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Narrative essay on rumours

In August 1790, a posse of Dutch farmers set off through the Cape in 10 wagons. Their mission: to investigate persistent rumours concerning survivors from the Grosvenor, an East Indiaman that eight years before had smashed apart on a remote stretch of coastline with the loss of 127 passengers, including a pregnant Englishwoman.

The Dutch riders travelled for two months and on November 4 halted before a settlement of thatch huts near the Umgazana River, south-west of what is now Durban. In a clearing, surrounded by half-naked tribesmen, stood three white women. At the sight of the horsemen, a cry went up: "Our fathers are come."

The story of the Grosvenor was well known in its day and reverberated from Calcutta to London. It inspired a sentimental essay by Charles Dickens, a florid painting by George Morland, two novels, a musical drama and a Huttonish report by the East India Company's hydrographer, who interrogated the 13 known survivors and drew a veil over anything discreditable to the company. The idea that the Grosvenor's three missing female passengers, all married and vivacious women, could have been carried off by black brigands "for the purposes of the vilest brutish prostitution", in the words of the London Advertiser, was too distressing to dwell on. Africa was, according to one contemporary historian, the "parent of everything that is monstrous in nature", an image fuelled by reports coming out of Dahomey (now Benin) of palaces ornamented with human skulls. No, the Englishwomen had almost certainly died soon after being cast away.

Stephen Taylor grew up in South Africa and has made three journeys to the Wild Coast, traversing the dunes and rivers that swallowed up 106 of the Grosvenor's original survivors. He writes well, with a restraint that earns the reader's trust. When he describes the cry of the tree hifax, a nocturnal animal that emits "an uncanny shriek suggestive of dire distress", we feel that he has heard it. Where information dries up, he speculates wisely and convincingly. If he considers someone is "impossible to like", then so do we. This is an important quality in a writer; it becomes critical when following the author into the haze of travellers' tales that obscured almost immediately the likely fate of the Grosvenor castaways.

The Grosvenor had departed Madras, after some delay, in 1782. The captain, William Coxon, who would be accused of abandoning the women and children, had ensured his fortune by cramming the three-master with 31 fee-paying passengers. Of these, the most important was the highly strung William Hosea, Resident of Murshidabad, the richest district in Bengal. Hosea had lost his nerve in the intrigues that characterised the East India Company's affairs. He was so eager to slink away from Calcutta that he had paid Coxon the equivalent of £240,000 for his passage, plus that of his two-year-old daughter, Frances, and his wife, Mary, of whom someone made the treacly observation: "It is impossible to do otherwise than to love her." It is Taylor's contention that Mary Hosea was one of the three white women encountered by the Dutch farmers and that Frances lived on until 1870, "living exactly as a native between Springvale and Highflats" and speaking only Zulu.

Taylor is especially good at conjuring the tedium of life on board ship as the Grosvenor creaked and hissed through the Indian Ocean. Thrown together in a tight space, the passengers formed a vivid cross-section of the English nabobs, lawyers, soldiers and merchants who had lorded it over thousands of Bengalis without, one feels, reaching a proper understanding of any of them. Hosea, in particular, had an unfortunate attitude towards native people. He thought the best remedy for 200 invalid sepoys was to throw them "all into the sea". This did not bode well for his dealings with the Pondo, the iron-hungry tribe of black warriors "with high, conical hairstyles and daubed with red mud", on whose mercy he was shortly to depend.

The touchy Captain Coxon believed that his ship was still 300 miles from Africa when, 52 days out of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, the Grosvenor rammed with some force into a reef about 30 yards off Lambasi Bay. "In that instant, the men, who had just been engaged in revelry, stood looking at one another, and for a frozen moment each recognised in the other a dead man."

All but 15 of those on board made it to shore. In the morning, bright bales of silk and indigo floated like jellyfish before their terrified eyes. The seamen had no effective weapons. Over the next few days, the Pondo moved freely among them, diving into pockets, plucking brooches from the ladies' heads, smashing pistols against the rocks to extract the metal, which they then stuck in their hair.

In the absence of leadership, the castaways splintered into groups that divided and reunited as they struggled inland, feeding off snakes and rank whale meat. The hopeless Coxon calculated that they were 10 days from civilisation. In fact, the nearest Dutch farm lay 300 miles away. One of the wealthiest merchants drowned after he was stoned by the Xhosa. Most dropped dead from scurvy or sunstroke. At least two men lived for several years among the Pondo. One of them, a Madras infantryman called John Bryan, became a venerated metalworker known as Umbethi, the Beater, after he learned to smelt the pigs of ballast that had spilled out of the Grosvenor's hull.

The Caliban Shore is also a terrific salvage operation, restoring balance to the Pondo side of the story. Taylor strips away the barnacles of legend, melodrama and racism that encrusted the initial tragedy and gives us a narrative that is complex, moving and immaculately paced. I like, too, his conclusion about the third white woman. This was "undoubtedly" Gquma, writes Taylor, a 50-year-old Englishwoman, who had been shipwrecked on the Dolphin in 1748. She married a chieftain, founded a white tribe, protected Mary Hosea, and had a great-granddaughter "who joined the bloodline that produced Nelson Mandela".

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