 1520-40s, with the fate of the survivors of the 1568 sea fight of Vera Cruz between a Spanish squadron and a smaller fleet of ships under the command of John Hawkins and Francis Drake. A hundred men were marooned at the mouth of the Rio Grande, and then walked and navigated across the entire south to Florida, then turning north and walking to Cape Breton, Canada, only three surviving.

In Howard’s Black Vulmea tale, that hero is one of the marooned men, but strikes out across the Rockies and Sierra Nevada ranges to a Northwest Pacific Coast bay, where various pirates seek the treasure of the lost Italian navigator, whose fanciful journey up the Pacific Coast was based on that of Drake. The Conan version retains the same plot and connects this hero both artfully and seamlessly in the same scene in which both of the protagonists are revealed as hunted warriors.

Swords of the Red Brotherhood [to which the Valeria character in the Conan yarn Red Nails belonged] and The Black Stranger will be reviewed side-by-side at a later date.

In the meantime, I must acknowledge the excellent work of Tony Hunter in the January/February issue of MUZZLELOADER for part 1 of The Pirate, Francis Drake, Claims California for England. In this article Tony describes the execution of Thomas Doughty on the stormy and forlorn tip of South America, a tale that figured prominently in the Solomon Kane Saga in which the poem The One Black Stain is devoted to this piece of villainy by Drake, with Kane as a fictional witness to, as well as condemner of, the act. References to the slaving trips by these English captains who attacked slave ships and stole their cargo and the Kane stories set on the African coast, and at least one ghost story by Howard, all seem to be sourced from Drake’s famous foray with Hawkins and the later voyage with Doughty.

It is obvious from a reading of the stories to one who has read much on piracy and exploration that Howard had read of and was enthralled by these real heroic tales of daring and skullduggery. I checked the bibliography of Mister Hunter’s article and found all recent titles, with nothing from or before Howard’s time. However, Tony drops a clue that there was a high measure of interest in the life of Francis Drake in the 1930s when he cites a movie I saw as a boy, The Sea Hawk, a four star movie starring Errol Flynn at the height of his fame, released a mere four years after the death of Robert E. Howard, who was apparently not the only writer to see the appeal of the dreaded “Dragon” who had hunted the Spanish Main.

Below is a link to a theatrical trailer of a period movie inspired by the same historical figure that served as a dark shadow in at least a half dozen Robert E. Howard stories, featuring Kane, Vulmea and Conan:

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