The Guardian disaster | State Library of New South Wales

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.

 >  View images of the stricken Guardian among the icebergs
View images of the stricken Guardian

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.

 > Read selections from a printed account of the disaster detailing the 'Providential escape of part of the crew...'
Read selections from a printed account of the disaster

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.

 > Read selections from Captain Riou’s logbook
Read selections from Captain Riou’s logbook

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.

 > Find out how the Guardian's arrival at the Cape of Good Hope was reported in British newspapers

Find out how the Guardian's arrival at the Cape of Good Hope 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.

 > Read letters written by Captain Riou, commending his crew

Read letters written by Captain Riou

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.

 > View two broadside ballads telling the exciting tale of the Guardian disaster in verse

View two broadsheets telling the exciting tale of the Guardian

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