The Real “Desolation Island”

Captain Edward Riou

Captain Edward Riou

Earlier I noted how many, if not most, of the actions described in naval fiction actually have deep roots in the history of the Age of Sail. In that initial essay I pointed out how Richard Bolitho’s action in To Glory We Steer of boarding an enemy ship by using another ship as a bridge was actually less remarkable than the historical event, Captain Horatio Nelson of the 74-gun HMS Captain at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent using the 80-gun San Nicholas as a bridge to board and take the 112-gun San Josef.

I came across another instance in this description of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novel, Desolation Island.

In summary, as Jack Aubrey in HMS Leopard flee a pursing Dutch ship of the line they jettison cargo and supplies. Once they’ve made good their escape, they attempt to refill water casks from an iceberg. In the process they strike the iceberg and lose their rudder as well as holing the ship. Some members of the crew ask for permission to strike out by small boat, but the crew is able to repair the ship sufficiently to keep it from sinking.

The real story is even more remarkable.

Captain Edward Riou’s father was an Army officer in the Grenadier Guards until his father died when he was about 25 years old. At that time he inherited substantial wealth, sold his commission, and became a gentleman of leisure. He joined the Society of Dilettanti, a prime mover for the establishment of the Royal Academy.

Edward Riou was born in 1762. His elder brother, Philip, went to the Army. Edward was destined for the Navy going to sea at age 12 aboard HMS Barfleur, the flagship of Admiral Sir Thomas Pye as a member of his retinue. From there he served on the HMS Romney under Vice Admiral John Montagu where he was the admiral’s servant.

In 1776, Riou joined Captain James Cook aboard HMS Discovery for his third, and as it turned out, last voyage.

Upon his return he passed the examination for lieutenant at age 18 though his certificate gives his age as 22 indicating he has significant patronage available to him. He was immediately employed and sent to the West Indies. He seems to have picked up an illness in the West Indies which caused him to be discharged from duty at one point and to spend several years on half-pay.

In 1789, as a lieutenant he was given command of HMS Guardian. HMS Guardian was a 44-gun frigate which for Riou’s commission had been converted to a transport to carry convicts and livestock to the penal colony at Port Jackson, Australia as part of the “Second Fleet.”

The voyage to Australia was always arduous but this trip would be legendary.

On 22nd December [1789] they sighted icebergs 3 leagues away. At 42 degrees , the ice was unusually north. On Christmas Eve, at 43 degrees South, they sight a huge iceberg and decide to try to scoop some ice out of the sea to provide water for the cattle. Boats were sent out and then fog came in, with decreased visibility. Unfortunately no-one saw a massive iceberg that impaled the ship on the starboard beam. Her rudder was torn off and she was holed, water streaming into the holds. They pumped and pumped but could not keep it up. Lieutenant Riou allowed any who wished to leave to abandon ship. Of the boats who left, all but 15 lost. Riou stayed with the ship along with 60 people and jury rigged a rudder. They were saved by whalers who led them into False Bay at the Cape of Good Hope on 21st February 1790. Captain Riou and his crew were covered in dirt and rags with long beards.

This brief account doesn’t do justice to Riou’s accomplishment in managing a convict crew, overcoming a threatened mutiny and navigating the ship largely by using sails alone.

Naturally, Riou stood court-martial for the loss of his ship but was acquitted and became a national celebrity. He achieved post rank in 1791 and was rewarded with command of a frigate. He seemed destined to rise swiftly but his illness recurred in 1795 and he was invalided out of the Navy. In 1799, he was given command of HMS Amazon and commanded a small squadron of frigates at the Battle of Copenhagen.

Riou was able to see Admiral Sir Hyde Parker’s signal to discontinue the action, to which Nelson famously turned a literally blind eye. He obeyed reluctantly saying, “What will Nelson think of us?” His frigates attacked the Trekroner Fort but were no match for the Danish artillery. He was severely wounded in the head by a splinter and while seated on a gun carriage was cut in half by a cannonball.


Filed under Age of Sail, Famous Ships, Naval Battles, Naval Biography, Naval Fiction, Shipwrecks and Marine Archaeology, The Rest of the Story

6 responses to “The Real “Desolation Island”

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  5. This story combines elements of the “Titanic”, the “Bounty” and the “Minerva”. Why isn’t it better known ? I suppose he has been overshadowed by Bligh and Nelson – most unfairly. There is no competition.

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