The frigate Gneisenau, outside Malaga harbour.
The history of the English Cemetery in Malaga is closely linked to that of the city itself in many ways, but none closer than the link deriving from a disaster in December 1900, which would lead to royal recognition of the spirit of the city, a new bridge, and an annual commemoration of the ties between Germany and Malaga.
The ‘Gneisenau’ was a training ship belonging to the Imperial German Navy and in December 1900 she was anchored off the Malaga shore, with a crew of 470 men, waiting to pick up a German diplomat. On the 15th, the Malaga port authorities warned Captain Kretschmann that high winds were approaching and recommended he take shelter in the port, but he decided to weather the storm at sea. The following morning the ship’s moorings broke and the Gneisenau, battered by the tempest, quickly sank.
The people of Malaga scrambled to help, setting out in boats to rescue as many of the sailors as they could, and throwing ropes from the harbour walls to pull in survivors. They were unable to save the lives of 42 of the crew, including the captain and chief engineer, all of whose remains now lie in the English cemetery. Twelve ‘Malagueños’ also drowned in the effort to save the sailors.
Those who survived were taken in and looked after by the people of Malaga, including some German residents, and those in need of hospital treatment were taken to the ‘Hospital Noble’ (incidentally a Malaga hospital built on instructions left in the will of another foreign resident buried in the cemetery, Dr Noble). The disaster, and its aftermath, was widely reported on both in the Spanish and international press, and a few days later the Queen Regent, on behalf of her son King Alfonso XIII, bestowed the honorary title of ‘muy hospitalaria’ (‘very hospitable’) on the city of Malaga. The words can be read on the top right of the city shield. Other mottos to which the city is entitled are ‘La primera en el peligro de la libertad, la muy noble, muy leal, muy hospitalaria, muy benéfica y siempre denodada Ciudad de Málaga’ (‘The first in the danger of freedom, the very noble, very loyal, very hospitable, very charitable and always dauntless city of Malaga’).
The story and the links didn’t end with a new motto. In 1907 the city was devastated by floods caused by a torrent of water and mud from the mountains north of the city. The lower lying areas of the city, such as El Perchel and La Trinidad, suffered most, as the water came down the Guadalmedina river and rose as high as five metres, so that people had to be rescued from their upper windows. Twenty one died in ‘la riada’, and two of the bridges over the Guadalmedina were swept away.
Hearing of this new disaster, the German government sent funds to be used for a new bridge to replace the old Santo Domingo bridge. To this day it is commonly known as the ‘Puente de los alemanes’ ‘The Germans’ bridge’) although its official name is still ‘el puente de Santo Domingo’. The bridge was inaugurated in 1909 and a hundred years later, the donation was commemorated with another plaque, unveiled in the presence of Marie Louise of Prussia, the great granddaughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the then German Consul, Georg Hagl. The plaque reads ‘Alemania donó a Málaga este puente agradecida al heroico auxilio que la ciudad prestó a los náufragos de la fragata de guerra Gneisenau’ (‘Germany donated this bridge to Malaga in gratitude for the heroic assistance the city gave to the shipwrecked crew of the frigate Gneisenau”).
Every year in December, wreaths are laid at the monument in the English Cemetery for the victims of the Gneisenau, in the presence of represantatives of the German Marine Corps.