Captain Talbot and the Wreck of the Grosvenor – 4 August 1782
Following the Battle of Providien in the East Indies on 12 April Captain George Talbot of the Worcester 64 had been relieved of his command by Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes and been left to find his own way home to England. Later accounts would differ as to the reason for his removal, with some stating that it was because Hughes had considered him unfit for command and others, perhaps intended to be more kindly given the fate that would befall him, suggesting that he was returning home to recover his health.
Whatever the reason, Talbot was able to find a berth aboard a homeward-bound East Indiaman, the Grosvenor. This vessel, which had been launched in 1770 at Deptford and was a three-masted square-rigger, had already undertaken four separate voyages to India, and in line with company policy it was planned that she would be removed from the long and arduous route once she returned to England. Her captain was John Coxon, a man in his early forties who had held the command for the preceding three difficult years, the last of them assisting the British war effort in India by delivering supplies up and down the coast to the army. After sailing from Calcutta earlier in 1782 the Grosvenor had visited Madras before leaving that port under the protection of Hughes’ squadron on 30 March. She had then been an uncomfortable spectator at the Battle of Providien, following which she had sailed south with Hughes for the port of Trincomale in Ceylon.
Two followers boarded the Grosvenor with Captain Talbot, one of them being his coxswain, Isaac Blair, and another a young boy who was apparently a servant. The most prominent of the other thirty-odd passengers, which included half a dozen women and another half-dozen children, was the fabulously wealthy ex-resident of one of the richest provinces of Bengal who had paid Coxon the equivalent of £240,000 in today’s money to take his wife, infant child and many trunks of treasure home. Indeed, such was the value of the Indiaman’s entire cargo that it would have amounted to some £18,000,000 at today’s rate, Other passengers included retiring army officers and their wives, some merchants, a couple of Frenchmen who were prisoners of war, nine servants and five soldiers. In turn the crew of the East Indiaman numbered one hundred and six men, many of whom were lascars.
On 13 June the Grosvenor departed Trincomale for England in the company of another vessel, but she soon found herself alone on the ocean, and with the weather conditions proving unfavourable she began to suffer. Not long into the voyage she sprung her mainmast, and with lunar observations proving impossible Captain Coxon came to rely on the less than accurate dead reckoning for his navigation. By the early hours of Sunday 4 August she had been buffeted by storms for over two days and was lying too under a fore-sail and mizzen stay sail. At the time Coxon considered her to be about three hundred and fifty miles from the nearest land, but she was in fact tight into the African coast north of the mouth of the Umzimvubu River in Pondoland, some hundred and thirty-odd miles south of modern day Durban, and eight hundred miles overland from Cape Town.
Captain Coxon could hardly have been more wrong about her position, but apparently his officers had faith in him, for when several men on lookout duty rushed down on deck in the darkness to report lights ahead they were laughed off by a junior mate. A quartermaster refused to be deterred, and when he entered the captain’s cabin to report the sightings Coxon rushed on deck and gave the order to wear ship. But it was too late for the lights were in fact bush fires, and even as the Grosvenor’s head began turning away from the breakers her keel struck rocks. The order was quickly given to man the pumps but this proved to be superfluous – her stern was so high on the rocks that her bow was dipping into the waves and the water was gushing towards the forward end of the ship. Coxon ordered the mainmast to be cut away, and her foremast soon followed, but she still remained beached and gradually the passengers and crew came to the desperate conclusion that the ship was beyond rescue.
There now remained the difficult task of getting ashore through the breakers, a task that became far more formidable once two of the ships boats were hoisted overboard and smashed to pieces in the raging surf. Two men did manage to swim ashore with a line but another was lost in the attempt. A group of natives had gathered on the shore, and before they became distracted by the precious iron hoops on the masts that had drifted on to the beach they at least helped haul ashore a hawser that was made fast. Meanwhile a raft was constructed and heaved around to the rear of the ship where it was hoped the women and children could be disembarked from the quarter galley, but the stormy waters carried it away, causing another three seamen to drown.
With hope fading as the day drew on some of the sailors tried to reach the shore by going down the hawser hand over hand, but whilst several made it to the beach ten or more, including Captain Talbot’s servant, lost their handhold and drowned. The horror of watching this loss of life was compounded when the ship broke in two at the mainmast, the bow section being driven by the surf and a wind that had veered onshore to swing around parallel to the stern section where the helpless passengers, including Captain Talbot, were gathered with the remainder of the crew. Remarkably this change of wind also proved to be their salvation, for it soon eased the stern quarter off the rocks into the quieter shoal water, and as the day came to a close everyone bar the cook who had drunk himself into a stupor reached dry land.
That night, whilst the passengers and crew used the remnants of a fire left by the natives to gorge themselves on wildfowl, the remainder of the wreck was dashed to pieces. Anything that came ashore was collected and put to good use, and this not only included some meagre provisions but also a couple of sails which were converted into tents for the women and children to sleep under. The natives also made use of what they could, although at this stage they were happy to carry away the trophies they collected from the beach, rather than to steal from the shipwrecked party.
Next day, whilst surprisingly discounting the construction of a vessel from the wreckage of the Grosvenor, which was something the seamen amongst the group would surely have been capable of, the fateful decision was taken for the one hundred and twenty-odd survivors to walk overland and seek help from the Dutch settlements that lay down towards the Cape. The provisions that had come ashore were distributed and Captain Coxon was confirmed in command of the party. Estimating incorrectly that they were probably within a two hundred and fifty mile march of help, the survivors decamped on 7 August, leaving behind them one crippled soldier whose intention was to integrate himself with the natives by fashioning items from the wreck.
