‘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 Governor Phillip had been told to expect logistical support to reach him soon after the ‘First Fleet’ naval expeditionary force had reached Botany Bay.

But none came. Captain Tench wrote; ‘Every morning from day-light until the sun  sank did we sweep the horizon in the hope of seeing a sail’.   

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’. Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. L.F. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1961     

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 via China where they were to purchase tea for England’s 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.

The flagship’s timbers, damaged on the eight (8) months voyage to Sydney, were strengthened. To lighten her Phillip ordered Hunter remove the Sirius mounted cannon.

The artillery pieces were placed at ‘Dawes battery’ where, in December 1790, they played a pivotal role at a critical point in ‘Sydney’s First Four Years’. See: An Ugly War Britain versus the Other

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’ – reached England aboard Alexander 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 still 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 devastate the local Eora Peoples.

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

Home Secretary Lord Sydney made a positive response to Lieutenant Shortland’s urgent plea for help and 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,  15,000 miles (23,000 km) voyage from 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 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

But at this point Joseph Banks, the wealthy botanist whose money spoke loudly and, whose interest lay in plants not starving Englishmen, hijacked the voyage.

1789 – 14 September, England: Guardian’s departure was delayed  by four (4) vital months. The 44 gun frigate sailed unescorted from the Royal Navy’s base at Spithead into freezing southern waters at the worst possible time of the year. See: HMS Guardian & Joseph Bank’s Garden

 Riou, the only commissioned officer, headed a crew of ninety- six (96) with assistance from three (3) experienced warrant-officers –  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 Parliamentary anti-slavery advocate, to support Reverend Richard Johnson the ‘First Fleet’ Chaplain.

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

1789 – 24 November, Cape Town: 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 but he found, as had Governor Phillip in 1787, 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 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 left 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.

Both livestock and Bank’s garden consumed prodigious amounts of water. Water shortage soon 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 was a 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 by swirling fog shearing 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 waters and Bank’s extravagant garden slipped willy-nilly into the sea.

1789 – Christmas Day: When all seemed lost Riou gave permission to abandon if they so wished. 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.

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

1790 – 11 January, Cape Town: 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 the ship among them 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, the young fourteen year old tear-away found himself in mid-ocean aboard a sinking HMS Guardian.

Pumps manned around the clock kept her 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 – 21 February, Cape Town: Near Cape Town a French frigate took Guardian in tow .She dropped anchor in False Bay, across the spit from Cape Town, on the 21st February 1790.

‘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.

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 here at Cape Town 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.

It was a tale of mutiny on the high seas. See: Pandora’s Box

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

1790 – 1 March, Cape Town: 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.

1790 – 12 March, Cape Town: 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 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, having survived Guardian’s collision with the iceberg, Riou had agisted out at Cape Town.

Lady Juliana herself 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 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 – ‘Lady Juliana…London on her stern’ with ‘twenty-five  of our countrywomen, whom crime or misfortune had condemned to exile’ and a small flock of ‘Guardian’ sheep along with twenty (20) prisoners who remained on HMS Guardian sailed through Sydney Heads.

The ‘Lady Juliana 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 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 had earlier 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 log-book is held now 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 and for months Guardian filled both London’s metropolitan and county newspapers.

That Guardian’s loss was linked 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 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 a cannon ball in-coming from a shore battery.

A monument to Riou’s bravery can be found in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Despite Guardian’s log-book and an engraving in the National Portrait Gallery, Australia knows little of Captain Edward Riou RN or his efforts to resupply the ‘First Fleet’ and nothing of HMS Guardian. 


‘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.

‘From first of April…per week for every grown person and every 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 were brought with us from England’.  Tench ibid.

See: Abandoned and Left to Starve

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.

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