All at sea

The Caliban Shore: the fate of the <em>Grosvenor</em> castaways

Stephen Taylor <em>Faber & Faber,

After Nathaniel Philbrick's retel-ling of the Essex saga and Caroline Alexander's recent stab at the Bounty story, tales of shipwreck and survival at sea seem to be popular. Now, like London buses, two come along at once, providing interesting points of comparison not just in the writing and treatment but the world-view that underpins the narratives of the survivors.

Despite the exploits of Cook, Vancouver, Bougainville and La Perouse, late 18th-century navigation was a hazardous business, with the mariners' folly and ignorance on constant display. The British conquest of India and the exploitation of her wealth by the nabobs are familiar enough motifs from the late 1700s but, as Stephen Taylor points out, the East Indiamen that carried the spices and treasures of the east to London were far from the reliable craft of legend. He reveals staggeringly high statistics on lost vessels.

One of the main problems was that the track of East Indiamen from the subcontinent to Britain lay around the Cape of Good Hope where, along South Africa's notorious "wild coast", the collision of the Agulhas current with countervailing seas from Antarctica regularly piles up freak waves a hundred feet high. All modern ships avoid the area, but the true nature of this hazard was unknown to sailors in the 18th century.

On paper, the East Indiaman Grosvenor was lucky, as it was not swallowed alive by one of these monster waves but driven onshore near modern Durban: 125 castaways stepped ashore - 91 seamen and 34 passengers (including seven women). Taylor makes the point that never before had such a broad spectrum of English society been marooned; but considerations of class soon became unimportant.

The biggest problem for the survivors was that they had no firearms, and so were helpless in the face of hostile local tribes. Captain John Coxon decided that the solution was to trek overland to the Dutch settlement at the Cape, which he estimated to be 250 miles distant (in fact it was more than 400 miles away). When the Pondo tried to bar their way, the sailors, armed with cutlasses and makeshift weapons, fought back with spirit, but Coxon ordained that thenceforth they should offer only passive resistance. Disgusted by his attitude, the more able-bodied sailors simply deserted, leaving their weaker brethren behind. This produced still more desertions, until finally the so-called officers and gentlemen also decamped, without the women.

Despite sensationalist headlines later about Christian ladies being abandoned to a fate worse than death, the sober truth is that the women were forced to accept concubinage with local chiefs as an alternative to death by starvation. But the entire story was one deficient in heroes. Of all the deserters, just 12 sailors reached the Dutch settlements and survived; 21 drowned and the rest died of starvation, in battle or by unknown means.

Taylor is an old Africa hand and his local expertise makes for a strong narrative. Even more impressive is Joe Jackson's knowledge of 19th-century technology and seafaring, which informs every page of his account of another maritime tragedy. In May 1866 the US clipper Hornet was consumed by fire in one of the loneliest stretches of the north-east Pacific, a thousand miles west of the Galapagos Islands; the cause of the blaze was laziness and incompetence by the shipmate, who overturned a lantern on to a barrel of varnish.

After abandoning ship with three life-boats, Captain Josiah Mitchell had to face the hazards of the Pacific for six weeks with inadequate instruments, food and water. The 31 passengers and crew endured high seas, storms, attack by swordfish, hunger (they were on a ration of 1,300 calories per head initially, but soon faced starvation) and thirst. In addition, Mitchell had to head off a serious mutiny whose ringleaders were actually proposing to kill and eat the captain's party. Mitchell proved his seamanship by getting 15 survivors to landfall in Hawaii, but not before abandoning a stricken lifeboat and complement to certain death in the waves.

Jackson's story contains fascinating detail on sharks, tornadoes, typhoons, waterspouts and other hazards, as well as the minutiae of clipper-ship sailing, but it is the dreadful pages describing agonising death, madness from drinking seawater and painful bowel movements by those who ate wood and the leather of their boots that really make us take notice.

The clinical detail may be too much for some, but it all serves Jackson's moral - that in so-called civilisation we are never far from danger. Survival on the ocean is a dreadful business, and even those who emerge from the savage sea in such circumstances rarely live long.

Both books are fine productions, but where Taylor ends with something of a whimper, Jackson's conclusion is almost thermonuclear in its devastation. It is no surprise that Mark Twain made his reputation simply by recounting the epic of the Hornet - it is an action writer's dream.

Frank McLynn's 1759: the year of victories is published by Jonathan Cape next month