International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Memoirs
My last article was a report on my visit to the cemetery where members
of the crew of HMS Serpent, a British warship that sank off the Northwest
coast of Spain in 1890, lay buried. This second episode is a sort of tribute
to those who lost their lives, the three sailors who managed to survive
as well as the local inhabitants and authorities that assisted in the
recovery and burial of the bodies and reported the tragedy to the rest
of the world. It is based on a compilation of information from personal
statements, press reports and enquiry findings taken from numerous sources
that are available on the subject. It is the story of what actually happened,
imagined through the eyes of the characters that died and those that lived
to tell the tale.
The Consul and the Serpent - Part Two - A Lighthouse Mourns
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. Thirty knot winds
were howling past Cape Finisterre from the south-west with one knot
currents pushing coastward as Pedro carried out his routine check
on Cape Vilanos lighthouse rotor. Hed been on duty for
the past three days and knew that the weather was far from abating.
The sun was nowhere to be seen and the low lying clouds continued
to deliver their daily drizzle of thin rain.
As Pedro climbed
down to his quarters and before hurrying inside for a hot meal, he took
to his binoculars for a final surveillance check across the ocean. No
change, he thought focusing northwards towards the rocky area
of Las Baleas, a couple of miles away. He froze. The ominous signs of
shipwrecked debris were swishing around the shoreline.
So, Henry, no sooner back from down under that youre off
again to the South Atlantic! said Lord Ross.
Captain Henry Ross had just returned from Australia and was given a
new assignment by the Admiralty to command one of the navys torpedo
cruisers as a relief for her sister ship attached to the West Africa
Squadron based in Sierra Leone. He was bidding farewell to his ageing
father, at Arnage Castle in Ellon, Scotland before making his way to
Plymouth to join his ship, HMS Serpent. He was aware of the discriminating
press that had criticized the Archer type cruisers as being unstable
during the firing of the ships guns, and although the engineers
had redesigned the structure, Captain Ross was still wary of joining
one of them and steering it thousands of miles south of the United Kingdom.
He didnt wish to show his angst as he answered, Ill
be back before you can count to 10, father! Dont forget to say
a prayer for all of us at St. Marys.
Miles away, Edwin Burton, a young able seamen first class was packing
his belongings as his parents looked on in one of the small coastal
cottages in South Devon. There was a sad look on his face as his mother
hugged him and said, were real proud of you, son.
She knew he could be away for years. Looking at her husband she added,
your father says that youre one of the senior lads on board.
Ed nodded, thats right, yet Im still a bit concerned.
Weve got a complement of cadets joining us for training and my
mate says its meant to be secret. His father looked puzzled.
Ed went on, why would we take them all the way to Africa? Most
have hardly been to sea!
After checking supplies and the last of the ships compliment of
172 seamen, HMS Serpent left Plymouth on a south-eastern
route heading for the Bay of Biscay. It was the 8th of November 1890.
It would take them two days to round the coast of Spain and make for
Madeira, their first port of call for supplies and rest and recreation
for the crew. The weather forecast was not good, gale force winds and
heavy seas were predicted but not strong enough to cause any delay in
departure. Despite press criticisms, the ship was built with the latest
galvanized steel technology with two powerful four and a half thousand
horsepower steam engines capable of reaching a maximum speed of 17 knots.
With 1950 tons displacement and equipped with three 3" torpedo
tubes, the three mast cruiser was an asset for any modern navy of the
late XIX century. Her mission was to continue with the surveillance
of illegal slave traders that could still be operating off the West
Coast of Africa. In practice the assignment was more in line with the
Navys muscle flexing exercise to protect Britains African
The crossing had been uneventful except for the constant inaccuracy
of the ships compass and guesswork with the sextant due to lack
of sunshine. First Lieutenant Grenville had pointed this out to Captain
Ross no sooner had they left the Sound. I still dont like
it, he said half way through his evening watch on the 10th of
November. Our exact position is still a matter of guesswork, Sir.
Winds were still strong from the south-west and the waves were over
10 high. Darkness was just around the corner. Without a word Captain
Ross looked at his watch. It was 19.30. He turned to first seaman Burton
who was assigned lifeboat duty and said, I want all officers on
deck at once. He then checked the ships speed at 8.5 knots.
