Wreck Of The Grosvenor
By James Donahue
Among the strange stories of shipwreck on the high seas is that of the Grosvenor, an East Indiaman
that wrecked on the coast of South Africa on August 4, 1782, taking an alleged fortune in gold, silver and valuable stones
to the bottom with it.
Because the wreck is marked as a treasure ship, the stories of this wreck, how it happened, and all
of the unsuccessful efforts attempted to find and recover the treasure, have been told and retold so many times that marine
historians now have difficulty sorting fact from fiction. Some believe the stories of the so-called treasures that were lost
with the ship have become an exaggerated tale of the mythology of the sea.
The known information is this: The Grosvernor was a three-masted, 137-foot long ship, under the command
of a Captain Coxon, that left Madras in March, 1782 on a trip to Ceylon. Then on June 13, 1782, she set sail for a return
trip to England from Trincomalee with a crew of 132 plus 18 passengers consisting of 12 adults and six children. The ship
also carried a cargo valued in its day at 75,000 pounds. Just what that cargo consisted of has remained a mystery.
The Grosvernor sailed into a gale while off Cape Town, South Africa, just north of the mouth of the
Umzimvubu River. At about 1 a.m., while high In the rigging to adjust sails to ride out the storm, crew members said they
noticed lights to the west, but after they disappeared, they gave them no further thought. The commanding officers believed
the ship was at least 200 miles off the coast and that lights that far out to sea were of no consequence.
But at about 4 a.m., when seaman Thomas Lewis reported that he thought he could see land, the quartermaster
woke the captain, who immediately ordered the ship about. But just as the vessel was changing tack, the ship slammed into
rocks. Captain Coxon, still believing he was still far out on the open Atlantic, assumed the ship has struck an uncharted
island or reef. The crew made plans to try to refloat the Grosvenor and then run it aground again on a beach where the ship
might be salvaged and the passengers and crew could disembark safely.
This was not to be, however. As soon as the ship began to turn, water began filling the hold and the
doomed vessel broke in two and quickly sank in about 50 feet of water.
As it turned out, the Grosvenor had been far off course and it wrecked on the wild and rocky coast
of South Africa, near what is now the port of St. Johns. They said there were 123 people who successfully escaped the wreck
and made it to shore, but of this number, only a handful made it to Cape Town and four of the men, Robert Price, Thomas Lewis,
John Warmington and Barney Larey, eventually returned to England. It was speculated that over 100 survivors just disappeared
in the wilderness, died in their efforts to reach civilization, or perhaps were taken in by the native tribes.
Because of the stories circulating about the rich treasures lost with the wreck, the British Admiralty
sent salvage divers to find the wreck and attempt to recover its cargo. They reportedly found the remains of the ship, but
were driven back by the powerful surf that dominates that rugged coast.
Over the years many expeditions have tried to combat that surf and reach the treasure. All have failed.
And the myth of just how much treasure went down with this ship has grown with time.
One television show in 2002 said the Grosvenor "ma be the final resting place for the crown jewel
of the Mogul empire, Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne." A South African publication said this throne, encrusted with valuable
gems, was probably worth over $10 million. Also in that treasured cargo, the story said, are 720 gold ingots, 19 chests of
diamond, emeralds, rubies and sapphires, coins valued at $3.6 million and millions more of private treasure brought by the
Because the surf is so deadly, the attempts to recover the alleged treasure have been extreme. One
expedition dug a tunnel under the sea in an effort to burrow up into the hull. It didn’t work. Other divers have used
dynamite, dredgers, built a mole and even sunk a cement-filled ship to create an artificial breakwater.
All that has been recovered to date have been a few cannon and about 800 silver coins. Most of the
coins were found on the beach.