The HMS Serpent, famous victim of the Coast of Death

Surely its notoriety reaches further back in history, but the events of the night of 10 November, 1890, have given the Coast of Death a singular event that encapsulates its infamy and danger.

It was a typical stormy late autumn evening near Cabo Vilán. The HMS Serpent, a third-class torpedo cruiser in the British Royal Navy, had reached this stretch of the Galician coastline two days after departing Plymouth, England, carrying 176 crew members and a cargo of cannons and torpedo launchers. The cargo nor the men would never reach their destination of West Africa.

Memorial plaque to the victims of the HMS Serpent shipwreck

At 9:00 PM, the sailors Gould and Burton were on watch on the deck of the Serpent. Their captain, Harry Leith Ross, set the ship to head due west and ordered Gould and Burton to search for the signal from the lighthouse at Cabo Vilán. The fog was so thick it swallowed every light particle and sound wave: the two British sailors couldn’t even hear the sea crashing violently against the rocks of the nearby reef called Punta do Boi. Shortly before 10:30 PM, Gould and Burton decided to continue watch on deck and put on life jackets, of which there were only twenty-five for the 176 crew on board.

At 10:30 PM, the Serpent’s crew heard a loud noise that they confused as a strong blow from the sea. In fact, the ship had run aground on Punta do Boi. When the captain finally realized the situation, he ordered the engines reversed at full strength. The order proved futile, however, as the Serpent’s hull was caught on the jagged rocks. The ship was thumped helplessly by the heavy swell against Punta do Boi. The captain odered the life boats released but they were immediately obliterated by ten meter waves. The relentless pounding from the sea eventually freed the Serpent from the reef but it was too late: the ship broke into two and sunk.

As the Serpent was sinking, Burton was separated from the crew by a wave. He floated for two hours at the mercy of the sea until he washed ashore on Praia do Trece, a beach near Punta do Boi. As day broke, Burton heard a voice shouting in a familiar language: it was a fellow crew member, Luxon. He had been swept off the boat and broke his leg when he was thrown against the rocks. The two walked together to Xaviña, a nearby village, where a local family gave them shelter. Burton’s deck-mate, Gould, was found alone on a beach by the mayor of Camariñas. The three were the only survivors of the HMS Serpent and they shared one thing in common: they wore life jackets. After the British Royal Navy learned of the tragedy, it ordered all ships in its fleet to carry sufficient life jackets for all crew members.

Cementerio de los ingleses (in front) and Praia do Trece (to the right).

Over the following forty-five days, the three survivors identified 142 bodies of their crew mates that washed ashore; thirty-one bodies never appeared. The remains were interred in a cemetery between Punta do Boi and Praia do Trece, a cemetery that previously held the twenty-eight victims of the Iris Hull shipwreck in the same location off Punta do Boi seven years earlier. The cemetery is now known as the Cementerio de los ingleses, the English Cemetery. Every year a ceremony is held here to honor the Serpent and all other men and women that have disappeared along this impressive yet formidable Atlantic coast of Galicia, the Coast of Death.

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