Bernardino Martínez Castiñeira is an expert on Camariñas and the history of the many shipwrecks along the Costa da Morte, or Coast of Death, in Galicia in the northwest of Spain. “This stretch, from Cabo Vilán up to Camelle, is particularly treacherous,” he told me, as we drove around the coast from Camariñas on a blustery day. The Costa da Morte is exhilarating at any time of year and in any weather, but I would like to see it on a sunny summer’s day too, as the beaches are just glorious.
Bernadino had brought me to a very special place – the English Cemetery, just beyond the lighthouse at Cabo Vilán. We walked down the hillside towards the beach, where jade waves were crashing onto the shore. The cemetery is right by the sea, enclosed by a wall, lending at least a little protection to the graves inside.
Why is it called the English Cemetery?
“It’s a tragic story,” said Bernadino. “In 1890, on November 8th , the battleship HMS Serpent set off from Plymouth. There were 175 very young soldiers on board, who were due to be deployed in Sierra Leone. At 11 o’clock at night on November 10th, the ship ran aground on rocks at Punta Boi, just over there. Only three men survived. The rest are buried here, apart from a few who were never found.”
So what happened? Why did the Serpent founder?
“There was a terrible storm that night and they thought they were farther off shore – signals from the lighthouses along the coast were very bad then. The lifeboats were washed off the deck by the huge waves and the captain ordered the troops to throw themselves overboard, but there were only 25 life jackets.”
The coast of Galicia is where the Bay of Biscay meets the Atlantic so there are very strong currents. It was the British newspapers that first coined the term ‘Coast of Death’ for this stretch from Malpica to Fisterra, owing to the high number of shipwrecks at the end of the 19th century. As a direct result of the disaster, it later became law to have enough life jackets for all the sailors on board a ship.
Back in Camariñas, on the quayside, Bernardo pointed out a barometer set into the wall of one of the houses. “That is from the Serpent,” he said. “It was presented to Camariñas by the Admiralty in recognition of the efforts made by the local people that dreadful night.” They don’t need physical reminders of that tragic event, however. The Serpent and the many other shipwrecks are as much a part of local identity as the sea itself.
To find out more, have a look at Camariñas tourist information and the Shipwreck Route, where you can find out about accessing the 50 information points along this stretch of the coast from your phone via QR codes, NFC tags and a Layar augmented reality app.