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A short story by Louis Becke

"The Gallant, Good Riou"

Title:     "The Gallant, Good Riou"
Author: Louis Becke [More Titles by Becke]

This is a true story of one of Nelson's captains, he of whom Nelson wrote as "the gallant and good Riou"--high meed of praise gloriously won at Copenhagen--but Riou, eleven years before that day, performed a deed, now almost forgotten, which, for unselfish heroism, ranks among the brightest in our brilliant naval annals, and in the sea story of Australia in particular.

In September, 1789, the _Guardian_, a forty-gun ship, under the command of Riou, then a lieutenant, left England for the one-year-old penal settlement in New South Wales. The little colony was in sore need of food--almost starving, in fact--and Riou's orders were to make all haste to his destination, calling at the Cape on the way to embark live stock and other supplies. All the ship's guns had been removed to make room for the stores, which included a "plant cabin"--a temporary compartment built on deck for the purpose of conveying to Sydney, in pots of earth, trees and plants selected by Sir Joseph Banks as likely to be useful to the young colony--making her deck "a complete garden," says a newspaper of the time. Friends of the officers stationed in New South Wales sent on board the Guardian great quantities of private goods, and these were stored in the gun-room, which it was thought would be a safer place than the hold, but, as the event proved, it was the most insecure.

The ship arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in November, and there filled her decks with cattle and provisions, then sailed again, her cargo being equal in value to about L70,000. On December 23rd--twelve days after leaving the Cape--what is described as "an island of ice" was seen. Riou gave orders to stand towards it in order to renew, by collecting lumps of ice, the supply of water, the stock of fresh water having run very low in consequence of the quantity consumed by the cattle.

The Public Advertiser of April 30, 1790, describes what now happened. As the ship approached the island, the boats were hoisted out and manned, and several lumps collected. During this time the ship lay to, and on the ice being brought on board she attempted to stand away. Very little apprehension was at this time entertained of her safety, although the enormous bulk of the island occasioned an unfavourable current, and in some measure gave a partial direction to the wind. On a sudden, the base of the island, which projected under water considerably beyond the limits of the visible parts, struck the bow of the ship; she instantly swung round, and her head cleared, but her stern, coming on the shoal, struck repeatedly, and the sea being very heavy, her rudder broke away, and all her works abaft were shivered. The ship in this situation became, in a degree, embayed under the terrific bulk of ice, for its height was twice that of the mainmast of a ship of the line, and the prominent head of the berg was every moment expected to break away and overwhelm the ship. At length, after every practicable exertion, she was got off the shoal, and the ice floated past her. It was soon perceived that the _Guardian_ had six feet of water in her hold, and it was increasing very fast The hands were set to the pumps, others to find out the leaks, and they occasionally relieved each other. Thus they continued labouring unceasingly on the 24th, although on the 23rd not one of them had had the least rest The ship was at one period so much relieved that she had only two feet of water in the hold; but at this time, when their distress wore the best aspect, the water "increased in a moment to ten feet." Then the ship was discovered to be strained in all her works, and the sea running high, every endeavour to check the progress of a particular leak proved ineffectual. To lighten the ship, the cows, horses, sheep, and all the other live stock for the colony were, with their fodder, committed to the deep to perish.

John Williams, boatswain of the _Guardian_, wrote to his parents in London, and told them about the disaster, and although we have no doubt he was handier with the marline-spike than with his pen, some of his badly spelled letter reads well:--

"This axident happened on the 23rd of December, and on the 25th the boats left us with moast of the officers and a great part of the seamen. The master-gunner, purser, one master's mate, one midshipman, and a parson, with nine seamen, was got into the longboat and cleared the ship. The doctor and four or five men got into a cutter and was upset close to the ship, and all of them was drowned. As for the rest of the boats, I believe they must be lost and all in them perished, for wee was about six hundred leagues from any land. There was about fifty-six men missing; a number drowned jumping into the boats; the sea ran so high that the boats could scarce live. The commander had a strong resulution, for he said he would sooner go down in the ship than he wold quid her. All the officers left in the ship was the commander, the carpenter, one midshipman, and myself. After the boats left us we had two chances--either to jump or sink. We cold just get into the sailroom and got up a new forecourse and stuck it full of oakum and rags, and put itt under the ship's bottom; this is called fothering the ship. We found some benefit by itt for pumping and bailing we gained on hur; that gave us a little hope of saving our lives. We was in this terable situation for nine weeks before we got to the Cape of Good Hope. Sometimes our upper-deck scuppers was under water outside, and the ship leying like a log on the water, and the sea breaking over her as if she was a rock. Sixteen foot of water was the common run for the nine weeks in the hold. I am not certain what we are to doo with the ship as yet. We have got moast of our cargo out; it is all dammaged but the beef and pork, which is in good order. I have lost a great dele of my cloaths, and I am thinking of drawing of about six pound, wich I think I can make shift with. If this axident had not hapned I shold not have had aney call for aney. As for my stores, there is a great part of them thrown overboard; likewise all the officers stores in the ship is gone the same way, for evry thing that came to hand was thrown ovarboard to lighten the ship. I think that we must wait till ordars comes from England to know what we are to do with the ship."

