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 £70,000. 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 considération 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." "E. RIOU.
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."
Some yarns of an exceedingly tough and Munchausen-like character have been spun and printed by men of their adventures in Australian waters or the South Seas, but an examination of such stories by any one with personal knowledge of the Pacific and Australasia has soon, and very deservedly so, knocked the bottom out of a considerable number of them. Yet there are stories of South Sea adventure well authenticated, which I are not a whit less wonderful than the most marvellous falsehoods that any man has yet told, and the story of what befell John Renton is one of these. A file of the Queenslander (the leading Queensland weekly newspaper) for 1875 will corroborate his story; for that paper gave the best account of his adventures in one of their November (1875) numbers, and the story was copied into nearly every paper in Australasia.
Like Harry Bluff, John Renton "when a boy left his friends and his home, o'er the wild ocean waves all his life for to roam." Renton's home was in Stromness, in the Orkneys, and he shipped on board a vessel bound to Sydney, in 1867, as an ordinary seaman, he then being a lad of eighteen. When in Sydney he got about among the boarding-houses, in sailor-town, and one morning woke up on the forecastle of the Reynard of Boston, bound on a cruise for guano among the South Pacific Islands.
Renton had been crimped, and finding himself where he was, bothered no more about it, but went cheerfully to work, not altogether displeased at the prospect of new adventures, which would enable him to by and by go back to the old folks with plenty of dollars, and a stock of startling yarns to reel off. He was a steady, straightforward lad, though somewhat thoughtless at times, and resolved to be a steady, straightforward man. The vessel first called into the Sandwich Islands, and there shipped a gang of Hawaiian natives to help load the guano, then she sailed away to the southward for McKean's Island, one of the Phoenix Group, situated about lat. 3? 35' S. and long. 174? 20' W.
On board the Reynard was an old salt known to all hands as "Boston Ned." He had been a whaler in his time, had deserted, and spent some years beachcombing among the islands of the South Seas, and very soon, through his specious tongue, he had all hands wishing themselves clear of the "old hooker" and enjoying life in the islands instead of cruising about, hazed here and there and everywhere by the mates of the Reynard, whose main purpose in life was to knock a man down in order to make him "sit up." Presently three or four of the hands became infatuated with the idea of settling on an island, and old Ned, nothing loth, undertook to take charge of the party if they would make an attempt to clear from the ship. The old man had taken a fancy to young Renton, and the youngster, when the idea was imparted to him, fell in with it enthusiastically; for he was exasperated with the treatment he had received on board the guanoman—the afterguard of an American guano ship are usually a rough lot The ship was lying on and off the land, there being no anchorage, and before the plan had been discussed more than a few hours, the men, five in all, determined to put it into execution.
A small whaleboat was towing astern of the vessel in case the wind should fall light and the ship drift in too close to the shore. It was a fine night, with a light breeze, and there was, they thought, a good chance of getting to the southward, to one of the Samoan group, where they could settle, or by shipping on board a trading schooner they might later on strike some other island to their fancy.
By stealth they managed to stow in the boat a couple of small breakers of water, holding together sixteen gallons, and the forecastle bread barge with biscuits enough for three meals a day per man for ten days. They managed also to steal four hams, and each man brought pipes, tobacco, and matches. A harpoon with some line, an old galley frying-pan, mast, sail and oars, and some blankets completed the equipment For they took no compass, though they made several attempts to get at one slung in the cabin, and tried at first to take one out of the poop binnacle; but the officer of the watch on deck was too wide awake for them to risk that, and the cabin compass was screwed to the roof close to the skipper's berth; and so the old man who was their leader, old sailor and whaler as he was, actually gave up the idea of taking a compass, and these people without more ado, one night slipped over the side into the whaleboat, cut the painter, and by daylight the boat was out of sight of land and of the ship. They were afloat upon the Pacific, running six or seven miles before a north-east breeze and expecting to sight land in less than a week, and were already anticipating the freedom and luxury of island life in store for them.
