‘The poor aborigines were quickly reduced to a state of starvation, and it is believed that many of them actually perished for want of food during the first few months of [Britain’s ] the occupation of their country’. Samuel Bennett, Australian Discovery and Colonisation, Vol 1 – 1800, facsimile ed. 1981

Documentary evidence supports Governor Phillip’s expectation logistical support would reach him soon after the ‘First Fleet’ naval expeditionary force had reached Botany Bay. See:  On the Rocks

None came. ‘Every morning from day-light until the sun  sank’ Marine Captain Tench wrot ‘did we sweep the horizon in the hope of seeing a sail’.   

The direst consequences of Britain’s callous abandonment of her country-men fell on the Aborigines of the Sydney area. They ‘were quickly reduced to a state of starvation’. See: Abandoned and Left to Starve Sydney Cove January 1788 to June 1790

1788 – July, Sydney:  ‘They [Aborigines] are now much distressed for food, few fish are caught & I am told that many of them appear on the Beach where the Boats  go to haul the Seins [trawling nets], very weak & anxious to get the small fish, of which they make no account in the Summer nor can we give them much assistance as very few fish are now caught, & we have many sick’. Governor Arthur Phillip to Joseph Banks, 2 July 1788. Oxford Book of Australian Letters, ed. Brenda Niall, John Thompson, 1998   


1790 – Sydney, I January: ‘We had been entirely cut off no communication whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th of May, 1787, the day of our departure from Portsmouth.

From the intelligence of our friends and connections…we had now been two years in the country and thirty-two months  in which long period no supplies had reached us from England. Famine besides was approaching with gigantic strides’. Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. L.F. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1961     

Britain’s abandonment of the Englishmen, women and children of the  ‘First Fleet’ amounted to treachery. See: Arthur Phillip – Hung Out to Dry

But what was devastating for the English was catastrophic for Australia’s First Peoples.See: Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat

‘The main battle [for both populations ] was about having enough to eat’. Don Watson, The Story of Australia, Thomas Nelson and Sons/Mc Phee Gribble, Melbourne, 1984[

1788 – Sydney, May: Governor Phillip daily expected relief supplies. But nothing had arrived before Charlotte Scarborough, Lady Penrhyn, first of the fleet’s six (6) chartered transports departed Sydney in May 1788 for the return passage to England.

These three (3) vessels were under strict orders to sail home via China where they were to purchase tea for England’s domestic market.

1788 – 14 July: There was still no word from England by mid-July when the remaining transports Alexander, Friendship,Prince of Wales and the store-ship Borrowdale sailed for home.

1788 – Africa, September: Phillip could wait no longer. He ordered Captain John Hunter RN prepare HMS Sirius for a voyage to the Cape of Good Hope to buy food and medicines from the Dutch.

The Sirius’ timbers had been  damaged on the eight (8) months voyage to Sydney. To lighten the load Phillip ordered her heavy mounted  cannon be removed.

Hunter very reluctantly obeyed the order.  The artillery pieces were placed at ‘Dawes battery’ where, in December 1790, they would play a pivotal role at yet another a critical point in ‘Sydney’s First Four Years’. See: An Ugly War Britain versus the Other

1788 – Cape Town, October:  On the 2nd of October Captain Hunter sailed HMS Sirius south on a lone perilous voyage through ‘islands of ice’ via Drake Passage, around Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope.

However buying food and medicines was not the only reason Captain Hunter chose to take the dangerous route to Africa via the Southern Oceans. See: Proximity not ‘Distance’ drove Britain’s Invasion of New Holland.

1789 – England, May: Meantime Alexander with Lieutenant John Shortland RN – naval agent for the ‘First Fleet’ – reached England on the 25th of May at the end of a tumultuous  ten (10) month voyage.  See: Asleep in the Deep – Merchant Men of the First Fleet

Not until Lieutenant Shortland reported to Lord Sydney on the  ‘misery and horror of our situation’  – isolation  and starvation – could anyone in England be sure any English man, woman or child was alive at the Sydney settlement.

1789 – April, Sydney: And, although Shortland could not have known it, by May 1789 the smallpox virus had began to wipe out 50% of the  local Eora Peoples.

