From Terra Australis to Australia

In May 1787 the British government sent the First Fleet 20,000 kilometres around the world to establish a  British colony in New South Wales.

HMS Guardian and Captain Riou

The HMS Guardian left England in September, 1789, bound for New South Wales.

The ship was laden with livestock, crops and other supplies. These were desperately needed by the infant colony at Port Jackson, which had been struggling to survive since the arrival of the First Fleet in January 1788. The Guardian also carried 25 convicts and several passengers, including a number of superintendents who had been appointed to work in Sydney.

The Guardian was commanded by Captain Edward Riou (1762-1801). Riou began his navy career at the age of 12 and worked as a midshipman on the Discovery on Captain James Cook’s third and final voyage from 1776 to 1779.

Riou and the Guardian took on supplies at the Cape of Good Hope in December 1789, and continued south on their way to New South Wales. Within two weeks, the voyage turned to disaster. The Guardian struck an iceberg, leading to the loss of most of the crew and cargo. The story was later likened to the sensation caused by the loss of the Titanic, more than a century later.

Captain Riou’s brave conduct during the Guardian disaster led to his promotion and he later worked under Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson. Appointed by Nelson to command the HMS Amazon during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, Edward Riou was shot and killed by the Danish forces. A memorial was erected in his honour in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Riou was eulogised in the final verse of The battle of the Baltic, written in 1801 by Scottish poet Thomas Campbell.

The perilous situation of "The Guardian" Frigate as she appeared striking on the rocks of ice - with the departure of the crew - and the wonderful intrepidity of the Commander Lieutenant Riou

Brave hearts! to Britain's pride  Once so faithful and so true,  On the deck of fame that died; --  With the gallant, good Riou:  Soft sigh the winds of heaven o'er their grave!  While the billow mournful rolls And the mermaid's song condoles,  Singing glory to the souls  Of the brave!
- from The poetical works of Thomas Campbell, London : Edward Moxon, 1837 Printed volume  RB/45

The HMS Guardian disaster

Less than two weeks after leaving the Cape of Good Hope in December, 1789, large icebergs were sighted in the Guardian’s path. On December 24th, Riou sent some of the crew in jolly boats (smaller open boats used as working vessels) to collect ice to provide drinking water for the cattle. Later the same night, the weather turned bad, and in trying to avoid an iceberg in deep fog, the Guardian struck the ice at least three times.
Water poured into the hull of the ship, and Riou and his crew worked desperately all night to pump out the water and repair the damage. The next morning, December 25th (Christmas morning), crude repairs were made by strapping a sail across the gash in the ship’s side. The flooded hull was still being pumped out, but it was soon clear that the repairs were failing and the rough seas and high winds were causing more and more damage to the ship.

Captain Riou ordered heavy objects, including guns and livestock, thrown overboard to try to lighten the ship’s load and prevent it from sinking. Riou finally agreed to the repeated requests of his crew to allow them to take to the smaller boats and escape. Some of the men had broken into the ship’s liquor supplies and several drunken scuffles broke out while the five smaller boats were being hoisted out. Altogether about half the people on board abandoned ship in the smaller boats, but only one of these small boats, containing about ten people, was eventually picked up by a passing French ship. The other boats were never seen again.

Riou himself chose to remain on board the Guardian, along with about 60 others, including 21 convicts. The men continued to pump out the water seeping into the damaged ship, keeping it afloat for several more weeks. Riou attempted several more repair methods, and tried several ways of steering the broken ship, all of which were unsuccessful. Finally on February 21st the Guardian had drifted back within sight of the Cape of Good Hope, and rescue boats were sent to her aid. After salvaging what was left of the cargo, a storm finally wrecked the Guardian on the beach at False Bay.

It wasn't until the very end of April 1790, that the safe arrival of the Guardian and her remaining crew was reported in British newspapers.

When the surviving convicts finally arrived in New South Wales, fourteen of them were given immediate conditional pardons by Governor Phillip, thanks to Captain Riou’s favourable report of their conduct in helping to save the Guardian. He also wrote several letters to the Admiralty, exonerating his crew from any blame, particularly those who attempted escape in the smaller boats.

