"The Sussex 1738"


Strange Shipwrecks by Jose Burman

True Story by The Sole Survivor of the "Sussex" - John Dean.

Sussex 1738 - Cave of broken porcelain

The Sussex   was an English East Indiaman bound from Canton in China for England. She was commanded by Captain Francis Gostelow.

On the 9th March while far to the eastward of the Cape of Good Hope at about six in the evening they met with a hard gale of wind. The ship immediately broached, and lay down with the starboard gunwale under water. The carpenter sounded the pumps and found 3 foot of water in her. By 10 o'clock that night the water had gained on the men manning the pumps and there was 10 feet of water in her well. They cut away her mizen mast and then her main mast and slowly the ship righted herself. The men at the pumps started to gain on her and by 5 o'clock in the morning there was but 2 feet of water left in her. The ship remained with a starboard list due to cargo shifting. Meanwhile they had met with another Indiaman, the Winchester  , and Captain Dove of that vessel agreed to keep the crippled Sussex   company. They kept in company for that day and by the next morning Captain Gostelow held a conference with his officers in the Round-House. Then he came onto the quarter deck with all the officers and called all the men together. The Captain and officers had agreed to abandon the ship and asked which of the men would like to go on board the Winchester  . Jim Holland shook his head stubbornly, "Captain" he asked, "Why should we abandon the Sussex? She's a good ship." Some seamen nodded, others growled their approval. Captain Francis Gostelow flushed with anger, at this flouting of his authority; but he was on tricky ground, so he controlled his temper before answering: "I advise you all to go on board the Winchester  ; the carpenter swears that this ship is not in a condition to sail round the Cape. If you stay by the ship and meet with a hard gale, you'll cry 'Lord have mercy on us' - you'll wish you had gone on board the Winchester  ."

At about 7 o'clock the Captain and the Supercargo climbed into the Winchester's   pinnace and crossed over to that vessel, being the first to leave their ship, contrary to naval tradition.

Only 16 ordinary seamen decided to remain on the Sussex  . The chief first mate Mr. Williams, left them with a letter saying that the Master and officers had left the Sussex   voluntarily, (in case they were accused of mutiny they would receive no help).

At about 3 o'clock that afternoon the Winchester   , without any further offers of help to the remaining seamen on the Sussex  , hoisted sail and stood away to the west. The 16 men elected Jim Holland and Andrew White to take command of the Sussex  . They decided to make for Madagascar to do further repairs to the vessel before heading to round the Cape. Four days later they put into St. Augustine's Bay. They carried out repairs to the Sussex   and Holland received good treatment from the King. The Malagasy people became threatening and things became unpleasant in St. Augustine's Bay. They decided to set sail for Mozambique after spending nearly four weeks repairing the Sussex   in St. Augustine 's Bay. The weather was fair and the leak appeared to have closed, for after pumping an accumulation of 16 inches of water out of the hold, the Sussex   remained dry. It seemed that they had overcome their main difficulty. Then, on the evening of the second day the Sussex   struck a reef. At one moment she was sailing free - the next she was piled up on the rocks, with sea breaking over her. It was useless abandoning the ship in the darkness, as they had no idea of what they had hit. At daybreak they found themselves to be on the reef of the Bassas da India.

White and seven men decided to stick to the ship and take their chances, but Holland, John Dean and six others lowered the pinnace, into which they put the compass, arms, powder and provisions. One of the tackles jammed and Dean's hand was crushed in attempting to fend the boat off. He was unsuccessful and the boat was upset, drowning three of the men. The remaining five swam until they reached shallow water. They collected some drifting provisions and were able to bring in the damaged boat. At noon the Sussex   broke up, taking with her the eight men who had stayed aboard.

The voyage in the repaired boat was agonising and after seventeen days Holland, John Dean, Stephen Wicks, William Eadnell and a Frenchman, had drifted across the ocean back to Madagascar. The Frenchman decided to part company and go his own way. Holland ,Wicks and then Eadnell all took ill and died, leaving John Dean as the sole survivor to reach the chief's capital of Moharbo. To his surprise Dean found the Frenchman already installed there.

Eventually John Dean got a passage to Bombay, where he dictated a full account of his adventures, which was dispatched to England while he waited for a further passage back as well.

The Directors of the East India Company were delighted to receive Dean's story. When the Winchester   had arrived with its double load of sailors and officers, they had not been at all satisfied with the explanations given. The Directors later dismissed both captains from the Sussex   and the Winchester   from the Company's service, and no member of the crew of either vessel was re-employed.

Dean himself arrived in England in April, 1741, aboard the Haeslingfield  . The Company commissioned a portrait of him to be painted, which was hung in the India office, together with the pictures of past presidents and later rubbed shoulders with pictures of heroes like Lord Clive. Even more important, he was granted a life pension of R200 per year.

During 1986 Aqua Exploration went to the Bassas da India and carried out a magnetometer survey right around the atoll. We discovered 15 wreck sites and managed to positively identify the site of the Sussex   from the porcelain and cargo of zinc ingots found.

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Charles Shapiro cc T/A "Aqua Exploration"

South African Historical Wreck Society

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