Monday, September 15, 2014

The Wreck of the Grosvenor

by Mark Patton

On the 13th June 1782, the East Indiaman, Grosvenor, set sail from the port of Trincomalee, in Sri Lanka, bound for London. On board was a cargo of fine silks and a number of wealthy passengers, including William Hosea, the British Resident at Murshidabad, his wife, Mary, and their two children.

The ship's captain, John Coxon, had not, like most ship's captains, risen through the ranks starting as a midshipman, but rather had purchased his command: he clearly had a flair for commerce, but his navigational expertise was much less certain. He did, however, have more experienced seamen on his crew, including the Chief Mate, Alexander Logie; the Second Mate, William Shaw; Shaw's mate William Habberley; and the ship's Third Mate, Thomas Beale.

On the 27th July, the ship sailed into a "hard gale." Coxon was convinced that they were several days away from the coast of Natal so, when Habberley and Shaw sighted what they thought to be native fires, Beale, as officer of the watch, ignored their concerns, keeping the ship on a course that would ultimately converge with the coast. It seems that Coxon attempted to "club haul" the vessel (a desperate manoeuvre which almost invariably failed, and did so on this occasion). The ship struck shortly after 4.30 AM.

The Wreck of the Grosvenor,
by Robert Smirke (Public Domain).

The ship carried two boats, both of which were launched, but both of which were dashed on the rocks. The captain offered a large reward to anyone brave enough to swim ashore with a line. Two Italian seamen rose to the challenge, and a line was fixed from the shore to the mizzen-mast. Some men did escape along this line, but a platform, intended to rescue the women and children, collapsed. What happened next seems to have been down to luck or providence. The wind changed and the starboard quarter, with most of the passengers clinging to it, floated off the rocks. Some of the seamen attached a hawser to it and manoeuvred it into a sheltered inlet. Only one passenger, a servant, died, and, of the 105 crew, 91 landed alive, although some were injured.

The wreck of the Grosvenor,
attributed to George Carter.
National Maritime Museum (Public Domain).

Some dead chickens and ducks came ashore, along with several live pigs. Fires were started and a meal prepared. Pondo tribesmen were, by this stage, moving among the survivors. According to Habberley, they offered no assistance, but were rather concerned to recover the nails and other iron from the wreck. It is unclear to what extent the Europeans attempted to communicate with the Pondo.

"African Hospitality," by George Morland,
an imagined representation of the
interaction between the Pondo people and
the Grosvenor survivors (Public Domain).
The painting, together with its companion-piece,
depicting the brutality of the slave-trade,
was an intentional contribution to
the abolitionist movement.

Coxon, Shaw and Beale organised a roll-call (Logie was, by this stage, seriously ill with dysentery), and salvaged what they could from the wreckage of the ship. They realised that they were a considerable distance from the closest European settlement, either the Portuguese colony of Delagoa Bay to the north, or the Dutch colony of the Cape to the south. There was clearly some further interaction with the natives, one of whom reportedly pointed to the north-east (presumably indicating Delagoa). One of the seamen, Joshua Glover, turned his back on his shipmates and walked away with the natives. Habberley would later claim that he was "disturbed in his mind," but we might now make a very different judgement.

"Xhosa and dogs resting on a hunt"
by Frederick Timpson l'Ons (Public Domain).
The Pondo are one of a number of
Xhosa-speaking peoples on the
eastern coast of what is now South Africa.

On the 7th of August, Coxon addressed the crew. He insisted that they could reach the Cape on foot within 10-17 days. It was a fatal judgement: the Cape was 400 miles away, not the 250 miles that Coxon estimated. Inaccurate charts may have been partially to blame, but Delagoa was, in fact, much closer. They were allegedly harassed by the natives as they moved south: they did not offer serious violence, but they did plunder their supplies.

The terrain proved difficult, and some of the survivors were clearly fitter than others. Coxon decided to make camp with the sick mate, Logie, and 23 passengers, including Hosea. Shaw, Habberley and some of the fitter men went on. All of the captain's party subsequently died of starvation. Shaw sickened, and eventually Habberley was left alone. He was given food in several native kraals, but was expelled after he offended them. It seems that his mistake was to defecate in the cattle enclosure - he could hardly have known it, but he probably relieved himself on the grave of his host's father (the founder of a Pondo kraal was always buried in the cattle enclosure).

A typical Southern African kraal
in the 19th Century (Public Domain)

Habberley and a handful of other men did, eventually, reach the Cape Colony, having been reduced to eating the leather from their shoes. All of the passengers, men, women and children, perished. A subsequent expedition sent to discover what had happened to them found Joshua Glover (the man supposedly "disturbed in his mind") and another seaman, John Bryan (who had been left behind due to illness) living happily among the natives. Bryan was, by this stage, married to a Pondo woman, with whom he had two children.

The official East India Company report into the incident concluded that " ... in great part, their calamities seem to have arisen from want of management with the natives ... they treated the individuals that fell singly amongst them rather with kindness than with brutality." There was a suggestion that other passengers, including some of the women, may have survived in a similar way, but no conclusive evidence of this was ever found.


Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Very intriguing. Thanks for posting it-