Off the coast of Camariñas in the month of February 1890, the Costa da Morte lived up to its name.
The British cadet ship The Serpent was on route to Sierra Leone when she ran into the treacherous weather this coast of Galicia is still famous for. There were 179 young men aboard, some on their very first voyage. The rain fell in torrents and a sea mist obliterated the headland upon which stood the Cabo Villan lighthouse, at that time manually operated.
“We was three days out of Plymouth, sailing along at half speed. Most of the lads was below deck. As we began to make our way down to Cape Finisterre, the waves began to swell and crash over the leeward side. That started it: we got pushed nearer and nearer to the coast and the visibility was something rotten. Somehow we got turned around. We was about three miles out from Cape Villan and about a mile only from the land.‘Course, we didn’t know it then. We didn’t know where we was with the fog being so thick, see?”
Upon passing Cabo Trece, The Serpent ran aground on the treacherous Punta Boi..
The ship did not sink immediately; instead, pinned there by the tumultuous waves the sailors climbed unsteadily up on deck battered by a sea which would show them no mercy.
The commanding officer, Harry Leith Ross, a veteran of Her Majesty’s Navy, ordered the lowering of the lifeboats. The launch cannon was fired but the waves were so great that the projectile never reached land. Men were scrambling down into the lifeboats just as an enormous wave hit the ship broadsides and washed both the little craft and the men overboard. At that point the Commander’s voice could only just be heard: “Every man for himself!” he cried.
Some of the men had managed to put on their lifejackets, although only a very few. The Serpent remained wedged. Soon nothing and no-one remained on deck: the crew, the lifeboats and even the deck of the ship had simply been hurled aside by the force of the wall of water. All that remained were the six cannons pointing uselessly at an enemy which shot could not defeat.
First Seaman Edwin Burton here picks up the tale:
“There was only three of us: Gould the lifeboat captain, Luxton and me. Luxton managed to hold on to the rocks. I saw others around him try the same, but all were washed away. Luxton he was a strong one, to be sure, but even he was half-dead by the time he reached the shore. A big swell threw me against the body of Lacane, one of my shipmates. We slammed into each other trying to save ourselves. There was bodies all around us, some with the arms ripped away, with their heads just … gone. It were a gruesome sight.
“Somehow I was able to reach Luxton. We managed to reach some folks in the little parish just up from the shore: Xavina they told me it was called later. I looked back and saw Gould struggling in the water, but with so many out there, there was little we could do for him save get help as quick as we could, like. We got to a fisherman’s cottage and called the alarm. We was exhausted, I can tell you. He was ever such a good man: he gave us food and dry clothing and called others out to help. For most though, it was too late.”
Gould finally made it to land. Overnight, The Serpent broke in two. Forty Eight bodies washed up on the shore. Most were in their lifejackets but even so they were in a terrible shape: mutilated by the wrath of the ocean as it battered their lifeless bodies against the rocks. One of them was the Commander. Over the next few weeks, one hundred and twenty eight bodies finally made it back to land, all in an advanced state of decomposition.
Depending upon whom you talk to, there may have been a sinister motive for the sinking of The Serpent. According to writer Ramón Allegue in his book Mar Tenebroso, the English government needed to transfer a substantial amount of money to its Colonial army in South Africa: this was to secure the release of crews of other boats which had been captured by the enemy. The Serpent had another ship, The Lapwing, along with her as protection.
But wreckers didn’t just exist in the coasts off of Cornwall, a la Daphne du Maurier. Indeed, the Requeros, as they were known, were just as active and dangerous in Spain. Some were even in the pay of the landowners who stood to gain from any cargo washed ashore. It may then have been the Requeros who turned off the lights at Cabo Villan luring The Serpent and all her crew onto the rocks…
The Lapwing sped away for help and came back with another ship, The Sunfly. Between them, they managed to salvage a chest filled with gold coins.
But the second chest was never found.
After the shipwreck, the English Admiralty gave a rifle to the Parish priest of Xavina in gratitude for all his help. A gold clock was given to the Mayor of Camariñas and a barometer to the City Council: you can see the barometer still. It is embedded in a wall in the town’s centre and is signposted. The figurehead has been preserved as well
The bodies were buried close to where they lost their lives: today it is called simply The English Cemetary. It has its own eerie peace there on the headlands, and a chilling lesson when the winds raise the ocean along the Coast of Death. The cemetery is just north of Camariñas around the coast on the way to the fishing port of Camelle, which has its own story to tell, as you shall see later.
Until 1950, when an English ship passed this part of the coast, it shot a salvo as a sign of respect for the death of so many fine young men.