Caliban's Shore:
The Wreck of the Grosvenor
And the Strange Fate
Of Her Survivors

Stephen Taylor
The good ship Grosvenor was wrecked on the southwest coast of Africa in the summer of 1782. 125 passengers survived. Thirteen ultimately made it back to England.

At the time, the shore between Capetown and Delagoa Bay was home to the X'hosa, Tembu, Pondos, and Zulus. The Captain, who survived the wreck, decided that the survivors should stay as far as possible from the indigenous peoples --- and instead, make the trek alone down the coast to Capetown. Dumb decision.

Why? 400 miles, huge impassable rivers, tangled brush, hostile Zulus, and --- at one point --- the Sandy Desert. Which is just what it says: a desert of sand; no water nor food.

Moreover, his view of the inhabitants of the "Wild Coast" was shaped by the kinds of illustrations on this page --- which meant a profound ignorance of "Caffirs:" their lives, culture, and survival techniques.

The story of the long coastal journey is an anguished one: the lame, the old and the very young drowning, starving to death, dying of exposure, falling by the wayside. Only one survived the 118 day trek. Those who stayed behind, who moved into the hills to live among the Pondos or X'hosa fared far better.

It would be just another survivor story, but Caliban's Shore is classic, hard to lay down, harder to forget. Taylor knows how to keep us going. He did his homework, and he's a natural-born story-teller. And this one is a whopper.

And it isn't all shipboard. There is the follow-up on those who ended up in the "kraals:" the sailors who moved in with the "Caffirs," learned their customs, even, in one case, a sailor who ended up with a spouse:

    Not long after that Sipho's father accepted lobola of ten cattle for her. She was bathed in the contents of a cow's gall bladder, so that her family should be blessed with cattle, and after a feast on the rest of the animal --- to which Umbethi was not admitted --- she was delivered by a delegation to the umzi of her new husband.

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Everything you want to know about the Grosvenor is here. Life in India and life on the "Indianmen" --- the ships that went between England and Madras or Calcutta in the late 18th century. All is told in high and sometimes funny, detail. For example, what sailors and passengers ate (chickens and cows and pigs were usually brought along on the afterdeck), what there was to drink --- plenty of hooch --- where the sailors came from, how they got to where they were, how the classes mixed (or didn't mix), what it's like to be six or seven months en route (typical for a journey to and from the colony and England), what it is like to be shipwrecked, what it's like for those accustomed to living aboard boat to be involved in a great (and endlessly painful) land journey.

And the astonishing squiggles: that four out of five Englishmen never made it back to England once they had embarked for India; that most ship's captains weren't necessarily navigators, or even knew much about the sea --- they were primarily investors with good connections in the East India Company.

And life among the Pondo and X'hosa: what they grew, what they ate, how they lived, and why they got violent when they met up with an army of scraggly survivors (they were intent on protecting what little food they had; they were generous with individuals who didn't come at them with pistols or knives).

This is Taylor's fourth book about southeast Africa and its history and culture. Research for Caliban's Shore was more than poring over musty records at Capetown, London, and Madras. He convinced one of his friends to join him on a trek along the "Wild Coast" from the site of the shipwreck to Cape Town. It was a gorgeous journey at times; then again, when storms swept out of the Indian Ocean, it was a nightmare. His conclusion:

    Repeatedly I was humbled to find how easy it would have been for anyone lost here --- exhausted, demoralized --- simply to lie down and die. While it would be mistaken to characterize the castaway's march as a survival epic, the fact that so few reached the Cape speaks for itself.

--- Rebecca Winters
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