Guest Blog: Movement Gone Wrong? Shipwreck in the 18th-Century British Empire

This is a guest blog based on a paper delivered at the MBS 2021 PGR Research Showcase. 

Franziska Hermes, Doctoral Fellow at the Graduate School Global Intellectual History

In 1783, Bengal-based Frances Chambers wrote a letter to a friend worrying that “there is no news of the Grosvenor at St. Helena, and the Valentine and three other ships arrived safe in England, I am very unhappy about it”.1 She was interested in the Grosvenor specifically because as a passenger on board was her seven-year-old son Thomas whom she shared with husband Robert Chambers, a judge in service of the British East India Company that ruled India at the time. As it turned out, she was right to worry: The Grosvenor was never to arrive at St. Helena as it had been lost in August 1782. Most of the passengers and crew were able to leave the sinking ship alive, but since they were wrecked on what is now Pondoland in South Africa, what followed was a trek of several months, fuelled by the hopes to find European settlers and made almost unsurvivable by the harsh terrain, hunger, thirst, wild animals, and frequent encounters with natives. In the end, out of 140 men, women, and children only 19 survivors reached the Cape of Good Hope, then governed by the Dutch East India Company. Little Thomas Chambers, sent to England for education, was never seen again.2

The Grosvenor makes for a unique keyhole through which to explore the history of 18th-century mobility. As John-Paul Ghobrial has proposed, ships and people on the move are interesting for such an analysis because their stories are “moving stories [that] can reveal new geographies we do not see otherwise”.3 The same is true for a lost ship, I argue – with one difference: Stories of lost ships are not primarily ‘moving stories’, but rather stories of movement gone wrong. The geographies a wrecked ship reveals were thus as new for contemporaries as they are for historians. By definition, shipwreck is a moment of chance, as the Grosvenor demonstrates like no other: a British vessel having left India in order to return to England, only to then be lost on the South African coast, geographically speaking neither empire nor home but outside the reach of both. This setting forced people affected by the wreck to deal with a situation they had not anticipated, and they often did so very creatively. It is following their stories, therefore, that can lead to truly new geographies.

Shipwreck Geographies

When looking for shipwreck geographies, the place to start is the spot where a ship was lost. The natural conditions of this spot determined the survival rate, but so did the geopolitical conditions. After all, wars between European powers extended also to regions outside Europe, meaning castaways frequently found themselves at the mercy of political enemies. On paper, the situation was similarly daunting for the Grosvenor passengers. In 1780, Britain had declared war on the Dutch Republic, the overall fourth of a series of Anglo-Dutch wars, and it would last until 1784. Although this means that the survivors reaching the Dutch settlements were, in principles, prisoners of war, Dutch Governor Joachim van Plettenberg “did not hesitate a moment” to send out rescue parties to search for more, as he assured British Governor Warren Hastings in a letter written to Bengal in March 1783.4 On receiving the information, Hastings purchased a valuable diamond and set it in a ring that was carried as a gift to the Cape in March 1784. On the ring was engraved the Ovid quotation ‘ab hoste doceri’ – it is right to be taught, even by an enemy. 

Looking at the Cape from a Eurocentric perspective, this episode surprises because both van Plettenberg’s and Hastings’ actions contradicted national policies. Such a conclusion, however, is based on the false assumption that the European East India Companies were strictly ‘national’ spaces. There sure were phases of fierce competition between the British and the Dutch company, but Anglo-Dutch rivalries in Europe did never automatically translate into the East or, in this case, the Cape. Rather, historians have shown that to pursue their own private fortunes servants of both companies regularly worked together no matter national interests.5 The element of disaster in the specific case of the Grosvenor might have yet added another layer. Both the Britons and Dutch of our story knew what it meant to be on a ship for months on end, and they knew how frightening the prospect of being wrecked was, particularly when that included brutal “savage nation[s], to whom the principles of humanity are little known”, as van Plettenberg explained the indigenous population to Hastings.6 These shared (white) imperial experiences at the cost of other excluded groups, I suggest, brought Britons and Dutchmen closer to one another than to their fellow countrymen at home because they allowed for a sense of familiarity between supposed national strangers.

