International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Spain
The Consul and the Serpent Part 1
been two years now since I resigned as Honorary British Consul in
this north-western part of the Iberian Peninsula. Five years of
dealing with Brits in Distress as the Foreign &
Commonwealth Office categorise their subjects when they get into
trouble abroad. Some of my exploits are described in a Hacks
series written a few years back, titled: Diplomatic Diaries.
I had just completed
a consular course in Copenhagen when I decided to pack it in, during
which every aspect of consular work was described and instructions on
what to do in the event of
were discussed, particularly
for those newcomers to the job. From rape cases to lost passports, hospitalisation
to arrests, I had covered all and a few more that were not known to
my London colleagues who were directing the course. At the end of the
day, I had left the service satisfied that I had achieved a great deal
of knowledge, not only on the peculiar behaviour of humanity that happened
to need my services and that I was able to assist, but also on the way
Galicia and its people deal and have dealt with many of my fellow citizens
visiting this area of Europe.
I had to work with town councils and the courts, with the police and
civil guards, with prisons, hospitals, doctors, nurses, shipping agents,
port authorities, maritime rescue services and a great many other minor
sectors of the community that somehow had a hand in helping sort out
a problem concerning a Brit. On the brighter side were the different
civil engagements, many based on historical ties between both nations
such as commemorating the Battle of Rande in 1703 when a
large British and Dutch fleet took on the Spaniards and the French in
the bay of Vigo. I found out only the other day that apart from Vigo
Street in London and Vigo town in Kent there are two other Vigo names
in the UK. One is in County Durham and the other is a bridge in Tavistock,
Devon. One never ceases to discover historical data.
Still on the warmongering side, the most famous commemoration of all
is the battle of Elviña in Corunna during the fatal retreat of
Sir John Moores troops in the Napoleonic Wars in 1809. Every year,
The Green Jackets Society re-enact the battle and place
a reef on the tomb of Sir John with all dignitaries standing at attention
as the muskets are fired and trumpets are blown! This year marks the
bi-centenary of the War of Independence as it is known in
Spain, and ceremonies are being held throughout the region to mark the
But contemporary historical ties with Britain were what most fascinated
me during my tenure as Her Majestys Government representative.
I somehow was always involved with people who kept reminding me of the
good old days when Galicia was swamped by British influence.
The industrial revolution brought about hundreds of engineering and
other craftsmen to these shores. For example, in the mid XIX century
an Englishmen called John Trulock built the first railway line and another,
Edwin Forester was hired as a pottery designer for Sargadelos,
a firm that is today one of the most famous artisan porcelain factories
in Europe. Cable & Wireless installed one of their first telegraph
cables between Porthcurno, Cornwall and Vigo in 1876 and set up a telegraph
office whereby hundreds of British operators spent a tour or two during
the next century as the cablegram business flourished worldwide. Local
historians say that these English youngster introduced football to the
area. At the turn of the century, a huge shipbuilding alliance was signed
in Ferrol and the small city in the Lugo province turned into a mini
British colony, home to dozens of British engineers and their families.
It is ironic that today, these yards are one of the largest in Spain
whereas Britains shipbuilding industry is practically non existent!
The modern British Navy added its own grain of salt to the historical
pot. Between the two world wars the Northern Fleet used Villagarcia
in the province of Pontevedra as their rest and recreation spot with
literally thousands of sailors wandering through the streets of this
tiny fishing village almost duplicating the inhabitants of the villa.
Another curious relationship was born when Galician emigration took
off after the breakdown of the remaining Spanish colonies in Cuba and
the Philippines at the end of the XIX century. Thousands of Spaniards
returning to the mainland were confronted with poverty and unemployment.
Britain soon took advantage of the situation and used the ports of Galicia
to send their fleet of merchant ships that linked Europe with South
America. Hence, the Royal Mail lines, Holder Brothers and Lamport and
Holt shipping lines opened up offices and catered for the masses of
Spaniards seeking fortune on the other side of the ocean.
It is obvious that all this British activity and setting up of mini
colonies influenced the opening of consular offices wherever they were
required. And where there was a British colony there was a need for
a cemetery! Corunna was the first city to build its own when a then
full blown British Consul named William Congreve purchased
a plot of land in 1867 and began offering burial services to the local
British community. Another vice-consul called Sir Reginald Cameron-Walker
came to terms with the Royal Navys watering hole and built a military
cemetery in Villagarcia. Both cemeteries are still alive a kicking.
Returning to the most important relationship which is the bond between
seafaring communities, we can trace the history further towards the
northern coastline of the Lugo and Corunna provinces when both British
and Spanish engineers plotted and designed a network of lighthouses
that helped, for over a century and a half, to guide shipping from Europe
en route South as they approached and navigated past the infamous corner
of Cape Finisterre, one of the most dangerous navigational spots in
the world. Although satellite navigation has taken over, these historical
sights still stand today as a legacy of protection during those bygone
days. One of these lighthouses, at Cape Villano has a sinister history
of its own. On the 10th of November, 1890 a British RN cruiser on its
route from Plymouth to Sierra Leone failed to see it and ran up on the
rocks on the bay next to it bursting its seams and sinking, within an
hour to the bottom of the sea. Out of a crew of 179 sailors, only three
survived. It is still considered as the worst wreck in the areas
history. The name of the vessel was HMS Serpent.
As I stated at the beginning of this essay, during all my time as HBC
I had covered and experienced almost all the tasks that relate to the
job description duly supplied by Whitehall to all future
HBC, as well as those chores that I considered dealt with the extra
mile and do not appear in any F&CO brochure. However, when
I wrote my polite letter of farewell to His Majestys
Ambassador I still had in the back of mind, one last remaining job to
do that had been nagging me and was on my agenda ever since the first
day that I took office. I had to visit the cemetery in which many of
the bodies of the sailors of HMS Serpent were buried. But before I did,
and although I had a rough idea of what actually happened on that infamous
night, I decided to research as much as I could before visiting the
area. The wreck was tragic, but the aftermath, the news despatches and
above all the accounts from the three survivors was incredible.
The full story will appear next month in my second version of The
Consul and The Serpent - Part II
© James Skinner. February 2008.
Consul and the Serpent - Part Two - A Lighthouse Mourns
The storm was in full swing; the sea as rough as ever. It
was that time of the year. Dawn was about to break on another bleak
November morning in the north-western coast of Galicia, Spain
Author of The
life and living
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibility
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.