The Shipwreck of The Grosvenor 4 August 1782

The East India Company’s Grosvenor was a three-masted, square-rigged, frigate-built vessel. She was built by Wells of Deptford and set off on her maiden voyage to India in 1770. Twelve years later, on her fourth and last voyage from Madras to England, she plowed straight into the African continent in the early hours of a stormy, misty morning.

She had hit the Wild Coast of South Africa. For those of you who haven’t visited South Africa, the coastline is a wild and woolly place – Wild Coast, Skeleton Coast, Cape of Storms. I have not been to a coastal resort and seen quietly lapping waves and bobbing swimmers. It’s noisy and crashing and white foam and ROAR! It’s terrifying. I grew up with an almost biblical fear of being swept to Australia, as I was warned by Aunty P would happen if I got caught in the wrong current.

South Africa’s aptly named Wild Coast

I do not like the beach. I don’t like sand in gussets. I don’t like perfectly laid out and soft towels being sanded by little wet feet. I don’t like seeing the pink, once-a-shell-of-a-bottom-feeder grains stuck to my arms hours after leaving the water. I don’t like sand in bags and on sun creams months after I’ve returned to my city of gold in the sky. I don’t like how walking along the beach in glasses leaves them covered in a salty, impossible-to-clean-off-with-lycra mist. And all of this before I’ve even got in the water.

If you think I have been grumpy or unkind, the sea doesn’t like me either. I have been stung by a little pink jelly-fish and a blue-bottle (they say the quick fix here is to get somebody to pee on you); I have stepped on a bee sunbathing; I’ve been stung by a bee competing for my soft drink; I’ve stepped on a flat fish and nearly had a heart attack. And that was one holiday in Durbs.

For those with a bucket list and a wanderlust, stop reading now. I’ve been to The Great Barrier Reef and I quite simply could not put my spitted-up goggles into the water. The reef is two-hour boat trip from the (sorry Australians) extremely too tie-dyed city of Cairns. In those two hours, the sea heaved incessantly (as did the lovely red-haired woman, into a paper bag on the starboard side of the boat). The wind blew (I could hardly light my long and very pretentious menthol cigarettes) and I laughed and laughed as my friends and I failed to find our sea legs.

And then the moment arrived. We were going diving (or snorkelling with a pool noodle in my case) in a World Heritage Site. We suited up. Our wetsuits had been chosen for us by the expert wetsuit-size person while still on land. He looked at us, estimated a size by simply looking at us (in clothes) and full fathom five we were sent. I am quite certain that our wetsuit-size assignator was having a bad day because, good god, it was not easy to get it on. I jumped off the back of the boat and much as Bill Bryson did in the same situation took all of 17 seconds to ascertain that I was surely going to die. After a further 30 seconds of trying to convince myself that I wasn’t actually going to die, I swam back to the boat, removed the wet suit, put on a wide-brimmed sun hat and lovely lime green deck shoes, touched up my lipstick and picked up my Bernard Cornwell novel. I had a completely different holiday to the adventurers on the boat and that suited me just fine. I found my sea legs and they did not belong in the sea at all.

I have taken a rather long detour here. I’ll blame it on the champagne, which I’ll blame on the fact that as of today, I no longer get a salary at the end of the month. The point is, that I have a terrible fascination with the things that scare me most. I’m not a good flyer (I’m getting better though). I can’t help but feel that if I was just in control of the plane, we would all be so much better off. I have to sit in a window seat and with the power of my mind hold that big, big piece of metal in the sky. To prepare for a long flight, I spend hours watching Air Crash Investigation. Before venturing into the sea, I will read about shipwrecks and divers stranded on beacons and eaten by sharks. The wreck of The Grosvenor has always been one of the most haunting of stories to me. It is one of South Africa’s legendary shipwrecks. There are many. It is a story of unbelievable suffering and loss. It is not about sand in gussets. I must hurriedly change my tone if I’m to tell you about it.

The wreck of The Grosvenor. Image: Wikipedia

There were over 140 souls on board when Captain Coxon’s 300-mile mistake landed them on the rocks of Pondoland. It was 4 o’clock in the morning. The senior officers had repeatedly denied the watch officer’s claims that they could see land and fires thereupon. The officers decided that the lights were caused by some sort of atmospheric condition and forged ahead. Upon striking the rocks (what a shock it must have been) over a dozen sailors were drowned instantly.

As it was dark Captain Coxon chose to wait until daylight before acting. At first light, a rickety raft was built. However, there was no hope of its seeing land. Two Italian seamen swam to a rock on the shore instead (with promises of great reward) and tied a rope around a rock. A pulley system was set up by which means those still on board hoped to convey supplies and the women, children and infirm to shore. The rope slackened though and many died trying to reach land in the storm on the rope that dipped into the violent sea.

Also at first light, the local tribespeople descended on the beach and set up fires to burn off the wood washing up on shore to extract the much-prized iron. The locals were not unused to seeing Europeans. They traded and had seen countless shipwrecks on their coastline. There have always been reports of blue-eyed “natives” on the East Coast. A great number of the stranded Europeans were children of 6 or 7 years-old. It was the age when they were sent away from The Indies to boarding school back in Europe. Most often they travelled without parents, only a maid. (There was a Master Law, a 7 year-old, on board The Grosvenor. He was travelling with his servant alone. He died on 4th November, days before the others in his party were rescued.)