The heavily pock-marked Aboriginal survivors mourned the loss of 50% of their family members. See: A Lethal Weapon: Smallpox Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

they saw  NONE of the white invaders their white invaders. Insert quote


Home Secretary Lord Sydney made a positive response to Lieutenant Shortland’s urgent plea for help. He assigned Lieutenant Edward Riou RN captain of HMS Guardian the task of delivering food and medicines to New South Wales.

Apart from this one (1) belated attempt, it appears no move had been made to re-supply the Sydney settlement. Guardian’s maiden voyage, a daunting unescorted voyage of 15,000 nautical miles (23,000 km) voyage – England to New South Wales – can best be described as a ‘mercy dash’.  See: The Twelfth Man

Captain Riou supervised the loading of medical supplies together with tonnes of salted meats and flour. Plus clothing, books and personal items belonging to marines of the Sydney garrison who by then were overdue for repatriation. See: The Clue of the Scarlet Cloth

But wait there’s more. At this point Joseph Banks, the wealthy botanist whose money spoke loudly and, whose interest lay in plants not starving Englishmen, hijacked the voyage.See: HMS Guardian & Joseph Bank’s Garden

1789 – England, September: Guardian’s departure was delayed  by four (4) vital months. On the 14th of February the 44 gun frigate sailed unescorted from the Royal Navy’s base at Spithead. Ahead lay freezing waters at the worst possible time of the year.

 Riou, Guardian’s only the only commissioned officer, headed a crew of ninety- six (96). He had assistance from three (3) experienced warrant-officers –  a boatswain, sailing master and purser.

The ship also carried twenty-five (25) skilled male convicts, eight (8) agricultural supervisors and the Reverend Crowther sent by William Wilberforce, England’s most prominent Parliamentary anti-slavery advocate, to support Reverend Richard Johnson the ‘First Fleet’ Chaplain.

Riou’s first port of call, like that of the ‘First Fleet’, was Santa Cruz. He purchased 2000 gallons of Spanish wine and took fresh water. Knowing time was vital Guardian stayed only four (4) days before pushing onto Cape Town. See: Apollo 11: Fly Me To The Moon

1789 – Cape Town, November: Guardian anchored in Table Bay at the Cape of Good Hope towards the end of November 1789. Riou’s orders were to buy breeding livestock for the colony.

But Riou, like Governor Arthur Phillip in 1787,found an obstructive Dutch colonial administration put a host of bureaucratic difficulties’ in his way.

It says a lot for Riou’s determination, when Guardian sailed from Cape Town in mid December 1789 she was crammed with cattle,a small flock of sheep some goats, pigs, rabbits, deer, horses, greyhounds, all manner of poultry and fodder to keep them alive.

1789 – 10 December: It On a bitterly cold day Guardian left Cape Town, turned south and headed into the ‘Roaring Forties’.

Heavily laden she sat low in the water.Through lashing rain driven by biting icy Antarctic winds Guardian, fought through mountainous seas.

Both livestock and Bank’s garden consumed prodigious amounts of water. Water shortage became Riou’s most pressing problem.

1789 – Marian Island, 24 December: 1300 miles from the Cape on Christmas Eve the look-out sighted ice. Riou, now very anxious to replenish his fast dwindling water supply, ordered a cutter lowered to pick up large chunks of free-floating ice.

Riou has learned this tricky manoeuvre he on his first sea-posting under Captain James Cook RN  in HMS Discovery. See: The Twelfth Man – Edward Riou

Guardian struck an iceberg hidden in swirling fog. The collision sheared off the rudder. Holed below the water-line she began to take on water.

Cargo was jettisoned, animals thrown or washed overboard died quickly in the freezing sea. Bank’s extravagant garden slipped willy-nilly into the sea.

1789 – Christmas Day:  All seemed lost when Riou announced his determination ‘to remain in the ship’ but gave permission for the crew to abandon if they so wished.

About sixty-five (65) officers and seamen, nearly one-half the ship’s crew, but only four (4) of the twenty-five (25) convicts, jumped from the rolling deck into freezing seas.

‘I am inclined to think’ Riou’s diary entry lamented they could but have survived a few minutes’. 

Of five (5) life-boats lowered only one (1) with fourteen (14) occupants survived. On that cramped cutter all food was shared and each drank their own urine.