The opening days of their march were hampered by the natives who amused themselves be stealing what they could and occasionally engaging in more hostile acts such as the throwing of stones. Reality began to bite when a Dutch speaking man of mixed-race, an apparent refugee from justice by the name of ‘Trout’, informed them in no uncertain terms of their likely fate at the threat of hostile natives, wild animals and unfavourable terrain. The first of these threats became increasingly evident over the next few days as the natives continue to hassle the party, to harass the women, and to continue their plundering, and matters came to a head when on approaching a large village an assembled force of about three hundred warriors armed with lances surrounded the party and began pilfering in a most aggressive manner. The hundred or so men still with the shipwrecked party, fearing for the safety of all, took the fight to this horde for the best part of two and a half hours, during which time many were injured but none killed. At last a truce of sorts came about and the natives were bought off with buttons and other little trinkets that the party handed over. But that night and the next the temporary peace was shattered by the cries and howls of wild animals in the environs of the camp that kept all awake and the men on guard.
The next morning they were re-acquainted with the Dutch-speaking Trout who had been able to visit the wreck and return with various bits of copper and iron, thereby demonstrating how little progress the party had made. He advised them in future not to resist the natives but to submit to their petty thievery, yet no sooner had he gone on his way than the party began to suffer more violent harassment by the natives. In particular the women were abused and their men beaten with clubs when they tried to protect them, personal effects including diamonds and jewels worth a small fortune were stolen, and most unfortunate of all the tinder-box, flint and steel were taken, thereby retarding the party’s ability to make fire.
Trout’s warning regarding the difficulties posed by the terrain then came to fruition when the party arrived at a large river with no means of crossing it. Morale had sunken so far as to turn the more able and fit sailors mutinous, and accordingly the party split into two on 11 August, the passengers in one group under the care of Captain Coxon and some bribed seamen whilst Captain Talbot and his coxswain joined a group of about fifty men led by the second mate. Yet the river still blocked their progress and in no time the two parties rejoined, whereupon they remained together for the next two days.
Coming upon another large village they found Trout once more, but despite their various entreaties and bribes he could not be persuaded to leave his family to act as their guide. With provisions low and no food to be had from the natives a group of men went down to the shore to scavenge what they could, but this was scarce and did not satisfy their hunger. Again the question of splitting into their two parties arose, and it was decided that they would be safer, less conspicuous and perhaps less threatening to the natives, by doing so.
As before, Captain Talbot and his coxswain attached themselves to the second mate’s party, and without the train of passengers some good progress was made over the next few days, this being punctuated only by sleepless nights caused by the howls of the wild animals. Yet although those natives they encountered made no attempt to interrupt their progress the provisions steadily reduced, and what the men could scavenge sated them not one bit. Coming up to a river that was perhaps two miles wide they were able to eat some shellfish which provided a little sustenance, and this encouraged them to follow it inland, seeking a place where they could wade across. During the course of this march they passed several villages, but whenever they came in sight the natives corralled their cattle and made it clear that any attempt to seek food would be met with hostility. Eventually the men gave up on the hope of finding a fording-place and instead constructed a raft out of such timber that they could gather, so as to float it across with the help of those who could swim.
Having taken three days on their trek up river the exhausted and starving party worked their way back along the south bank to the coast once more where they could feast on shellfish before resting up. Thereafter hugging the coast as best they could, they resumed their march whilst all the while struggling against the heat and remaining fearful of the wild animals and natives. As one of the older men in the party Captain Talbot struggled more than most to maintain the meagre pace, and his health began to deteriorate rapidly. The only respite came when the group stumbled on the carcass of a whale, and as they had been deprived of everything but the clothes they walked in, including their knives, they resorted to lighting a fire upon the creature and using oyster shells to scoop out any cooked parts.
Eventually stumbling upon fertile country, the men assumed that they would soon be within striking distance of the Dutch farming settlements, yet whilst one faction argued that they should march inland to seek help the other made the case for retaining contact with the coast where they could at least garner shellfish. After many arguments the party decided to break in two, and Captain Talbot with his coxswain and about thirty others took the inland route. For three days they marched over this promising land, but although they passed many African villages these all proved to be deserted, and all they could find to eat as a supplement to the remnants of oysters that they had brought with them from the coast were wild berries and herbs.
During these days Captain Talbot suffered severely, and he regularly had to sit down to regain his strength. The remainder of the party kept faith with him as long as they could, but when he struggled to make his way up one particularly steep hill they came to the desperate conclusion that their own salvation necessitated pressing on without him. Loyal to the end, Talbot’s coxswain, Isaac Blair returned to sit with his master. They were never seen again.
Eventually a mere fifteen seamen rejoined civilization, with the first half-dozen of them reaching a Dutch settlement on 29 November. Although they were at war with Britain the Dutch and French sent out rescue parties to search for the castaways, but these came back empty-handed. It later transpired that Captain Coxon’s party had also fragmented, and that all the women and children had been left to fend for themselves. By April 1783 reports of the wreck were appearing in the British newspapers, however much of their lurid tales of female passengers being carried into the interior whilst their men-folk were butchered by the natives were ill-founded and designed to shock and titillate in equal measure. Later evidence would suggest that whilst the majority of the castaways had died of starvation or at the hands of the natives, one and perhaps two of the women had joined a tribe, and they might equally have done so willingly or under coercion.
Captain Talbot, whose grandfather had been killed at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, had been the youngest of five brothers, and it is of note that only the eldest was not to lose his life in grisly circumstances whilst on military service. One brother had been shot in a duel over a point of honour, Captain James Talbot of the Army had been burned alive whilst lying wounded in a house that was set on fire at Charleston during the American Revolutionary War, and Major John Talbot, who had been wounded in the defence of Fort William against Hyder Ali had survived the Black Hole of Calcutta in 1756 only to die of his injuries and ill-treatment shortly afterwards