‘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 the occupation of their country’. Samuel Bennett, Australian Discovery and Colonisation, Vol 1 – 1800, facsimile ed. 1981

Documentary evidence supports the claim that Governor Phillip expected logistical support to reach him soon after the ‘First Fleet’ expeditionary force reached its destination but the expected ships never came.

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’. Arthur Phillip to Joseph Banks, 2 July 1788. Oxford Book of Australian Letters, ed. Brenda Niall, John Thompson, 1998   

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


1790 – I January: ‘From the intelligence of our friends and connections 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. We had now been two years in the country and thirty-two months  in which long period no supplies had reached us from England. from Portsmouth. Famine besides was approaching with gigantic strides’. Tench. ibid.    

Britain’s abandonment of the ‘First Fleet’ amounted to treachery. What was devastating for the English was catastrophic for Australia’s First Peoples. See: Arthur Phillip – Hung Out to Dry

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

1788 – May: Governor Phillip daily expected relief supplies but nothing had arrived by the time Charlotte Scarborough, Lady Penrhyn, first of the fleet’s six (6) chartered transports departed for the return passage to England via China where they were to purchase tea for the domestic market.

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

1788 – September, Africa: Phillip fearing the worst 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.

Her timbers damaged on the eight (8) months voyage to Sydney, were strengthened and to lighten the ship Phillip ordered Hunter remove the Sirius mounted cannon. They were placed at ‘Dawes battery’ where, in December 1790,  they played a pivotal role at a critical point in ‘Sydney’s First Four Years’.

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

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

Not until Lieutenant Shortland reported to Lord Sydney could the Home Office be sure any English man, woman or child was was still alive at the Sydney settlement.

And, although Shortland could not have known it, at that very time – May 1789 –  50% of the estimated 1500 local Cadigal Aborigines had died from smallpox. See: A Lethal Weapon: Smallpox Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

Shortland painted a dire picture of the ‘misery [starvation] and horror [isolation]’ of his fellow countrymen who; ‘on the summit of the hill [South Head], every morning from daylight until the sun sunk did we sweep the horizon in the hope of seeing a sail’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Fours Years, Ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

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

Riou threw himself into preparing Guardian for her maiden voyage, 13,000 miles (21,000 km), England to New South Wales. Guardian’s voyage can best be described as a ‘mercy dash’ for apart from this one (1) belated attempt, no move had been made to re-supply the Sydney settlement. See: The Twelfth Man Edward Riou & HMS Guardian

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

At this point Joseph Banks, the wealthy botanist whose money spoke loudly and, whose interest lay in plants not starving Englishmen, hijacked the voyage delaying departure by four (4) vital months with the result Guardian would sail into freezing southern waters at the worst possible time of the year. See: HMS Guardian & Joseph Bank’s Garden

1789 – 14 September, England: Guardian, a 44 gun frigate sailed unescorted from the Royal Navy’s base at Spithead in mid-September.

Captain Riou the only commissioned officer, headed a crew of ninety- six (96) with the assistance of three (3) experienced warrant-officers –  a boatswain, sailing master and purser.

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

Riou called at Santa Cruz but knowing time was vital stayed only four (4) days to take on fresh water and purchase 2000 gallons of Spanish wine before pushing onto Cape Town.

1789 – 24 November, Cape Town: Guardian anchored in Table Bay at the Cape of Good Hope towards the end of November 1789. His orders were to buy breeding livestock but found, as Governor Phillip had in 1787, an obstructive Dutch colonial administration put a host of bureaucratic difficulties’ in Riou’s way. See: Apollo 11: Fly Me To The Moon

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

1789 – 10 December: It was bitterly cold when Guardian sailed from Cape Town turned south and headed into the ‘Roaring Forties’. Heavily laden she sat low in the water and, through lashing rain driven by biting icy Antarctic winds, fought mountainous seas.

The livestock and Bank’s garden consumed prodigious amounts of water soon a shortage of water became Riou’s most pressing problem.

1789 – 24 December: 1300 miles from the Cape, off Marian Island, 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. This tricky manoeuvre he learned from his time sailing with Captain James Cook in HMS Discovery. See: The Twelfth Man – Edward Riou

Guardian struck an iceberg hidden in swirling fog the rudder sheared off and, holed below the water-line, began to take on water. Cargo was jettisoned, animals thrown or washed overboard died quickly in the freezing waters and Bank’s extravagant garden slipped willy-nilly into the sea.

