Caliban's Shore
Stephen Taylor
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Buy *Caliban's Shore: The Wreck of the Grosvenor and the Strange Fate of Her Survivors* online

Caliban's Shore: The Wreck of the Grosvenor and the Strange Fate of Her Survivors
Stephen Taylor
W.W. Norton
288 pages
July 2004
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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This remarkable and well-researched book finally puts to rest the unanswered questions and unlikely myths concerning the wreck of the East India Company vessel Grosvenor, in 1782, off the wild coast of Africa, where one hundred forty survivors found themselves surrounded by local natives, but with few provisions.

Taylor's account of the Grosvenor is compellingly drawn from a variety of sources, especially since the tragedy occurred while journalism was subject to conjecture and common gossip and any outrageous rumor could find its way into print. The paucity of written documentation led Taylor to sift through a century of supposition and lurid tales from India to England, dissecting rumor from fact, including the fate of women assimilated into the native culture.

On their way home to London from Calcutta, the passengers paid top-dollar for their presence on the ship; the Grosvenor was provisioned with more than adequate supplies for the voyage, as well as a huge cargo of valuable goods. In good spirits, men, women and children embarked blithely upon what was to be a tragic voyage.

Under the authority of Captain John Coxon, the rigid social apparatus that governed English society in India applied on board the Grosvenor, as well. The wealthy enjoyed the same deference as on land, the pride-of-place to which they were accustomed. On the disastrous night of the shipwreck, on the unfriendly coast of Pondoland, any social advantages disintegrated as the survivors struggled toward safety, castaways all.

Without authoritative leadership, the one hundred twenty-six survivors made critical errors in judgment, intimidated by the indigenous natives, their muskets useless without gunpowder, and with scarce knowledge of the terrain they would be traveling, choosing to trek overland to the Cape, ignoring the closer Portuguese settlement under the direction of Captain Coxon. Captain Coxon was indeed a villain. Although not literally responsible once they were on land, Coxon did accept the leadership position, a mistake that was to cost the majority of the survivors their lives. His arrogance and misconduct did not come to light for many years, due to the lack of accurate reporting.

There was a curious lack of heroism among the men who made it to shore as they scrambled to save themselves, ignoring the plight of those less able. At no time did they look to the care of those who were wounded or otherwise unable to fend for themselves. Society as they knew it all but disappeared, as people of quality were reduced to the same desperate straights as the common folk. There is little evidence of the esprit dícorps of later such misadventures. Instead, various groups splintered from the original number, drastically reducing the chances of the helpless, especially the women, children and the wounded.

Only a handful of the original one hundred forty passengers survived. The fate of the women and children left behind in the march became the grist of myth, ultimately a black mark against the honor of the East India Company. The fertile imagination of the English fed upon the fearful distortions that saw the delicate white women and children at the mercy of "savages"; their real peril was at the hands of the men who should have protected them. The concept of "women and children first" was years away from any formal acceptance into the social fabric of shipboard etiquette. Meanwhile, the fate of the women and children served as fodder for countless undocumented stories. Taylor's painstaking research does much to clarify the fate of the Grosvenor survivors. Dramatic, heartrending and shocking, Taylor proves that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

© 2004 by Luan Gaines for Curled Up With a Good Book

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