Two hours went by without a change in the weather conditions. It was
now pitch-dark. Soup had been brought up as extra refreshment for the
11 officers who were too tense to drink it. They were instinctively
searching for the nearest lighthouse knowing that the coast was no more
than 10 or 12 miles away. The ship had by now been sheltering from the
heavy seas as close as possible to land. We should be rounding
the Cape in about 10 or 15 minutes. Keep a steady course and watch for
the lighthouse, seaman! said Grenville to Burton.
There was a sudden thump and the ship came to a halt. Some of the crew
was thrown to the deck. Captain Ross reacted immediately, full
astern! The ship did not move. The Serpent had landed on a sharp
rock situated close to the shoreline that continuously harboured a series
of crashing waves against the coast. She was 8 miles off course. Minutes
turned into hours. Ross sensed the danger and ordered the assembly of
all hands on deck and the lowering of lifeboats. Life lines were fired
at random but snapped no sooner had they hooked on to solid rock. It
was too late. The waves had taken over, smashing hard against the upper
deck. Edwin Burton heard Lieutenant Richards futile scream ordering
the lowering of one of the remaining port side lifeboats. Ed and several
others managed to scramble into it but a huge wave took over and destroyed
any hopes of what was left of life support. Meanwhile, Onesiphorous
Luxon, a young deckhand who was below deck rushed atop as soon as the
ship had stopped and seeing the mayhem setting in, his immediate reaction
was to desperately climb one of the masts out of reach of the menacing
sea. He soon saw a lifeboat still floating alongside the wreck, climbed
down and tried desperately to reach it. In a split second he changed
his mind and tried to make his way to the bridge but was soon overtaken
by yet another wave that threw him out to sea. It wasnt until
Captain Ross, still heard above the cacophony shouted, every man
for himself. Abandon ship! that those still on board realised
the fate that awaited them. Within half an hour, HMS Serpent had sunk.
Edwin Burton had made it ashore with a slight bruise on his knee. Although
it was still pitch dark and the constant drizzle limited visibility
he miraculously stumbled across Luxon limping aimlessly amidst the rocks.
! he uttered staring at Luxon who was groaning
in agony. For a moment neither moved. Slowly, Luxon reacted, I
think Ive broken my ankle! Neither knew where on earth they
were. Ed looked around him. They had made it to a sandy beach that was
some three hundred yards from a low cliff edge. Slowly they made their
way up the cliff and began their inland trek.
Camilo was greasing the harness of his oxcart as his wife Imelda stocked
the fireplace to boil a kettle of water when a sudden knock on their
cottage door stopped them in their tracks. Two strangers stumbled onto
the dirt floor of the hall, soaking wet and wearing lifejackets. It
was seven in the morning, just before dawn. Without hesitation, the
local farmers gave the two young seamen food and warm shelter whilst
trying to figure out what had happened as neither understood each others
languages. It was all too obvious, however that the youngsters had been
shipwrecked. We must get them to Xaviña, Imelda,
said Camilo, they need a doctor; quick! With no time to
waste, the couple gently placed the two sailors on their oxcart and
headed for the nearest town some 5 miles away.
Two hours later and after deliberating on whom to contact they eventually
decided to take Burton and Luxon to the local church. They burst open
the church doors. As luck would have it, Father Carrera Fabregas was
in the midst of the midday mass with a full congregation of local townsfolk
about to take communion. On seeing the anguished look on the faces of
the new arrivals, he stopped the service and walked down the aisle towards
them. Waving both hands, he ushered them to take a pew at the back of
the church. Calmly he asked Camilo what had happened and who were the
Father Carrrera was quick to react. He turned and addressed the congregation,
we have an emergency. Something has happened down at the rocks,
maybe a shipwreck. Without interruption he went on, I want
you all to get down to the coast as soon as you can. Its still
daylight and we have no time to waste. He then told Camilo to
take Luxon, still in very deep pain, to the local chemist, Ill
take care of this other one, pointing at Burton.
Next stop was the town hall.
Ive got a crowd from the church on their way to the beach,
said the vicar, but we need as many villagers as we can summon
to go in search of possible survivors. Mayor, Vicente Perez Martinez
reacted immediately and sent a messenger over to the local naval representative,
Captain Federico Milagros that a ship had run aground near the lighthouse.
A similar messenger was soon off to Camariñas, the nearest town
that supposedly had telegraph connection to the outside world to advise
Corunna, the capital of the province, of yet another shipping tragedy.
