The treasure thought to be aboard the sunken trading ship Grosvenor and which has gripped the imagination of fortune hunters for more than two centuries, was possibly never there.
The treasure was believed to have been on board the Grosvenor East Indiaman when it sank off the Pondoland coast on August 4 1782. It was said to include large quantities of gold, silver and precious stones. Even the Peacock Throne, the jewelled seat of the Mughal Emperors of India, was said to be included.
In his book The True Story of the Grosvenor East Indiaman Percival R Kirby argues that the legend of treasure was invented. There was no mention of it in the early days, nor was the Grosvenor then called a treasure ship.
It was only on February 22 1880 that the word “bullion” was first mentioned. This was in an article appearing in the Natal Mercantile Advertiser. The article reported that numerous gold and silver coins had been picked up on the beach near the wreck. The article said there had been reports that the ship had carried a substantial cargo of gold.
This led to the belief that, if so many coins were still being found at the site of the wreck 100 years later, large quantities of gold coinage and bullion must have been on board.
The author believes that it was the mention of bullion, the “germ word”, that spawned the legend of the Grosvenor, “causing it to grow with extraordinary rapidity”.
On May 8 1880 the Cape Argus reported that Sidney Turner, who had traded for many years on the Pondoland coast and owned a number of small trading vessels, together with a certain Lt Beddoes of the Durban Volunteer Artillery, had begun to search for valuables at the Grosvenor site. They had found pistol and musket bullets, brass ornaments, gold and silver jewellery and gold and silver coins. Nine of the cannon carried by the Grosvenor were lying among the rocks.
Turner and Beddoes planned to use dynamite to dislodge treasure believed to be embedded in the hull. And, as the author says, this belief became a certainty. Copies of reports in the Cape Argus and the Natal Mercury were reprinted in The Times of London and an awareness of the Grosvenor was spread throughout Britain.
Turner and Beddoes removed the canon and then blasted the rocks at the site where valuables were found. No map was made before the blasting, which changed the appearance of the shore, and later blasting caused further destruction.
A number of methods were used to get at the treasure, the most unusual one being hypnotism. The services of a hypnotist, William Whitaker, were employed. As a result of his efforts the treasure seekers travelled to Pondoland in July 1883 and were guided to the spot. They found a gun about 2m long, but no coins or valuables were visible. And when they started digging in the area, the paramount chief of the region ordered them to leave.
The Grosvenor spawned many legends. What seemed to have been a last-gasp attempt to revive interest in the treasure was sparked in an article in the Natal Mercury. It said a former Durban boat builder had claimed an old Pondo man living in the area of the wreck had told him the crew had off-loaded the treasure, including the Peacock Throne, and buried them in the sand. It was then secretly dug up and hidden in a cave, the roof of which later collapsed.
There is also the curious tale of a bell with Grosvenor markings. The one-time owner said a Pondoland resident had given it to him. It was supposed to have been found near the site of the wreck. But the bell has disappeared and no record of its existence can be found.
The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle, is said to have bought 1,000 (some say 2,000) shares in a salvage company, the Grosvenor Bullion Syndicate, floated to recover the treasure.
More intriguing is the existence of what is described as “the sad-eyed, curiously aloof, pale-skinned Pondos” in the hinterland of the point where the Grosvenor sank, believed to be the descendants of the wreck.
Perhaps the most ambitious salvage attempt was to reach the wreck by tunnel. It failed. But the entrances still remain as monuments “to the enthusiastic folly of the credulous speculators who were once responsible for its construction”.
The author says various accounts of the treasure were conflicting and others apocryphal. According to evidence there was never any link between the Peacock Throne and the Grosvenor. “I also hope the legend will be allowed to die,” Kirby writes.