There is however sufficient information to speculate, without the Reverend Crowther’s civilising presence, behaviour on the life-boat would not have been as edifying as it appears to have been.

1790 – Cape Town, January: Three (3) weeks later a Dutch East India merchantman picked up the survivors and took them back to Cape Town.


So what became of the sixty-two (62) persons who stayed with their ship? They survived. Among them midshipman Thomas Pitt. The ‘wilful and incorrigible nephew’ of Prime Minister William Pitt had ran away to sea.

The fourteen years old only son of Lord Camelford is said to have not minded his time Charterhouse School but refused to move onto Eton College.

The young tear-away  was given into the care of Edward Riou and that’s how Tom found himself in mid-ocean aboard the sinking HMS Guardian.

Pumps manned around the clock kept Guardian afloat. The hole in the hull was plugged. A makeshift rudder fashioned from a damaged jib-boom allowed Riou regain control of his ship’s direction and he set a course for Cape Town.

Off Madagascar Guardian very nearly came to grief. With help from a frantic crew Riou skilfully steered her clear of jagged rocks. But it had been a close call.

1790 – Cape Town, February : Hope had faded Riou feared all was lost when on the 11th February a passing French frigate took Guardian in tow.

Ten (10 days later – on the 21st February 1790 – Guardian dropped anchor in False Bay, across the spit from Cape Town,

‘If any part of the officers and crew of the ‘Guardian’ should ever survive to get home I have only to say their conduct after the fatal stroke against an island of ice was admirable and wonderful in everything that related to their duties, considered either as private men or on His Majesty’s service’. Riou’s Diary, State Library, New South Wales. 

When Edward Riou stepped ashore at Cape Town he was gob-smacked to be greeted by William Peckover a man he knew very well.

Exactly a decade earlier, (14 February 1779) at Kealakekua Bay in the Hawaiian island group, young midshipman Edward Riou stood beside William Bligh Discovery’s sailing-master, and gunner William Peckover watching in horror as;

‘One of the natives struck him [Captain James Cook] with an iron dagger…first in the right shoulder, and then from the front, through the left side, into the heart. Captain Cook fell to the ground dead’. John Toohey, Bligh’s Portable Nightmare, Harper Collins, 1999

Now in 1790 at Cape Town here was Peckover with three (3) other Royal Naval warrant-officers. Bosun Robert Cole, sailing -master John Fryer, William Purcell and a young able seaman Robert Tinkler.

Each had his own remarkable story to tell. It was a tale of mutiny on the high seas. See: Pandora’s Box


Captain Riou hoped, if at all possible, to resume his voyage to Australia.To that end William Purcell a skilled carpenter, offered to supervise a team of local workers to repair HMS Guardian.

1790 – Cape Town, March: Then at the beginning of March Lady Juliana, the first division ship of a second fleet ‘being taken up for Botany Bay’ arrived at Table Bay with two hundred and twenty-six (226) women prisoners and eight (8) free children.

Guardian’s repairs were progressing well when, on the 12th of March, a sudden storm tore her from her moorings and she broke apart.

Riou, driven by knowledge his conférès at Sydney were in desperate need, approached Lieutenant Edgar, Royal Naval Agent for the Lady Juliana. 

Edger agreed to take a quantity of flour, some salted meats and a small flock of sheep that, having survived Guardian’s collision with the iceberg, Riou had agisted at Cape Town.

In another heart-stopping moment that scheme nearly imploded when Lady Juliana very nearly came to grief at Cape Town.

Her timbers, strained after many months at sea, were under repair when a bucket of molten pitch combusted setting fire to her freshly tarred decking. Despite stinking black smoke the crew got the better of a fierce blaze.

1790 – Sydney Cove, June: Three (3) months later – 3 June 1790 – ‘‘Flag’s Up…Lady Juliana…London on her stern’  was the first contact from England for the Englishmen of the ‘First Fleet’ who had sailed from Portsmouth on 13th May 1787.

On board were ‘twenty-five  of …[those convicts] who remained on Guardian] whom crime or misfortune had condemned to exile’ and a small flock of ‘Guardian’ sheep.

Lieutenant Riou wrote to the Admiralty on behalf of the prisoners.