Captain Milagros had added his own note to the Naval HQ in the same
city. By now the priest, Burton and a further posse of locals raced
to the lighthouse area some 8 miles away. When they arrived and approached
the rocks a ghastly sight stopped them in their tracks. Without a word
they just stared in ore. The scene was dantesque. Some bodies had washed
ashore and others were still bobbing up and down in the shallow inlets
of the rocky edge intermingling with a large amount of shipwrecked debris.
Suddenly an unexpected sight caught their eyes. Ambling around the cliff
top rocks, bleeding all over was 1st seaman Fredrick Gould. He couldnt
remember quite what had happened to him as he had passed out no sooner
had he landed ashore in a broken heap.
All throughout the day Father Carrera and the villagers retrieved many
of the dead seamen. The Father arranged a makeshift burial ground half
a mile from the beach. Although the faith did not allow for non-Catholics
to be buried alongside Catholics, he felt it his Christian duty to bury
the departed regardless of their religion. This brought about a furious
complaint from the chaplain in Camariñas, Father Carreras
boss. Quick off the mark he replied with a misleading note that said,
the Catholics have been buried several meters away from the others.
Nobody ever questioned the difference. A total of 142 bodies were eventually
When the news belatedly reached Corunna, the editor of the local newspaper
La Voz de Galicia was quick off the mark with the incredible
story not before lambasting Madrid for the poor telegraphic communications
in Galicia that were needed to receive updated information from anywhere
in the region. If we wish to contact Corcubión, a nearby
town, the editor wrote, we have to send a messenger by horse
some 18 leagues away. If it is Vimianzo, another close town the horseman
has to fight his way through the forests! It is just as quick to contact
you city folk in Madrid. Such was the press initial sarcastic
response to the tragedy. The communications deficit brought about an
added complication. The relaying of information was skewed and resulted
in quasi-comic operetta dialogue as witnessed by the interrogation of
the three survivors.
Once Burton, Gould and Luxon had been transferred to Camariñas,
the naval representative together with the town mayor began to question
them on their ordeal. The first message sent off to Ferrol, the naval
HQ in Galicia was received as: Yesterday, just off the Boy rocks
the vessel Frederick J. Gould H.M.S.Serpent Which Islestsin
was lost! The naval Commander, with the message still in his hands
looked up at his telegraph operator, this does not make sense.
Ask for reconfirmation of information. The original message was
never sent on to Madrid. Meanwhile Father Carrera, who had also interviewed
the young survivors had sent off his own correct message, but directed
instead to the British Embassy that made its way to the British Admiralty
in London. Immediate action was taken. The confusion had its short term
political effects as Queen Victoria, through the Foreign Office channels
wanted to know why the Spanish Ministry of Defence had not informed
Britain direct. Old wounds were opened but diplomacy prevailed and relations
continued as normal.
The aftermath was swift. British Vice-Consul Rostrow made his way from
Madrid to Galicia whilst HMS Lawping, anchored off Vigo was ordered
to proceed direct to Camariñas. It arrived on the morning of
the 14th and the Commander together with the Spanish naval Captain Milagros
made their way on foot to the burial site to offer a British Christian
service. Father Carrera, who continued to be severely reprimanded on
his burial forepaw was forthright and took his case to the nearest Bishop
who immediately overruled any un-Catholic behaviour. What the Bishop
did not know was that Father Carrera had bullied the local villagers
in recovering some of the bodies from dangerous locations amongst the
rocks lest they burn in Hell if they refused.
No doubt that the locals from the Finisterre area will always remember
the tragedy as the worst shipwreck off the Galician coast in shipping
history. Their heroic efforts where nevertheless rewarded. The outcome
was a gift from the British Admiralty of a gold clock for the mayor
of Camariñas and a hunting rifle for Father Carrera. During the
whole of the ordeal all three survivors never let go their life jackets
setting the precedent of todays safety rules aboard any vessel
large or small. First step in case of suspected danger: Put on
Pedro, the lighthouse keeper took it all in his stride. He had seen
and was about to witness many more shipwrecks in his lifetime. The lighthouse
at Cabo Vilano is still alive and well. It does its best to keep protecting
ships although some continue to slip through the net. The cemetery has
been restored and is kept up as a modern shrine dedicated to all seamen
lost at sea. It sits alone on the hilltop overlooking the murderous
waves that batter the rocks and caress the beach. The ocean never gives
up its punishment of wayward ships and seamen.
© James G. Skinner. March 2009.
Consul and the Serpent Pt 1
Its been two years now since I resigned as Honorary
British Consul in this north-western part of the Iberian Peninsula.
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