The Sunburnt Queen is the most extraordinary book. It is the story of Bessie, a 7 year-old girl washed up on the shores of Pondoland in the 1730s. She was adopted by her rescuers the amaMpondo and established a dynasty that extends to many of today’s Xhosa royal families.

For the sailors on The Grosvenor, the amaMpondo were terrifying. And they watched them all day. Parts of the ship held together right until 4 o’clock in the afternoon of that awful Sunday. When it finally broke apart, the women, children and remaining passengers and sailors were swept quite gently, in comparison to everything else they had endured, onto the beach. 123 of the 141 souls on board had survived.

They stayed on the beach until the Wednesday to collect supplies washed ashore and to tend to the wounded. Early that morning though, Captain Coxon decided that it was time to head to the Cape on foot. He thought it would be a march of 16 or 17 days. This time he had greatly underestimated the distance to the nearest Dutch settlements in Swellendam. By early 1783, four months after the sinking, only 18 survivors had reached The Cape of Good Hope. Several of the survivors are thought to have been taken in by local tribes along the route, but the fact remains that Coxon’s 16-day trip turned into a 100-day death march.

I am reading William Hubberly’s account of his survival. It was published in 1783 and makes for harrowing reading. (I seem strangely drawn to this style!) The survivors endured terrible thirst for while there were many treacherous river crossings to make along their way, most of the water was salt or brackish. They were stoned by the local tribes, keen no doubt, to chase a large party of Europeans, albeit a weak one, off their lands. They were occasionally given milk or a cow by friendly tribes but they were primarily scavengers, eating shellfish and dead creatures washed ashore. They were reduced to eating the cow-hide shoes they made to replace theirs that fell apart on the walk. Fairly early on into their march, their clothes disintegrated. They marched with scurvy, starving, almost naked for months. They buried their friends at first, then simply dragged their bodies to the rivers to be washed out to sea. They left friends behind; friends too weak to make another river crossing. They encountered hippos and elephants. And still they walked on.

William Hubberly wrote of his lowest point, after his last remaining companion passed away:

Night coming on, and which I always dreaded, particularly this night, it being uncommon dark and stormy, caused me seriously to reflect on my present situation, my body being reduced to that of a skeleton, and my strength so greatly diminished that it was with the greatest difficulty that I got on. Hitherto I had supposed the swelling of my legs had arose from weakness of body, but now found it was scurvy, as in several places it was black, and swelled so large that I thought the skin would have bursted, and when i put my fingers on the part it would dent in without causing the least pain and would not rise again. I was therefore led to think that I could live but a few days longer. Under those ideas all the fortitude that I hitherto possessed of, with the hope of seeing my native shore, all forsook me, when I gave myself up to grief, unheard by any but the Living God of all Nature, who closed my eyes for the night.

From The Van Riebeeck Society’s 1953 publication Source Book on the Wreck of The Grosvenor

William was taken in by a tribe the following day. He was lucky to survive and tell his story. I wonder if he stayed at home forever after. My mitochondrial DNA is Khoisan. For over 100 000 years a women with my MtDNA has lived within 1000 kilometres of my current home. My dislike of the sea and of the air is quite obviously genetic. We are people of the land. Two feet on the ground. Because when you leave home, to paraphrase JRR Tolkien, when you walk out your door you never do know where the road is going to take you; to the bottom of the Indian Ocean on a wild, wild coastline or to Umdloti beach asking your husband to pee on you.

11 thoughts on “The Shipwreck of The Grosvenor 4 August 1782

  1. I very much enjoyed this post 🙂
    I don’t really like the beach too much either, I am sure that is against some kind of law here in Australia. I would love to be able to step from the car to the rockpools without having to make contact with sand…

    What a sad story the fate of the Grosvenor is. I can’t imagine sending small children across the seas (almost) alone. Travel like that was so dangerous back then I can imagine that parents sometimes never expected to see their child again.

    I can’t imagine walking that far, without supplies, and not knowing what each day would bring. What a feat of survival.

  2. Amidst all the records of exploration and colonialisation, there are horror stories like this one. I often wonder how many people died en route to somewhere. I also think about the Moslem leader from my post on the Normans in Portugal, asking why so many people travelled, did they hate their homes so much? Why do any of us travel, either for holidays in hell, or emigration? Animals only seem to do it in search of food.

    • I think we probably hate our parents (or at least the powers that be) enough. As Phillip Larkin said, ‘They F*** you up, your mum and dad…’ The puritans hitched a ride on the Mayflower, the Boers took a long walk north east.

      That, or we’re show-offs; to our actual parents, the King/Queen, to Father God. Or maybe we’re just too adaptable. Male lions of a certain age must leave the pride to establish their own; elephants too; and antelope etc. They run out of suitable habitat though.

      I loved my parent dearly, so maybe that’s why I’m happier at home with a book!

  3. I, too, love Bill Bryson. You, my dear, are giving him a run for his money. I love your style. I think you might enjoy “The Wordy Shipmates” by Sarah Vowell. It is about The Puritans. It’s informative and funny.

    • I love the title of the book. I’ll very soon need something to read. I’m about to finish the new Barbara Kingsolver novel which is such a disappointment, it breaks my heart. I need some cheering up; Puritans and abstinence and suffering might be just the ticket!

  4. I think Barbara Kingsolver should have probably stopped writing after “The Poisonwood Bible”. It’ll ever get better than that.

    Those crazy Puritans should cheer you right up!

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