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HMS Serpent

  1. Name: H.M.S. Serpent
  2. Type of vessel: Military, third class cruiser (light)
  3. Flag: British
  4. Date of sinking: 10 November 1890
  5. Cause: ran aground, storm
  6. Location: Boi Point, inlet of Trece (Camariñas)
  7. Diving level: advanced
  8. GALP territory: Costa da Morte (Coast of Death)


The shipwreck that changed maritime safety worldwide

The Serpent is considered one of the most symbolic shipwrecks of all those registered on the Costa da Morte (Coast of Death), due to the circumstances of the event and because the victims were mostly cadets.


The training ship H.M.S. Serpent ran aground at night in the Boi Point shallows (Camariñas), in the middle of a south-westerly storm with very poor visibility. The bodies of 173 crew members, only three people were left alive, were delivered up over many days by the sea, mutilated, on Trece beach To this day, they are still remembered and honoured in their graves in what is known as the Englishmen’s Cemetery. The ship was partially scrapped and has been subject to archaeological plundering.

For years, English ships passing through the area honoured the victims with salutes and wreaths of flowers. On land, every 10 November, the Real Liga Naval Española (Spanish Royal Naval League), in collaboration with the Town Council of Camariñas, has also organised commemorative events in this place of great natural beauty but disastrous for maritime navigation.

The shipwreck occurred on the night of 10 November 1890, when the Serpent was travelling from the mainland to the West Africa Station, which stretched from Sierra Leone to the Cape of Good Hope. Their mission there would be to show the flag on a coastline coveted by the European powers.

This Royal Navy ship had left the port of Plymouth, on the south-west coast of England, two days earlier to relieve its sister ship Archer, but its voyage was cut short by bad weather conditions, strong sea currents and a navigational error, as ruled by the British authorities after an investigation. These three factors caused the vessel to run aground in the Boi Point shallows, 250 metres from the coast.

Only three of the 175 crew members, Frederik Gould, Edwin Burton and Onesiphorus Luxon, who had donned cork vests, made it ashore alive, badly injured, although they were able to walk to the nearby village of Xaviña to call for help. Life jackets were not yet in general use and the Serpent only had 25.

The ship was acquired by Guyatt for scrapping in June 1891 for the sum of 4,200 pesetas, although it is not known whether the successful bidder was the British Government or the Spanish Administration. The tasks for making use of the scrap continued until after the middle of the 20th century.

Unstable design

H.M.S. Serpent was launched as an Archer-class torpedo cruiser. This series was a development of the preceding Scout class and, like this one, had a very limited protection scheme, although it did have better gunnery. They were, however, too slow to attack using torpedoes, so they were soon reclassified as third-class cruisers after their launch.

Although they were more seaworthy vessels than the Scouts, they heeled abnormally at times and were very wet in rough weather. They were not particularly good steamships although their narrow machinery was very reliable, which explains the long career of the surviving units and their success.


The whole series of these ships, as an artillery platform were very unstable, their armament was probably too heavy for their displacement.

Characteristics of the H.M.S. Serpent

Triple expansion steam, 4500IHP. 1770 tons of displacement. 68.58 x 10.97 x 4.41m. Steel hull.

Built: 1888, Devonport Naval Dockyard – Plymouth Dockyard, Plymouth.

Shipowner: Royal Navy, Admiralty, London.

Captain: H. L. Ross.

Route: Devonport to Sierra Leone via Madeira.

Crew: 176. Victims: 173.

Weapons: 6 pieces of 6 in, 8 pieces of 3 lb, 5 TT of 14 in.

Protected by the Xunta de Galicia

The archaeological site of the British warship H.M.S. Serpent is included in the Inventory of underwater archaeological sites, of the General Directorate of Heritage of the Xunta de Galicia.

Turning point

The history of maritime safety is directly linked to this tragic maritime event. Six years after the accident, the Cape Vilán lighthouse adopted its current physiognomy and location, becoming the first lighthouse in Spain to be powered by electric energy. It became a first class category -like that of Finisterre or the Sisargas Islands-, achieving its light of 60 miles (97 km) at 130 metres above sea level. In addition, the Royal Navy generalised the use of life jackets on all its ships.

Another of the Serpent’s traces in Camariñas is the barometer placed on the façade of number 3, calle Alcalde Noguera Patiño, facing the fishing port. It was one of the gifts from the British Royal Navy in gratitude to the locals for the assistance given to the three survivors and for the search and rescue work for the bodies of the victims. The priest of Xaviña, who “buried the Protestants,” received a shotgun and the mayor, a watch.

A plaque in memory of the deceased can also be seen in the gardens of San Carlos in A Coruña.