The chronicles of the time also relate how at daylight on Christmas morning, when the water was reported as being up to the orlop deck and gaining two feet an hour, many of the people desponded and gave themselves up for lost. A part of those who had any strength left, seeing that their utmost efforts to save the ship were likely to be in vain, applied to the officers for the boats, which were promised to be in readiness for them, and the boatswain was directly ordered to put the masts, sails, and compasses in each. The cooper was also set to work to fill a few quarter-casks of water out of some of the butts on deck, and provisions and other necessaries were got up from the hold.

Many hours previous to this, Lieutenant Riou had privately declared to his officers that he saw the final loss of the ship was inevitable, and he could not help regretting the loss of so many brave fellows. "As for me," said he, "I have determined to remain in the ship, and shall endeavour to make my presence useful as long as there is any occasion for it." He was entreated, and even supplicated, to give up this fatal resolution, and try for safety in the boats. It was even hinted to him how highly criminal it was to persevere in such a determination; but he was not to be moved by any entreaties. He was, notwithstanding, as active in providing for the safety of the boats as if he intended to take the opportunity of securing his own escape. He was throughout as calm and collected as in the happier moments of his life.

At seven o'clock the _Guardian_ had settled considerably abaft, and the water was coming in at the rudder-case in great quantities. At half-past seven the water in the hold obliged the people below to come upon deck; the ship appeared to be in a sinking state, and settling bodily down; it was, therefore, almost immediately agreed to have recourse to the boats. While engaged in consultation on this melancholy business, Riou wrote a letter to the Admiralty, which he delivered to Mr. Clements, the master. It was as follows:--

"H.M.S. Guardian, Dec. 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 everything that relates to their duty, considered 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 Admiralty a sister, who, if my conduct or service should be found deserving any memory, their favour might be shown to, together with a widowed mother.

"I am, &c;,

"Phil. Stephens, Esq."


With the utmost difficulty the boats were launched. After they were got afloat and had cleared the ship, with the exception of the launch they were never afterwards heard of; the launch with nine survivors was picked up by a passing vessel ten days after she left the wreck, her people reduced to the last extremity for want of food and water.

Among the survivors was the parson mentioned by the boatswain. This was the Rev. Mr. Crowther, who was on his way as a missionary to the penal settlement. The Rev. John Newton, of Olney (poet Cowper's Newton), had got Crowther the appointment, at "eight shillings per diem, of assistant chaplain of the settlement," and Newton, writing to the Rev. R. Johnson, chaplain of Sydney, tells how he heard of the loss of the Guardian, "and the very next morning Mr. Crowther knocked at my door himself." Then Mr. Newton writes a letter which shows that Mr. Crowther had had enough of the sea. "It is not a service for mere flesh and blood to undertake. A man without that apostolic spirit and peculiar call which the Lord alone can give would hardly be able to maintain his ground. Mr. Crowther, though a sincere, humble, good man, seems not to have had those qualifications, and therefore he has been partly intimidated by what he met with abroad, and partly influenced by nearer personal considerations at home, to stay with us and sleep in a whole skin." But after his experience it was not to be wondered at that he preferred to stay at home and sleep in a whole skin.

