Valhalla - Primos 1871
A ship’s figurehead represents many things. The quality and design of the figurehead will reflect the wealth, taste and extravagance of the ship’s owner. It is the final flourish in the long and expensive business of building a ship, so a gloriously worked, lavishly decorated figurehead would have been something of a public proclamation of status and pride by the owner.
The model for the figurehead may have been a wife, daughter, son, mistress or even the owner, himself. To the sailor, a figurehead was also an object of pride and also a key part of basic ship identification. Emerging from the fleshpots of Bombay, let us say, an illiterate sailor, whose critical faculties had been blunted by strong drink, might have struggled to pick out his own vessel amongst the hundreds of ships jostling together in the busy port. A figurehead was an obvious and vital source of recognition, in what might otherwise be a rather bewildering situation.
A figurehead might also have some superstitious value, bringing good luck on each voyage, keeping watch over the seas, the ship and the crew. If ever this talismanic power was present in a figurehead, then it was never more so than in that of the Primos. The Primos was an iron barque, built in Sunderland in 1869. She was registered in Bilbao and was carried sugar from Havana to Falmouth and Greenock. On 24th June 1871, around dawn, the Primos struck the Seven Stones. She began to sink fast. One boat drifted away empty, before the captain and four of the 12 crew launched a second. This swiftly capsized in the heavy seas, drowning the occupants.
In some 12 minutes from first striking the rocks, the Primos slid under the waves, taking with her the entire crew. One man remained alive. Vincenzo Defilice, alone in the dark, heaving sea, had managed to grab hold of a hen coop, that had been swept off the decks of the Primos. For two hours he clung tenaciously to this makeshift raft. Shaking violently with cold and battered by the waves, Delifice began to wonder if a quicker end might be favourable, perhaps he should release his grip on the coop and allow the sea to claim him. Just as his numb fingers began to loosen their hold, something in the water caught his eye. There he could see, torn from the bow of his ship, the figurehead of the Primos.
Delifice later stated, apparently, that once he saw the serene face of the figurehead, he knew that he would be saved. Letting go of the hen coop, he swam over to his buoyant saviour. For another hour, he hugged the figurehead until one the ship’s boats drifted by. After rowing himself to English Island Neck by St Maritn’s, he was rescued bu pilots. The figurehead washed up on St Martin’s, having saved the life of Vincenzo Delifice.
Valhalla and the figurehead collection are to be found in the Abbey Gardens on Tresco. The gardens are open every day of the year.
For further information: www.tresco.co.uk