Country Life article on the wreck of the Grosvenor by Liz McKenzie

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The Story of the Wreck of the Grosvenor

In March 1782, The East Indiaman sailing ship, the Grosvenor, belonging to the British East India Company and captained by John Coxton, sailed from Madras, India, carrying both passengers and valuable cargo, bound for England. 150 men, woman and children were on board.

Words by Liz McKenzie. Images by Kevin Cole

Due to its late departure from India, the Grosvenor sailed alone. The voyage was rough and plagued by storms. Captain Coxton was in command on the night of 3rd August. The chief mate and ship’s navigator, Alexander Logie, was ill and not at his post.  At 1 am on the 4th August the lookout crew called a warning. Breakers could be heard and lights were seen, but the Captain, relying on his charts, believed they were approximately 450 kilometres away from land. However, due to a miscalculation in the charts, the lights seen were grass fires burning on the coastal hills of Pondoland, South Africa.

At 4.30 am the Grosvenor was swept up in a current and smashed against the rocks off Lambasi Bay.  Sailors were offered a reward to take ropes from the sinking ship, swim to shore and tie the ropes onto the shoreline rocks. Two made the attempt but one was drowned in the process. All the others on board were pulled safely to the shore, a dangerous procedure which took all day.  17 passengers and 91 crew members survived this initial ordeal.

The Mpondo people came down to the shore, initially offering no help but taking items from the wrecked ship, ropes, planks, sails and nails.  Captain John Coxton, declared they should “press south” towards the Cape believing that it was 400 km away, another dangerous miscalculation as the distance to the Cape was 600 km away.

The local people were promised gifts should they help the English castaways. They brought fruit, meat and milk but when the gifts were not produced they became angry, stripping the woman of their jewels and the silver buttons from the men’s uniforms, threatening them with spears and knives.

 

Grosvenor-artefacts

A selection of treasures from the wreck.

A terrifying ordeal followed. The men, woman and six children struggled very slowly through rough difficult country, dense forests and wide rivers. The weak dropped behind. The survivors split up with the stronger men going ahead. Alexander Logie, his pregnant wife Lydia and the other woman and children could go no further. Captain Coxton abandoned these desperate people 2 days away from the Mzimvubu River. Going on alone he was never to be seen again.  It is known that Logie died and the abandoned woman and children were most likely to have been absorbed into the local tribe.

In some cases the survivors were helped by local people, but on other encounters they were attacked and men were killed.  In total 6 men survived that terrible journey, they were found by a farmer near Port Elizabeth 118 days after the ship was wrecked. A rescue team set off to find survivors. Some were found alive and were brought to safety.

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.

 

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About East London Museum Science

Conservation Biologist East London Museum South Africa
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