1789 – Christmas Day: When all seemed lost Riou gave permission for those who wanted abandon the ship. Drunken officers and seamen, nearly one-half the ship’s crew with four (4) of twenty-five (25) convicts, jumped from the rolling deck into freezing seas.

‘I am inclined to think’ Riou’s diary entry says they could but have survived a few minutes’. Of five (5) life-boats lowered only one (1) with fourteen (14) occupants survived.

All food was shared on the cramped cutter and each drank their own urine. There is however sufficient information to speculate, behaviour on the life-boat may not have been as edifying as it appears to have been without the civilising presence of the Reverend Crowther.

1790 – 11 January, Cape Town: Three (3) weeks later a Dutch East India merchantman picked up the survivors and took them  to Cape Town.

Midshipman Thomas Pitt only son of Lord Camelford the ‘wilful and incorrigible nephew’ of Prime Minister William Pitt, after only nine (9) days at Charterhouse School, ran away to sea. Thomas at the age of fourteen (14) years found himself under Lieutenant Riou’s care aboard HMS Guardian.

Sixty-two (62) persons stayed aboard and perhaps because of Thomas Pitt’s involvement HMS Guardian’s epic tale crashed through England’s rigid class divide. The efforts of Riou, his gallant crew and twenty-one (21) prisoners, to save their stricken ship hit the newspapers and their heroism received widespread acclaim.

Meanwhile her pumps manned around the clock Guardian stayed afloat. The hole in the hull was plugged and, 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 the ship very nearly came to grief, with help from a frantic crew Riou skilfully steered her clear of jagged rocks, but it had been a very close call.

‘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. 

1790 – 21 February, Cape Town: Near Cape Town a French frigate took Guardian in tow and she anchored in False Bay, across the spit from Cape Town, on the 21st February.

When Edward Riou stepped ashore he was gob-smacked to be greeted by William Peckover a man he knew very well. A decade earlier, (14 February 1779) at Kealakekua Bay in the Hawaiian island group, young midshipman Edward Riou, stood beside sailing-master William Bligh 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 here in 1790 was Peckover with three (3) other Royal Naval warrant-officers, bosun Robert Cole, sailing -master John Fryer, William Purcell and young able seaman Robert Tinkler with their own remarkable story to tell – a tale of mutiny on the high seas. See: Pandora’s Box

Edward Riou hoped to resume his voyage to Australia and to that end Purcell a skilled carpenter, supervised a team of local workers to repair HMS Guardian.

1790 – 1 March, Cape Town: 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) children.

1790 – 12 March, Cape Town: Guardian’s repairs were progressing well when on the 12th of March a sudden storm tore the ship from her mooring and thrown up onto the beach she broke apart.

Riou, driven by knowledge his conferès at Sydney were in desperate need, approached Lieutenant Edgar, Royal Naval Agent for Lady Juliana who agreed to take a quantity of flour, some salted meats and a small flock of sheep that survived Guardian’s collision with the iceberg and Riou had aggisted out at Cape Town.

Lady Juliana herself very nearly came to grief while at Cape Town. Her timbers strained after many months at sea were under repair when a container of molten pitch combusted setting fire to the freshly tarred decking. Despite stinking black smoke the crew got the better of a fierce blaze.

1790 – 3 June, Sydney Cove: Three (3) months later – June 1790 – when Lady Juliana with ‘London on her stern’ women prisoners and a small flock of ‘Guardian’ sheep sailed through Sydney Heads she was the first contact from England for the Englishmen of the ‘First Fleet’ who had sailed from Portsmouth on 13th May 1787.


Lieutenant Riou wrote to the Admiralty on behalf of the twenty-one (21) prisoners who remained with HMS Guardian.

‘ 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 who earlier, while serving in the Portuguese Navy, had had a similar experience with helpful convicts, honoured Riou’s recommendation. The fourteen (14) Guardian prisoners who survived to reach Sydney were granted conditional pardons 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 log-book is held now in the New South Wales State Library, Macquarie Street, Sydney.

Australia knows little of HMS Guardian and nothing of Captain Edward Riou RN, perhaps now he may even be forgotten in England, but there in the late 18th century his name was esteemed.

During the First Battle of Copenhagen (1801) wounded in the head he sat atop a gun-carriage directing fire until cut in half by a cannon ball aimed from a shore battery at his command HMS Amazon.

A monument to Riou’s bravery can be found in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral and an engraving hangs in Australia’s National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply