ON almost every day of the year, the beach at La Herradura is a pleasant place for holidaymakers. But a large shorefront sculpture (below) of a sailor in distress recalls a time when it saw disaster, destruction and death.
In October 1562, 28 galleys put in for shelter to the horseshoe-shaped bay that gives the town its name. The ships were filled with soldiers and their families, and supplied for an expedition against the powerful Ottoman Empire.
Double-anchored along the eastern shore, sheltered from a strong easterly winds, experienced commander Don Juan Hurtado de Mendoza y Carrillo thought his fleet was safe. He had sat out similar storms in this haven twice before. But the winds shifted to the south during the night and high seas threw the fragile galleys against each other and the jagged rocks of the headland now called Punta de la Mona.
Of the 28 galleys, 25 were lost, with only the three ships on the extreme seaward side of the fleet – the Mendoza, Sovereign and San Juan – able to round the headland and find the protection of Los Berengueles bay. Soldiers and sailors, with their heavy armour, boots and clothing, were helpless in the strong seas and the death toll was as much as 5,000. (Chroniclers of the time differed in whether or not they included women and slaves among the recorded deaths.)
Only 2,000 survivors made it to the beach through the strong surf and maelstrom of wreckage. Mendoza himself drowned after being hit by a piece of timber when he tried to swim ashore after an unsuccessful attempt to beach his flagship. Of his own crew, only the pilot, nine sailors and 13 galley slaves survived.
The losses included “…Don Alonso de Marañón, knight of the town of Santiago, who drowned in La Herradura…”, as recorded by Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote.
Bodies washed up on the beach for the next few weeks and were buried in a mass pit in the sand before having to be cremated after they were washed out again by other storms.
The galley slaves, physically strong and near-naked for their backbreaking work on the oars, made up the majority of the survivors. But, in the harsh winter weather, their misery was just beginning. Desperate and hungry, without clothes or shoes, they roamed the coast looking for help.
However, local resources were not up to the task of feeding or controlling such a large body of enslaved enemies. Months passed before those still alive were recaptured and sent back to the galleys.
In the centuries since, with the shifting of winds, tides and sands, the exact location of the wrecks have become less and less uncertain. Divers still search the bottom in the chance of finding some trace of the galleys, or their crews, but this fine bronze by sculptor Miguel Moreno Romera is the only marker of this tragedy.