The shipwreck of the Serpent
On November 10, 1890, the great tragedy of HMS Serpent took place in the heart of the “Costa da Morte”. A tragedy that still survives in the collective imagination of the people of the area and that contributed decisively to the baptism of the area with the name Costa da Morte (Coast of Death) that was used for the first time by British newspapers.
To begin the story we have to place ourselves on Saturday, November 8, 1890, the day on which the HSM Serpent sailed from the shores of Plymouth. A brand new third-class battleship built three years earlier in the Devonport shipyards.
The ship was heading to the African colony of Sierra Leone. But the captain, Harry Leith Ross, and the crew would never reach their destination.
After leaving, already in the direction of Galician waters, in the open sea the ship encountered a situation not very favorable for navigation. A strong swell with sea of bottom of the West that forced it to sail at half machine.
On November 10, the ship headed towards the end of Fisterra through what is known as the “Finisterre corridor”, where all the ships headed to the Mediterranean, Asia, South America or, as it was the case, to Africa had to pass. The strong winds and the sea in the background diverted the Serpent and caused the ship to ram the heights of Punta do Boi in the dark night.
At eleven o’clock at night the alarm was given when it hit the rocks and the captain ordered to prepare the line throwers, they broke like threads in the middle of the storm and the lifeboats were swept by the waves on the deck of the ship, as well as several of the sailors. The agony of the battleship lasted about an hour, time it took to be destroyed and sunk by the raging sea.
There were only three survivors; Edward Bourton, Frederick Gould, and Onesiphorus Luxon. Luxon was the first to reach the coast, and when he went to the nearest town, Xaviña, he heard the voice of his companion Bourton, who had been miraculously thrown by the sea to the beach of Thirteen. The third sailor, Gould, was found in a coal barracks, where he received first aid from the carabinieri couple who guarded it.
From the day of the event and until Christmas the bodies of the crew were arriving little by little to the coast and the sandy beaches of Thirteen. The neighbors moved from November 11 to collect the bodies of the sailors. They collected, in total 172 corpses, which would be buried in the “Cemetery of the English” made and consecrated by the parish priest of Xaviña “ex professo” for that purpose.
Grateful for this detail, the Admiralty gave personalities of Xaviña and Camariñas and the people themselves with various gifts. One of them was a barometer that today can be seen on the facade of a house near the port of Camariñas. As a memory of the Serpent, his figurehead is also preserved, “O Barbudo”.
Another version of this shipwreck is given by Ramón Allegue, author of the book “Mar Tenebroso”; According to this writer, the British Government needed to send a large fortune for its colonial army, as well as new NCOs to relieve the crews of other ships in South Africa. That would be the true mission of the Serpent. Due to the valuable cargo, the ship would be escorted by another ship, the Lapwing.
The British “raqueiros” (species of land pirates), got in touch with Galician raqueiros. The Galicians acted and, in theory, managed to put out the old lighthouse of Cape Vilán, so that the Serpent went against the Cape of Boi. The sea was so turbulent that even the raqueiros could not reach the remains of the ship. The Lapwing, who was a few kilometers ahead, turned around when he did not see the Serpent and was, in later days, able to recover one of the two bunkers of coins that transported the wreck. But that is another story that will have to be told in more detail on the next occasion.