The Grosvenor, then, teaches us that – to again cite John-Paul Ghobrial – “foreignness was ultimately a local affair. Belonging or unbelonging, native or alien, local or stranger: these were conditions that were decided […] by local actors using local processes of identification”.7 It should come as no surprise that we encounter these processes in the Cape of all places. Geographically a meeting point of two oceans, as a connector of the 18th century Atlantic and Indian Ocean shipping systems the Cape was a metaphorical meeting point as well. Although the Dutch had officially occupied the Cape in 1652, as a refreshment post the colony had remained a fixed part of all European trading networks. Taken into consideration also the diversity of shipping crews and the local population, this meant that the Cape was a true contact zone where all kinds of locals and strangers could potentially meet.8 

One local to meet was Robert Jacob Gordon, a Dutch Colonel stationed at the Cape who was widely regarded as an authority on the ethno-geographical knowledge of southern Africa at the time. Relatives of missing Grosvenor passengers based in Britain and India, therefore, often turned to him to ask whether it was possible that individual survivors could still be found among the indigenous people. Gordon did believe that it was possible and became a prominent supporter of sending out more relief missions. He often confided in Britons visiting the Cape who made sure his message travelled throughout the empire. As a result, families like the Chambers frequently received letters by Britons each recounting “the communication I held upon this subject with Colonel Gordon, with as much exactness as my memory will enable me to do.”9 Fuelled also by persistent rumours of whites sighted in the area, Dutch colonists eventually felt obliged to go out on at least two more expeditions, the last one in 1790. These missions, however, were without success. The Chambers family and others, thus, were doomed to spend the rest of their lives wondering.


While contemporaries certainly would have found shipwreck to be movement gone wrong, this glimpse into the shipwreck geographies spanning India, Britain, and South Africa has shown that this is not a conclusion that historians should come to – quite the contrary. As the Grosvenor demonstrates, due to its accidental nature shipwreck not only initiated new lines of movement and contact, but it also threw them into unusually sharp definitions.10 For historians, then, shipwreck might even be a lucky coincidence because starting out from a specific wreck can become a method to come close to something we would not have assumed, looked for, or been able to see otherwise, in this particular case the many instances of Anglo-Dutch cooperation on the one hand and the transnational information channels centred around Colonel Gordon and similar knowledge agents on the other. Shipwreck, thus, promises to reveal the workings of the 18th-century British empire – not on the macro level, but on the micro, the local and intimate.

1 Percival R. Kirby, The True Story of the Grosvenor East Indiaman: Wrecked on the Coast of Pondoland South Africa on 4 August 1782 (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1960), 127.

2 For details on the Grosvenor wreck and aftermath, see Kirby, True Story and Stephen Taylor, The Caliban Shore: The Fate of the Grosvenor Castaways (London: Faber and Faber, 2004). 

3 John-Paul Ghobrial, “Moving Stories and what they tell us: Early Modern Mobility between Microhistory and Global History,” in Past & Present 242, no. 14 (2019): 280.

4 Kirby, Jacob van Reenen and the Grosvenor Expedition of 1790-1791 (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1958), 19.

5 Cf. e.g. Femme S. Gaastra, “War, Competition and Collaboration: Relations between the English and Dutch East India Company in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in The Worlds of the East India Company, ed. H.V. Bowen, Margarette Lincoln and Nigel Rigby (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2002), 40-68.

6 Kirby, Jacob van Reenen, 19.

7 Ghobrial, “Moving Stories,” 250.

8 Cf. Kerry Ward, “’Tavern of the Seas’? The Cape of Good Hope as an Oceanic Crossroads during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in Seascapes: Maritime Histories, Littoral Cultures, and Transoceanic Exchanges, ed. Jerry H. Bentley, Renate Bridenthal and Kären Wigen (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007), 137-152.

9 National Maritime Museum AGC/H/23, 1.

10 Cf. Margarette Lincoln, “Shipwreck narratives of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century: Indicators of culture and identity,” in British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 20 (1997): 155.

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