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The 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
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. 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 Vilano’s lighthouse rotor. He’d 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 you’re 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 navy’s 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 ship’s 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 didn’t wish to show his angst as he answered, ‘I’ll be back before you can count to 10, father! Don’t forget to say a prayer for all of us at St. Mary’s.’

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, ‘we’re real proud of you, son.’ She knew he could be away for years. Looking at her husband she added, ‘your father says that you’re one of the senior lads on board.’ Ed nodded, ‘that’s right, yet I’m still a bit concerned. We’ve got a complement of cadets joining us for training and my mate says it’s 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 ship’s 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 Navy’s muscle flexing exercise to protect Britain’s African colonies.

The crossing had been uneventful except for the constant inaccuracy of the ship’s 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 don’t 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 ship’s 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 wasn’t 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. ‘God…!’ he uttered staring at Luxon who was groaning in agony. For a moment neither moved. Slowly, Luxon reacted, ‘I think I’ve 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 strangers.

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. It’s 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, ‘I’ll take care of this other one,’ pointing at Burton.

Next stop was the town hall.
‘I’ve 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 couldn’t 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 Carrera’s 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 recovered.

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 today’s safety rules aboard any vessel large or small. First step in case of suspected danger: ‘Put on life jacket!’

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.

The Consul and the Serpent Pt 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.

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