Three days later it fell calm, and they had to take to the oars. The sun was intensely hot, the water a sheet of glass reflecting back upon them the ball of fire overhead. Now and again a cats-paw would ripple across the plain of water, but there were no clouds, there was no sight of land. They kept on pulling. For three, for four days—a week—for ten days—they tugged at the oars, except when a favouring breeze came. The water was reduced to a few pints, the food to a few days' half-rations. Their limbs were cramped so that they could not move from their places in the boat, their bodies were becoming covered with sores; and the wind had now died away entirely, the sea was without a ripple, and for ever shone above them the fierce, relentless sun.
Gradually it had dawned upon them that they were lost—that perhaps they had run past Samoa. The first eagerness of their adventure gave place to despair, and by degrees their despair grew to madness of a more awful kind.
On the fifteenth day there appeared to the south and east a low, dark-grey cloud. "Land at last!" was the unspoken thought in each man's heart as he looked at his comrade, but feared to voice his hope. And presently the cloud grew darker and more clearly defined, and one of the men—the next oldest to the author of all their miseries—fell upon his weak and trembling knees, and raised his hands in thankfulness and prayer to the Almighty. Alas! it was not land, but the ominous forerunner of the fierce and sweeping mid-equatorial gale which lay veiled behind. In less than half an hour it came upon and smote them with savage fury, and the little boat was running before a howling gale and a maddened, foam-whipped sea.
And then it happened that, ill and suffering as he was from the agonies of hunger and thirst, the heroic nature of old "Boston Ned" came out, and his bold sailor's heart cheered and encouraged his wretched, despairing companions. All that night, and for the greater part of the following day, he stood in the stern-sheets, grasping the bending steer-oar as the boat swayed and surged along before the gale, and constantly watching lest she should broach to and smother in the roaring seas; the others lay in the bottom, feebly baling out the water, encouraged, urged, and driven to that exertion by the gallant old American seaman.
Towards noon the wind moderated, in the afternoon it died away altogether, and again the boat lay rising and falling to the long Pacific swell, and "Boston Ned" flung his exhausted frame down in the stern-sheets and slept.
Again the blood-red sun leapt from a sea of glassy smoothness—for the swell had subsided during the night—and again the wretched men locked into each other's dreadful faces and mutely asked what was to be done. How should they head the boat? Without a compass they might as well steer one way as another, for none of them knew even approximately the course for the nearest land; search the cloudless vault of blue above, or scan the shimmering sea-rim till their aching eyes dropped from out their hollowing sockets, there was no clue.
Twenty days out the last particle of food and water had been consumed, and though the boat was now steering as near westward as old Ned could judge, before a gentle south-east trade, madness and despair were coming quickly upon them, and on the twenty-third day two of the five miserable creatures began to drink copiously of salt water—the drink of Death.
Renton, though he had suffered to the bitter full from the agonies of body and mind endured by his shipmates, did not yield to this temptation; and by a merciful providence remained sane enough to turn his face away from the water. But as he lay crouched in a heap in the bottom of the boat, with a silent prayer in his heart to his Creator to quickly end his sufferings, he heard "Boston Ned" and the only remaining sane man except himself muttering hoarsely together and looking sometimes at him and sometimes at the two almost dying men who lay moaning beside him. Presently the man who was talking to Ned pulled out of his blanket—which lay in the stern-sheets—a razor, and turning his back to Renton began stropping it upon the sole of his boot, and even "Boston Ned" himself looked with awful eyes and blood-baked twitching lips upon the youngster.
The lad saw what was coming, and as quickly as possible made his way forward and sat there, with his eyes fixed upon the two men aft, waiting for the struggle which he thought must soon begin. All that day and the night he sat and watched, determined to make a fight for the little life which remained in him, and Ned and the other man at times still muttered and eyed him wolfishly.
