1782, South Africa – ‘Shipwreck’ Captain John Coxon

lightnings-547078_1280Life Story. He was Captain of the ‘Grosvenor’ an East Indiaman shipwrecked in 1782

The Grosvenor, said to be the richest British East Indiaman ship ever lost was wrecked and sank on 4th August 1782 on a reef about 700 miles northeast of Cape Town, South Africa.

The loss included 2,600,000 gold coins, 1,400 gold ingots and nineteen chests of emeralds, rubies and sapphires. There were 132 crew and 18 passengers (12 adults and 6 children) on the ship. The passengers and most of the crew were either lost on the sea or more controversially later on the land. The master of the ship was Captain John Coxon. 

The official report by the East India Company published in 1783 said that the disaster which befell the ship is “not at all imputed to any bad behaviour by Captain Coxon”. Some books published much later took a different view of his role.


Coat of Arms of the East India Company

The Grosvenor launched in 1770 from a shipyard in Deptford, London was the second East Indiaman with that name.

A three-masted, square-rigged frigate she had a length of 138 feet with three decks and carried 26 guns.

Since being built she had made three voyages and the fateful fourth voyage was in March 1782 from Bengal to Madras and then an intended destination of Portsmouth, England.

This would have been her last voyage anyway since at that time the East India Company would not allow a merchantman to sail more than four voyages.

After leaving Madras the ship reached Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and on 13th June 1782 set sail for England on a journey around the Cape. The weather was very bad for the entire voyage from India to Africa and the Grosvenor mainmast had to be repaired during this stage of the voyage and was being constantly watched. Exact navigation observations could not be taken and the charts of the South Africa coastline were unreliable.

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 12.09.48At 1.00 am on 4th August 1782 and fifty-two days out from Ceylon, the Grosvenor was sailing west near the Cape coast of South Africa and they were in a gale.

The crew noticed lights to the west, but dismissed them as something like the northern lights when they gradually disappeared. The lights however were grass fires burning on a headland directly on their course and their disappearance was due to being hidden by the brow of a hill.

StampAt 4.00 am, one of the crew reported that he could see land, but the officer of the watch ignored him.

Everyone on board was certain that they were at least 200 miles (320 km) out to sea. (Later publications criticise Captain Coxon for this navigational judgement but there was no criticism in the official enquiry.)

The quartermaster after some further hesitation alerted Captain Coxon who instantly came on deck. He attempted to drop one of its anchors to turn the ship abruptly but this failed, and the vessel ran aground on the rocks.


Grosvenor Shipwreck; Published March 8 1784 by R. Pollard

With a change in the wind direction, Captain Coxon felt that they could refloat the Grosvenor and run her aground in some more convenient place; this judgement was correct .

Most of the passengers were trapped in the stern section of the ship and the refloat allowed Grosvenor to be hauled stern first into a sheltered inlet.

They attempted to reach the shore but the small boats smashed upon the rocks from the heavy seas and sixteen crew died in these attempts.

Eventually the ship split itself in two and the rear part drifted into shallower water. One passenger and forty-one of the crew were lost in the shipwreck. Seventeen passengers and ninety-three crew made it to the shore.

On the morning of the 7th August, Captain Coxon mustered the passengers and crew on the shore, retrieving what supplies they could from the wreckage of the ship. They were all delivered to Captain Coxon who served them out to everyone in a fair share.

Coxon then gathered all the survivors together and said that he was the commander on board but he hoped that now they would allow him to continue his command. The reply was unanimously answered as ‘By all means’.

Coxon and his officers knew that they were a considerable distance from the nearest European settlements – the Dutch Cape Colony to the south and Portuguese colony of Delagoa Bay to the north.

He informed the survivors that by his best calculations they were 15 or 16 days away from the Dutch Cape Colony. This was a serious miscalculation, because the distance to the Cape was 400 miles, rather than the 250 that he believed. In fact Delagoa Bay was closer.

Encouraged by this hope they set off on the 27th August to walk. It was some twenty days after the shipwreck. They decided to walk along the coast because they were afraid of the local natives and also of the elephants and lions which they saw and heard.

The group existed on shellfish and any carcass they could find. There were many rivers to cross and if they were too deep they had to build rafts. Some became sick when they ate inedible berries.

Almost all died on that walk and only eighteen of the crew and no passengers  reached the Cape. The survivors went to London to be witnesses to the official enquiry. The reports they gave said that Coxon died on the eighth day of the trek.

It was on the basis of their testimony that the enquiry apportioned no blame to Captain Coxon for the loss of the ship.

This was Captain John Coxon’s second voyage as commander of the Grosvenor and he was an experienced seaman. (later critical publications of the Grosvenor story said he was an inexperienced mariner who bought his captaincy)

Miniature portrait of Captain John Coxon, captain of East Indiaman the Grosvenor, sunk August 1782. Courtesy Capt A R Coxon, RN (Ret'd)

Captain John Coxon


Aged 24 years, John Coxon started his career with the East India Company in 1764.

He was Purser on the Pacific that made two voyages to India in 1764 and 1765.

Then, at the age of 28 years, he joined a ship also named Grosvenor as 4th Mate.