‘ Permit me now, sir, to address you on a subject which I hope their Lordships will not consider to be unworthy of their notice. It is to recommend as much as is in my power to their Lordships’ favour and interest the case of the twenty convicts which my duty compelled me to sent to Port Jackson’.

That not one of them, so far as depended on myself, should ever be convicts. And I may with undeniable trust say that had it not been for their assistance and support the ‘Guardian’ would never have arrived to where she is [Cape Town.]  I have taken the liberty to recommend them to the notice of Governor Phillip…’

Governor Arthur Phillip RN earlier had served in the Portuguese Navy. While transporting convicts from Lisbon, Portugal to Rio, Brazil he too had a similar experience with helpful convicts and honoured Riou’s recommendation.

He granted pardons to the fourteen (14) of the Guardian prisoners who survived to reach Sydney on the core condition of their exile; that they ‘remain out of the realm’ until their period of sentence expired. See: Arthur Phillip – The Importance of Being Arthur

Riou managed to salvage his diary, letters and Guardian’s logbook. These he entrusted, some to John Fryer a ‘good honest plain man’ and to the ever dependable William Peckover who had sailed with Captain James Cook on each of his three (3) voyages.

The documents were duly delivered to the Admiralty. HMS Guardian’s original log-book is held in the New South Wales State Library, Macquarie Street, Sydney.

Perhaps because of Thomas Pitt the story of HMS Guardian and her gallant crew broke through England’s rigid class barrier. For months HMS Guardian filled both London’s metropolitan and county newspapers.

That Guardian’s loss linked as it was now to Captain William Bligh RN, Lieutenant Fletcher Christian RN, the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, cruel Captain Edward Edwards RN, the loss of HMS Pandora and their subsequent courts-martial no doubt fuelled the media frenzy.  See: Boswell Goes Into Bat for the Botany Bay Escapees


In 1801, during the First Battle of Copenhagen, Captain Riou then in command of HMS Amazon, was wounded in the head. Sitting atop a gun-carriage he continued to direct fire until cut in half by an in-coming cannon ball from a Danish shore battery.

A monument to Riou’s bravery can be found in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral.

Despite Guardian’s extraordinary log-book and an engraving in the National Portrait Gallery, Australia shows little in Captain Edward Riou RN or his efforts to resupply the starving First Fleeters.

‘Had not the Guardian struck on an island of ice, she would probably have reached us three months before, and in this case have prevented the loss of the Sirius’. Tench. ibid.

Norfolk Island – 1790, 16 March:  While evacuating 50% of Sydney’s starving population to Norfolk Island HMS Sirius hit a submerged reef and sank.

Governor Phillip’s decision of March 1790 to evacuate 50% of Sydney white population to Norfolk Island echoed the previous year’s experience.

April 1789: ‘An extraordinary calamity was now observed among natives…But how a disease to which our former observations had led us to believe them strangers, could have introduced itself, and spread so widely is inexplicable’. Tench. ibid.

In April 1789 50% of Sydney black population died of smallpox.Tench who viewed the body of a dead woman wrote; ‘the body of the woman shewed that famine, superadded to disease, had occasioned her death’. See: Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat   


The smallpox virus was endemic in 18th century England.

‘Whatever may be the cause the malady cannot be denied….It is true, that our surgeons had brought out variolous matter in bottles’. 

There were too many suspects for Tench to chance his arm and name a prime suspect. See: Abandoned and Left to Starve

‘From first of April 1790…per week for every grown [white] person and every [white] child more than eighteen [18] months old….two [2] pounds of pork, two and a half pounds [2½] of flour, two [2] pounds of rice, quart of pease…when the age of this provision is recollected, its inadequacy will more strikingly appears. The pork and rice [a moving body of weevils] were brought with us from England’.  Tench ibid.


Jakarta – 1790, 17 April: ‘Supply, Captain Ball, sailed for Batavia’ [modern-day Jakarta].‘We followed her with anxious eyes until she was no longer visible…the pomp and circumstance of glorious war were no more…all our labour and attention were turned on one object- the procuring of food’.   

Sydney – 1790, 3 June: When Lady Juliana arrived in Sydney Harbour there were no English ships to greet her. See: Missing in Action. Sirius @ the bottom of the sea. HMS Supply @ Jakaarta

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