And so, on and on, these seeming outcasts of God's mercy sailed before the warm breath of the south-east trade wind, above them the blazing tropic sun, around them the wide, sailless expanse of the blue Pacific unbroken in its dreadful loneliness except for a wandering grey-winged booby or flocks of whale-birds floating upon its gentle swell, and within their all but deadened hearts naught but grim despair and a dulled sense of coming dissolution.
As he sat thus, supporting his swollen head upon his skeleton hands, Renton saw something astern, moving slowly after the boat—something that he knew was waiting and following for the awful deed to be done, so that it too might share in the dreadful feast.
Raising his bony arm, he pointed towards the moving fin. To him a shark meant no added horror or danger to their position, but possibly deliverance. "Boston Ned" and the other man first looked at the coming shark, and then with sunken eyes again turned to Renton. Voices none of them had, and the lad's parched tongue could not articulate, but with signs and lip movements he tried to make the other two men understand.
No shark hook had they; nor, if they had had one, had they anything with which to bait it. But Renton, crawling aft, picked up the harpoon, placed it in "Boston Ned's" hands, and motioned to him to stand by. Then with eager, trembling hands he stripped from his legs the shreds of trousers which remained on them, and, sitting upon the gunwale of the boat, hung one limb over and let it trail in the water.
Three times the shark came up, and thrice Ned prepared to strike, but each time the grim ranger of the seas turned aside as it caught sight of the waiting figure with weapon poised above. But at last hunger prevailed, and, swimming slowly up till within a few yards of the boat, it made a sudden rush for the human bait, missed it, and the harpoon, deftly darted by the old ex-whaler, clove through its tough skin and buried itself deep into its body between the shoulders.
It took the worn-out, exhausted men a long time to haul alongside and despatch the struggling monster, which, says Renton, was ten feet in length.
Then followed shark's flesh and shark's blood, some of the former, after the first raw meal, being cooked on a fire made of the biscuit barge upon a wet blanket spread in the bottom of the boat. The hot weather, however, soon turned the remaining portion putrid, but two or three days later came God's blessed rain, and gave them hope and life again. They managed to save a considerable quantity of water, and, though the shark's flesh was in a horrible condition, they continued to feed upon it until the thirty-fifth day.
On this day they saw land, high and well wooded; but now the trade-wind failed them, and for the following two days the unfortunate men contended with baffling light airs, calms, and strong currents. At last they got within a short distance of the shore, and sought for a landing-place through the surrounding surf.
Suddenly four or five canoes darted out from the shore. They were filled with armed savages, whose aspect and demeanour warned old Ned that he and his comrades were among cannibals. Sweeping alongside the boat, the savages seized the white men, who were all too feeble to resist, or even move, put them into their canoes, and conveyed them on shore, fed them, and treated them with much apparent kindness. Crowds of natives from that part of the island—which was Malayta, one of the Solomon Group—came to look at them, and one man, a chief, took a fancy to Renton, and claimed him as his own especial property.
Renton never saw the rest of his companions again, for they were removed to the interior of the Island—probably sold to some of the bush tribes, the "man-a-bush," as the coastal natives called them. Their fate is not difficult to guess, for the people of Malayta were then, as they are now, cannibals.
On August 7, 1875, the Queensland labour recruiting schooner Bobtail Nag was cruising off the island, trading for yams, and her captain heard from some natives who came alongside that there was a white man living ashore in a village about ten miles distant. The skipper of the Bobtail Nag at once offered to pay a handsome price if the man was brought on board, and at the cost of several dozen Birmingham steel axes and some tobacco poor Renton's release was effected. He told his rescuers that the people among whom he had lived had taken a great fancy to him, and had treated him with great kindness.
If the reader will look at a chart of the South Pacific, he will see, among the Phoenix Group, the position of McKean's Island; two thousand miles distant, westward and southward, is the island of Malayta, upon which Renton and his companions in misery drifted.