The greatest Spanish naval tragedy in times of peace: the Valbanera

 In Canary Islands, News

When the sailors saw the errata in the name of the ship, they began to presage the worst. One of the jewels of the empire built by Naviera Pinillos had confused the name of the holy mother who was asked for blessings for the future of the ship: the Virgin of Valvanera, venerated in La Rioja and of special devotion for the business family. By stamping the name on the hull of the boat someone confused the be by the vee. Bad business

The Valbanera was splintered in Glasgow in 1906. Its dimensions reached 132 meters in length and almost 15 in the beam. It weighed more than 5000 tons and its horsepower could reach a cruising speed of 12 knots, something not insignificant for the time. Its maximum load of 1200 passengers began to pass and to give problems two months before the catastrophe.

On July 16, 1919, the ship arrived at Puerto de La Luz, in Las Palmas, from Cuba, with 1,600 passengers on board. That is to say, 400 more than the allowed ones, who traveled crowded on the deck without sufficient food and withstanding the inclemencies of the weather during the 14 days that lasted the crossing.

At that time an epidemic of flu broke out that ended the lives of 30 people whose bodies were thrown into the sea. Upon his arrival in Las Palmas, the popular reaction and the press did not wait. The town tried several times to lynch the captain while the local newspapers requested their processing. The funny thing is that Naviera Pinillos did dismiss the Captain, but not because he considered that he had done anything illegitimate, but because he denounced the company for forcing him to assume a greater burden than he owed.

The new captain

Ramón Martín Cordero, 34 years old and with eight years in favor of Pinillos, was the substitute. La Naviera was never condemned and continued with its mercantilist practices against security.

On June 24, 1919 an advertising note appeared in the newspaper ‘La Prensa’ in Tenerife, saying “the modern and fast steam of two helices and eight, one thousand tons Valbanera, will pass through this port to those of Santiago de Cuba and Havana in the first fortnight of next July, admitting passengers and cargo, having to address the hollow requests with the due opportunity, to the agent of the Company in this Plaza”.

On August 10, 1919 the ship, commanded by Captain Ramón Martín Cordero, sailed from Barcelona. And on August 17 he stopped at Las Palmas, where 259 passengers boarded. The price of a ticket reached 1250 pesetas, although the humblest could embark at the cost of 75 pesetas with a class ticket “Emigrants”. They traveled without any kind of intimacy in the cellar entrepuentes, crammed into rows of multi-storey metal bunks. A day later, already in Tenerife, another 212 passengers got on the ship. And on August 21, in the port of La Palmas, another 106 passengers embarked. After leaving La Palma, some historians speculate that the Valbanera lost, in a sudden maneuver, one of its anchors. For sailors this was also interpreted as a symbol of bad future.


After disembarking in Santiago de Cuba, on September 5 the ship goes to Havana with 488 people on board. Nobody could foresee, neither Captain Cordero nor the crew of Valbanera, who were heading to the eye of a hurricane that was forming at that very moment in the Gulf. Immersed already in the anxiety, the ship tried to arrive at the port of Havana, but when arriving it was with a closed port due to the cyclone itself. There, the captain decided to move the ship to the high seas and try to withstand the currents bypassing the bravery of the waves.

From the watchtowers it could be seen the lights of the ship and its swinging towards the depths. On the night of September 9 to 10, 1919, Valbanera was wrecked by the storm. 488 people died, of which at least 408 were Canaries. Some were neighbors of the municipality of Tías and other payments of Lanzarote.

There were no survivors. When the canaries disembarked in Santiago learned of the news, they rushed to write to their families. The news reached the islands on September 23, although the confusion of who had died and who did not stay for a long time because the authorities refused to give the list of passengers who had disembarked before the tragedy. Maybe to hide the excess load and avoid a possible judicial sanction.

There are many legends that emerged about the Valbanera. In the United States, the Valbanera is known as the “Wreck of the Whores”, since among Key West fishermen it is said that the ship was not allowed to enter Havana because a large group of prostitutes was traveling on board. Valbanera is also known as the “Titanic Canario”.

Currently, the remains of Valbanera are visible at low tide at the eastern end of the Florida Keys. Of the almost five hundred dead who perished under the cyclone, only one head was found by some American fishermen.

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