The Caliban Shore: the Fate of the Grosvenor Castaways.
by Stephen Taylor Faber and Faber, hb, pp285, 20 [pounds sterling]
In August 1782, the East Indiaman Grosvenor was wrecked off southeastern Africa. Though most of those on board managed to struggle ashore, few would survive: they were undone by a terrain whose fruits included the "warted bastard spike-thorn", but also by their inability to cooperate--for every act of selfless heroism that quickly entered legend, there were a dozen small betrayals that only came to light much later.
The shipwreck and its tragic aftermath were to inspire art, songs and stories, not least for the persistent rumours that three women survivors were abducted by local tribes. Contemporary newspapers conjured up lurid images of "the vilest brutish prostitution" on the slenderest of facts, and rescue parties were still scouring the area almost a decade later.
In his detailed account of the events, Stephen Taylor tries to separate myth from reality, and while his conclusions necessarily remain speculative, it's a fascinating tale. The opening chapters read like the pre-credit sequence of a 1970s disaster movie: the cast is assembled--the cowardly captain, the gallant first mate, the expectant mother, the Company man with a fortune in diamonds in his luggage--and then serially dispatched by want, the weather, exhaustion, and lack of judgement. Those who fared best were those who started with least.
Taylor has a tendency to overdramatise ("A chill crept into his heart ...") but despite the odd cliche, and even odder turn of phrase ("Mary had died of fear more than once during the previous 24 hours"), this is an absorbing read.