Meanwhile Riou, in spite of a ship without a rudder, and with the water in her up to the orlop deck, succeeded, as the boatswain's letter shows, after a voyage of nine weeks, in bringing his command to the Cape. A letter from Capetown, written on March 1, 1790, tells us she arrived there "eight days ago in a situation not to be credited without ocular proofs. She had, I think, nine feet of water in her when she anchored. The lower gun-deck served as a second bottom; it was stowed with a very great weight equally fore and aft. To this, and to the uncommon strength of it, Captain Riou ascribes his safety. Seeing an English ship with a signal of distress, four of us went on board, scarcely hoping but with busy fancy still pointing her out to be the _Guardian_, and, to our inexpressible joy, we found it was her. We stood in silent admiration of her heroic commander (whose supposed fate had drawn tears from us before), shining through the rags of the meanest sailor. The fortitude of this man is a glorious example for British officers to emulate. Since that time we have gone on board again to see him. He is affable in his manners, and of most commanding presence.... Perhaps we, under the influence of that attraction which great sufferings always produce, may, in the enthusiasm of our commendation, be too lavish in his praise; were it not for this fear I would at once pronounce him the most God-like mortal I ever viewed. They were two months from the time the accident happened until they reached this place. Every man shared alike in the labour; and not having at all attended to their persons during the whole of that dismal period they looked like men of another world--long beards, dirt, and rags covered them. Mr. Riou got one of his hands crushed and one of his legs hurt, but all are getting well. None of his people died during their fatigues. He says his principal attention was to keep up their spirits and to watch over their health. He never allowed himself to hope until the day before he got in here, when he made the land. Destitute of that support, how superior must his fortitude be! He has this morning, for the first time, come on shore, having been employed getting stores, &c.;, out to lighten the ship. He wavers what to do with her--whether to put Government to the expense of repairing her here (which would almost equal her first cost, perhaps exceed it) or burn her. Most likely the last will be resolved on."

The ship was in such a state that she was condemned by the experts at the Cape, but Riou, bearing in mind the distressed state of the colony of New South Wales, did not rest until he had sent on in other vessels all the stores he could collect.

Neither did he forget the behaviour of certain convicts. In a letter to the Admiralty he wrote: "Permit me, sir, to address you on a subject which I hope their Lordships will not consider to be unworthy 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 send to Port Jackson. But the recollection of past sufferings reminds me of that time when I found it necessary to make use of every possible method to encourage the minds of the people under my command, and at such time, considering how great the difference might be between a free man struggling for life and him who perhaps might consider death as not much superior to a life of ignominy and disgrace I publicly declared that not one of them, so far as depended on myself, should ever be convicts. And I may with undeniable truth say that, had it not been for their assistance and support, the _Guardian_ would never have arrived to where she is. Their conduct prior to the melancholy accident that happened on December 23rd last was always such as may be commended, and from their first entrance into the ship at Spithead they ever assisted and did their duty in like manner as the crew. I have taken the liberty to recommend them to the notice of Governor Phillip; but I humbly hope, sir, their Lordships will consider the service done by these men as meriting their Lordships' favour and protection, and I make no doubt that should I have been so fortunate as to represent this in proper colours, that they will experience the benefit of their Lordships' interest."

The prisoners were pardoned, and the Secretary of the Admiralty wrote to Riou--

"I have their Lordships' commands to acquaint you that their concern on the receipt of the melancholy contents of the first-mentioned letter could only be exceeded by the satisfaction they received from the account of your miraculous escape, which they attribute to your skilful and judicious exertions under the favour of Divine Providence.... Their Lordships have communicated to Mr. Secretary Grenville, for his Majesty's information, your recommendation of the surviving convicts whose conduct, as it has so deservedly met with your approbation, will, there is every reason to hope, entitle them to his Majesty's clemency."

[This story of the gallant behaviour of these twenty prisoners does not stand alone in the convict annals of Australia. There were many other instances in which convicts behaved with the greatest heroism. Many of the earlier explorers, such as Sturt, received most valuable aid from prisoners who were members of their expeditions; and in the first days of the colony both Phillip and Hunter were quick to recognise and personally reward or recommend for pardon to the Home Government convicts who had distinguished themselves by acts of bravery.]

When Riou returned to England he was promoted to post-captain's rank, and at Copenhagen, in 1801, he commanded the _Amazon_. Perhaps we may be forgiven for reprinting from Southey's "Nelson" an account of what he did there. "The signal" (that famous one which Nelson looked at with his blind eye), "the signal, however, saved Riou's little squadron, but did not save its heroic leader. The squadron, which was nearest the commander-in-chief, obeyed and hauled off. It had suffered severely in its most unequal contest. For a long time the _Amazon_ had been firing enveloped in smoke, when Riou desired his men to stand fast, and let the smoke clear off, that they might see what they were about. A fatal order, for the Danes then got clear sight of her from the batteries, and pointed their guns with such tremendous effect that nothing but the signal for retreat saved this frigate from destruction. 'What will Nelson think of us!' was Riou's mournful exclamation when he unwillingly drew off. He had been wounded in the head by a splinter, and was sitting on a gun, encouraging his men, when, just as the _Amazon_ showed her stern to the Trekroner Battery, his clerk was killed by his side, and another shot swept away several marines who were hauling in the main-brace. 'Come, then, my boys!' cried Riou, 'let us die all together!' The words had scarcely been uttered before a raking shot cut him in two. Except it had been Nelson himself, the British Navy could not have suffered a severer loss."

[The end]
Louis Becke's short story: "The Gallant, Good Riou"