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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Spain

The Consul and the Serpent Part 1
James Skinner

‘It’s 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 Moore’s 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 occasion.

But contemporary historical ties with Britain were what most fascinated me during my tenure as Her Majesty’s 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 Britain’s 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 Navy’s 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 area’s 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 Majesty’s 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.

The Consul and the Serpent - Part Two - A Lighthouse Mourns
James Skinner
‘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 Goa File

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