Captain Riou himself was hailed as a hero for his bravery. Songs and poems were written about the Guardian disaster, which was a sensational story in Europe.

Part of the Crew of his Majesty's Ship Guardian endeavouring to escape in the Boats.

The disaster in pictures

The dramatic tale of the Guardian disaster was romanticised in print and image. The following pictures all show the moment when some of the crew escape in the jolly boats and cutters (small open boats used as work boats by the crew of a larger ship).

The last aquatint engraving, by Robert Dodd, includes the story of the Guardian, as follows:

The distressed situation of the Crew of the Guardian Frigate after having struck upon an Island of Ice

The Guardian, a forty four gun ship, armed enflute commanded by Lieu’t Riou, was loaded with stores for the Colony of Botany Bay, and in her passage fell in with several Islands of Ice, floating in the Ocean 400 leagues from land, and on the 24th Dec’r 1789, being surrounded with a dark fogg [sic], unfortunately struck on one of them, and by the Violence of the shock, had her Rudder carried away, and received so much other damage, that all the Exertions of the Officers and Crew at the pumps could not keep the Ship free, and being in a sinking state from all the Numerous leaks, chief part of the Crew being worn out with fatigue, abandoned themselves to despair and the fate of the Ship, while those who had a little strength remaining betook to the Boats;  but the Commander, inflexible in his duty tho supplicated to accompany them, determined not to quit the Ship while a Man remained on Board, and tho there was not much probability of the Boats reaching land, yet while they were preparing to depart wrote the following letter to the Admiraltry [sic]. ___

H.M.S. Guardian Dec.r 25. 1789.
If any part of the Officers or 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 every thing that relates to their duties, either as private Men or in his Majesty’s service ___ As there seems to be no Possibility of my remaining many hours in this World, I beg leave to recommend to the consideration of the Admiraltry [sic], a Sister, who, if my conduct or Services should be found deserving any Memory, their favor might be shewn to, together with a Widowed Mother ____ I am ,Sir __ reimaning with great respect __ Your ever obed’t. Serv’t.
E. Riou

Four images of the Guardian being fled on small boats.


The escape of some of the crew

Throughout the long night of December 24th, 1789, the crew worked at stabilising the sinking Guardian. They pumped out water, which was flowing in through the damaged hull. They also threw much of the heavier cargo overboard. By the next morning, many of the men were becoming disillusioned. Although Captain Riou tried to maintain discipline, some of the crew refused to work and hid from the officers, despite threats to throw offenders overboard. Some dealt with the immediate danger by breaking into the supply of liquor and becoming extremely intoxicated.

Several of the officers suggested to the Captain that they give up the ship and escape in the smaller boats. But Riou stated "I have determined to remain in the ship". But by the evening of December 25th, Riou finally acknowledged that the ship was sinking and would probably be lost. He gave permission for the small boats to be loaded with supplies and hoisted out. Altogether, just over 65 men left the damaged ship in the small boats, but only ten of them survived. Around 60 men remained with Captain Riou on board the Guardian. All survived.

The following extract tells the story of the ten men who survived the escape from the Guardian. They drifted for days in the ship's launch, commanded by Thomas Clements, before finally being picked up by a French merchant ship, Vicountess of Brittany.

Selections from Melancholy Disaster of His Majesty's Ship The Guardian, Bound to Botany Bay with Stores and Convicts


One of the starkest entries is on the page for Wednesday 10 February. Across the page, in extremely unsteady handwriting , Riou has simply scrawled, 'Losing'.

Captain Riou's logbook

The logbook of the Guardian is a powerful and touching document. Riou's regular entries reflect the dramatic events of the striking of the iceberg and chronicle the gains and losses made by the crew throughout the course of the disaster. Riou's unsteady handwriting and the untidy state of some of his entries are a poignant visual reminder of the desperation of the Captain and his crew.

The unrelenting hard work of the Captain and crew at the pumps is reflected in the logbook. Recurring phrases include, 'people employ'd pumping'; 'lost 18 inches'; 'gain'd on the leak' and 'lying too'.

Selections from The Log Book of a Voyage to Port Jackson in New South Wales, performed by Lieutenant Edward Riou Commanding his Majesty's Ship Guardian by Order of the Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty