In the early morning hours of 4 August 1782, driven by a south-westerly gale, the 729 ton English East India Company vessel, the Grosvenor, reputed to be a “treasure ship”, went aground in a gully to the north-east of Tezani Stream on the coast of Pondoland. Of the 150 people aboard all but 15 reached the shore alive.
On the morning of the 7th, Captain John Coxon summoned all hands and told them that it was his intention, because of the apparent hostility of the local people and the scarcity of provisions, to walk along the beach to the Dutch settlement at the Cape, which he reckoned they should be able to reach in about 16 days. Eventually 128 set out on the epic journey, for the actual distance, of which Captain Coxon was unaware, was well over 1 000 kilometres.
The majority of those that set out were to die of privation, some may have been taken in by local tribes, and a mere handful reached the Cape. They were ultimately sent on to Europe. The English East India Company, when the first survivors reached London, immediately instituted an inquiry as to the cause of the wreck, and the fate of those that had set out on the walk. One of those who gave evidence was William Hubberly, servant to the second mate William Shaw. At the time of the wreck Hubberly was in his early twenties, and was quite probably illiterate, yet after being cross-examined by the hydrographer of the East India Company, Alexander Dalrymple, who conducted the investigation into the wreck, he was described as having an “iron memory”.
The survivors walked along the beach because they were afraid both of the local inhabitants and of the wild animals, especially elephants and lions, of which they saw and heard much evidence. They existed on shellfish which they gathered from the rocks, and the occasional “whale” carcass that they came across. The numerous rivers were, when they proved to be too deep to wade across, crossed on rafts, for there were many who could not swim. Occasionally they had to proceed inland to find a suitable crossing-place and it was then that they harvested berries and ate wild “celery”. They very soon found that not all the berries they picked were edible, and were miserably sick as a result.
It wasn't long before the survivors split up, those that were too weak and ill lagging behind, while the fitter pressed ahead. This also made the gathering of some sort of food easier, but even the youngest and strongest soon began to weaken. One after another the survivors died. On 15 September, i.e. 39 days after Coxon had estimated that they were 16 days away from the Cape, Hubberly's party came to a temporary halt. His master, William Shaw, was in such a state, “now worn down to a mere skeleton and his strength quite exhausted, so much so that he was incapable of standing,” that they decided to remain where they were for three days in the hope that Shaw would recover sufficiently to carry on. On the third day, “greatly lamented,” Shaw died. Hubberly described him as “a gentleman ... possessed of great amiableness (who) bore his misfortunes with uncommon fortitude.” Shaw's body was buried by laying it at the foot of a dune and pushing sand over it.
By 11 November Hubberly, now alone, had crossed the Kowie River (at present day Port Alfred), but was suffering from scurvy. His legs were black and swollen and he was so weak that he could barely walk. Seeing some cattle he decided to make inland and came to a village near the Kariega River where he was given food and shelter. He soon discovered that a shipmate, Thomas Lewis, was living at another nearby village. Hubberly remained in the vicinity of the Kariega for some time, regaining his strength.
Meanwhile the Dutch authorities at the Cape had come to hear of the wreck of the Grosvenor, and a party under Heligert Muller had been sent out to look for any possible survivors. And so, on or about 12 January 1783 Hubberly met three strangers, Khoekhoe men who wore sheepskins, smoked pipes and wore “Dutch” hats. Although he could no more understand their language than he could that of the villagers, the three persuaded Hubberly and Lewis to follow them. Hubberly said goodbye to his hosts “shedding a tear at parting from those people who had behaved with such kindness to me.”
Some days later they came across a group of mounted men carrying rifles. To their amazement Lewis and Hubberly recognised amongst them two of their former shipmates, Jeremiah Evans and Francisco Delasso. These two were guiding the search party under the command of Heligert Muller. Hubberly's long ordeal was at long last over.
When next you are in the restaurant at the main camp, enjoying the view over the valley towards Kenton and the Indian Ocean, give a thought to the survivors of the Grosvenor and especially to William Hubberly, who stayed for some weeks beside the Kariega, and in January 1783 walked through the valley in front of you.