This was the predecessor of the wrecked ship. He made voyages in 1767/8.

At 35 years old, he was further promoted to 1st mate on the new Grosvenor that had just been launched. He was 1st mate for voyages in 1770/1 and 1774/5.

John Coxon must have accumulated wealth from these earlier voyages. To be a Captain or Mate with the East India Company required the person to be experienced and to have spent time on East India Company ships. They also needed to be wealthy to become a Captain.

To gain command the person had to pay up to £10,000 to the owners depending on the age of the vessel. The investment was lucrative because it was possible to amass considerable fortunes in a short time by being the Captain or Mate of an East Indiaman.

The East India Company allowed the officers a free tonnage allowance in the cargo which varied according to rank. In the case of the Captain this was 38 tons,  a considerable amount of high value cargo to sell at the destination.

At 38 years old, he became Captain of the Grosvenor and made voyages in 1977/8 and 1779/80 and then the fateful return voyage in 1782.

In 1780, before he left on the voyage to Madras and Bengal he made and signed a will.

The Will of Captain John Coxon

Last Will and Testament signed by Captain John Coxon


“In the Name of God Amen. I John Coxon at this time Commander of the Ship Grosvenor in the service of the Honourable East India Company and now outward bound on a voyage to Madras and Bengal being at this present writing and of sound mind and memory ……..”


In his Will he bequeathed his estate to his wife Harriet Coxon, to his only son Joseph Coxon (when he attains 20 years) and to his Daughter Susanna Cornish. His son-in-law, Thomas Cornish, is the Executor. The Will also stated that Captain John Coxon and his family lived in Southampton Street, Bloomsbury, London.

Captain John Coxon:  born circa 1739; died 1782 aged 43 years.


Appendix – The Voyages of Captain John Coxon


14th April 1765 – Pacific: 499 Tons, 1 Voyage


Sailed Portsmouth 14th April 1765. Arrive Downs 17th December 1776

  • Owner John Hyde Esq
  • Captain Charles Barklay
  • 1st Mate Emerson Tidy
  • 2nd Mate Richard Pierce
  • 3rd Mate Charles William Richards
  • 4th Mate Edmund Fryer
  • Surgeon Griffith Thomas
  • Purser John Coxon

31st December 1767 – Grosvenor: 499 Tons, 3 Voyage,


Sailed Downs 31st December 1767. Arrive Downs 28th May 1769

  • Owner David Mitchell Esq.
  • Captain David Saunders
  • 1st Mate James Wood
  • 2nd Mate William Fraser
  • 3rd Mate David Drummond
  • 4th Mate John Coxon
  • Surgeon Alexander Kincaid
  • Purser Alexander Mitchell


6th February 1771 – Grosvenor: 499 Tons, 1 Voyage


Sailed Portsmouth 6th February 1771. Arrive Downs 30th August 1772

  • Owner David Mitchell Esq.
  • Captain David Saunders
  • 1st Mate John Coxen (sic)
  • 2nd Mate Thomas Ward
  • 3rd Mate David Drummond
  • 4th Mate James Harris
  • Surgeon William Thompson
  • Purser Alexander Mitchell


18th January 1775 – Grosvenor: 729 Tons, 2 Voyage,


Sailed Downs 18th January 1775. Arrive Downs 18th August 1776

  • Owner David Mitchell Esq
  • Captain David Saunders
  • 1st Mate John Coxen (sic)
  • 2nd Mate James Duthy
  • 3rd Mate David Drummond
  • 4th Mate Alexander Logie
  • Surgeon Griffith Thomas
  • Purser Alexander Mitchell



9th February 1778 – Grosvenor:  729 Tons. 3 Voyage,


Sailed Plymouth 9th February 1778. Arrive: Downs 16th November 1779

  • Owner David Mitchell Esq.
  • Captain John Coxen (sic)
  • 1st Mate David Drummond
  • 2nd Mate Peter Marshall
  • 3rd Mate Alexander Logie
  • 4th Mate Thomas Beal
  • Surgeon Griffith Thomas
  • Purser William Calaghan


3rd June 1780 – Grosvenor: 729 Tons. 4 Voyage,


Sailed Portsmouth 3rd June 1780. Lost off Coast of Africa 4th August 1782

  • Owner David Mitchell Esq.
  • Captain John Coxon
  • 1st Mate Alexander Logie
  • 2nd Mate William Shaw
  • 3rd Mate Thomas Beale
  • 4th Mate John Trotter
  • Surgeon Patrick Bowie
  • Purser Jame Hay




[Acknowledgements and References: Official Report of the East India Company on the loss of the Grosvenor Indiaman 1783, Percival R Kirby Book on ‘The Wreck of the Grosvenor’ 1953 and 1960, John Hynes, Grosvenor Survivor narrative, The Asian and African Studies Collection of the British Library, National Maritime Museum, The National Archives, Barnett Maritime Studies, Aquatint Painting of the Loss of the Grosvenor by Thomas Tegg, 1808, South Africa Post Office, Wrecksite.eu, Google Images, Kristine Hill (YouTube video).]

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