Wednesday, 30 November 2011

It Was a Dark and a Stormy Night…

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.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Monte Neme and the Wolfram Mines...

One of the truly compelling things about moving to a new area is discovering all the little walks and passageways, all the roads you’ve never been down, all the little hidden gems to be discovered and uncovered. Even though I won’t be in residence in the Little Fox House for another 6 weeks, I have begun to do a virtual tour of the area ready to take pilgrims out to places they could never have had a chance to see from the bus! Since I am taking a bit of a break from researching The Dove and the Yellow Cross while waiting for St. James’ Rooster to make it onto the shelves (and packing!) I thought maybe you might like to learn a little bit too and so in the next few weeks I am going to explore here some of the places of the History and Mystery of the Coast of Death in Galicia… Once La Casa del Zorrito is up and running I hope to offer some of these tours to those of you who are interested.

One of these places involved the Nazi exploitation of a little town called Carballo.

In the First World War a mineral called wolfram was discovered in the Monte Neme close the area of the Costa da Morte. Wolfram was used to harden steel and not surprisingly became in great demand especially on the eve of WWII as the Germans were rebuilding the navy denied to them by the Treaty of Versailles. Since they foresaw that there would be difficulties obtaining wolfram from Burma and China, their usual sources of supply, the Nazis turned to Franco.

Wolfram is very scarce in Europe. Only areas of Portugal, some parts of Caceres in Extramadura and Galicia had it in any quantity. Hitler appealed to the Generalissimo for the authorisation to exploit the wolfram as compensation for economic and military help during the Spanish Civil War. Two virgin sites were opened up: Casaio and Carballo just south of A Corunna. The Germans then created a company in Vigo called the "Estudios y Explotaciones Mineras de Santa Tecla" and by the end of the Civil War the mines were already producing in great quantities.

The Galician Wolfram had a decisive importance for the Nazis. It was practically their only supply source. The Nazis needed the Galician Wolfram to harden the steel for their armament trades and supposedly neutral Galicia became a meeting place for Nazi agents willing to get the material at any cost. The price of the mineral skyrocketed to amounts far exceeding its pre-war limits and the scramble for the grey gold began in Monte Neme. Needless to say, mining fever brought all varieties of adventurers and speculators. More than 1000 workers needed to be housed in the golden days of wolfram. Some stole the wolfram to sell on the black market but the sentences were grim for those who were discovered!

Money was plentiful and the little city of Carballo grew more and more, doubling its 1500 inhabitants in 1940 to 3000 in only ten years.

Women played just as important a part in the mines as men did. Not only did they do domestic service, but they also moved the carts, separated the ore, and brought water to homes and factories until running water was introduced. They carried firewood and gorse brush to the ovens and driers. No doubt their children also played a part. No laws against child labour in those days: the only moral code was whether your family ate or starved.

The constant dust in the air led to many deaths, most notably by silicosis, the bane of all miners. Stealing and smuggling led to many a body being thrown down a shaft on a moonless night...

The wolfram was used to coat different weapons to ensure a greater strength. The demand from both the Germans and the English made the price go up to 200 pesetas per kilo, a sizable sum in those days. The close of the hostilies of World War II meant the end of this first mining fever, since prices fell as other countries' minerals became available once more. Other new sources were discovered such as a large mine in Bolivia with cheap labour. A second fever did break out in Carballo in the early fifties due to the war of Korea but with the end of that conflict, the whole Galician wolfram lost its importance.

The exploitation of Monte Neme continued on - in fact, for a long time right up to 1980 – but it never regained the splendor of the war times.

Even closer than Carballo for me in Carantona, at the end of the lovely coastal walk known as the Insua route, are the remains of the old Amparo mine located in the so called Campo do Turco. All now is overgrown, of course. The walk itself begins at a picnic area overlooking the Camarinas ria. A little further around and a small promontory opens out into a vista stretching all the way to the pilgrim town of Muxia just across the bay. If there is a perfect spot on earth just to sit and reflect on your Being, this has to be it. The mine workings are signposted in one place and the subsidence can easily be seen in others.

I don’t think I’d want to walk too far off the track though...

Next time: Shipwrecks of the Costa Morte, old and new.