Wreck of the Grosvenor

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Oil painting of the Grosvenor by George Carter

The Wreck of the Grosvenor, an East Indiaman, occurred on 4 August 1782 on the Pondoland coast of South Africa, north of the mouth of the Umzimvubu River. The shipwreck was close to the place where the Portuguese ship, São João, had gone down more than two centuries earlier on 8 June 1552. The Grosvenor was a three-masted ship of 729 tons on her return voyage to England when she was wrecked, carrying a crew of 132 and 18 passengers (12 adults and 6 children), and a cargo valued at £75,000 (roughly $1,5 mil 2019). Of the 123 survivors, only 18 reached Cape Town and were repatriated, the remainder dying of their privations or being killed by, or joining with, Bantu tribes. Four survivors, Robert Price, Thomas Lewis, John Warmington, and Barney Larey, eventually got back to England.

The Grosvenor’s final voyage

On 13 June 1782, the Grosvenor was finally victualed, loaded with cargo and prepared to sail home from Sri Lanka to the United Kingdom.

The voyage into the southern Indian Ocean and towards the African coast was uneventful if unusual – East Indiamen rarely sailed alone and the Grosvenor carried a varied and adversarial company of passengers, officers and crew. Survivors recalled that only two sails were spotted during the voyage, but no contact was made.

The weather was very bad for the entire voyage from India to Africa and the main mast of the Grosvenor had to be repaired and was constantly being watched. Exact navigation observations could not be taken and the charts of the South Africa coastline were unreliable.

At 1.00 am on 4th August 1782 and fifty-two days out from Ceylon, the Grosvenor was sailing west near the Cape coast of South Africa and they were in a gale.

The crew noticed lights to the west, but dismissed them as something like the northern lights when they gradually disappeared. The lights however were grass fires burning on a headland directly on their course and their disappearance was due to being hidden by the brow of a hill. At 4.00 am, one of the crew reported that he could see land, but the officer of the watch ignored him.

Everyone on board was certain that they were at least 200 miles (320 km) out to sea. (Later publications criticise Captain Coxon for this navigational judgement but there was no criticism in the official enquiry.) The quartermaster after some further hesitation alerted Captain Coxon who instantly came on deck. He attempted to drop one of its anchors to turn the ship abruptly but this failed, and the vessel ran aground on the rocks.

1782, the Overland Trek

On the morning of the 7th August 1782, Captain Coxon mustered the passengers and crew on the shore, retrieving what supplies they could from the wreckage of the ship. They were all delivered to Captain Coxon who served them out to everyone in a fair share.

Coxon then gathered all the survivors together and said that he was the commander on board but he hoped that now they would allow him to continue his command. The reply was unanimously answered as ‘By all means’.

Coxon and his officers knew that they were a considerable distance from the nearest European settlements – the Dutch Cape Colony to the south and Portuguese colony of Delagoa Bay to the north.

He informed the survivors that by his best calculations they were 15 or 16 days away from the Dutch Cape Colony. This was a serious miscalculation, because the distance to the Cape was 400 miles, rather than the 250 miles that he believed. In fact Delagoa Bay was closer.

Encouraged by this hope Captain Coxon and the group set off on the 27th August 1782 to walk. It was some twenty days after the shipwreck.

They decided to walk along the coast because they were afraid of the local natives and also of the elephants and lions which they saw and heard.

The group existed on shellfish and any carcass they could find. There were many rivers to cross and if they were too deep they had to build rafts. Some became sick when they ate inedible berries.

Almost all died on that walk and only eighteen of the crew and no passengers reached the Cape. The survivors went to London to be witnesses to the official enquiry.

Gold Pagodas, silver coins and a gold swivel from the Grosvenor. Photo: Geoff Spiby

The reports they gave said that Coxon died on the eighth day of the trek.

Salvage attempts

For over 200 years fortune hunters have been searching for the fabulous treasures that were reputed to have been on the Grosvenor. In 1880 Sidney Turner, using dynamite, blasted the rocks in the area of the wreck site and retrieved coins and several cannons. News spread and the hunt for treasure lead to several bizarre schemes. A hypnotist was employed to guide treasure hunters to the spot in 1883. A salvage company, the Grosvenor Bullion Syndicate was launched in 1921- thousands of shares were sold in an attempt to recover the treasure. Efforts were made by tunnelling under the sea to reach the wreck. Dredgers, divers, breakwaters, cranes and modern scuba equipment have been used in an attempt to recover the legendary treasures.

In 1999 certain artefacts were brought to the surface which are now in the East London Museum, such as some gold and silver coins and personal effects. What became of the legendary treasure remains just that, a legend.

The tunnel that Sidney Turner dug can still be seen today. Photo: Volunteer Africa

Sources: flickr.com, Wikipedia.com, Coxonclub.com

PS: This wreck can’t be dived 🙁