In March 1770, HMS Swift, a 14 gun sloop-of-war commanded by Captain George Farmer and based at Port Egmont, West Falklands was engaged in a coastal survey of Patagonia. A violent gale materialized out of the South Atlantic and caught the Swift on a lee shore. Farmer ran for shelter in the estuary of the Deseado River in what is now the Santa
Clara Cruz Province of Argentina.
Unfortunately for Farmer, Swift struck an uncharted rock, was badly holed, and foundered. The crew managed to get ashore, except for the cook and two marines who drowned — more of which later. The crew was stranded on a desolate coast.
The British sailor of the Age of Sail doesn’t seem to have been deterred by the idea of crossing large stretches of ocean in a relatively small boat (see Bligh’s epic journey, the survivors of the HMS Pandora, the shipwreck of HMS Guardian, etc.) and this case was no exception.
It is some 400 miles from Puerto Deseado to Port Egmont but one officer and six sailors struck out in one of Swift’s cutters and made it. There they directed Swift’s consort, another 14-gun sloop HMS Favourite, back to Patagonia and extracted the Swift’s crew.
Farmer’s adventures were not over. His crew now became the primary garrison for Port Egmont. On June 8, 1770 a Spanish fleet arrived at Port Egmont and the commander sent Captain Farmer this letter:
The Spanish Commodore John Ignacio Madariaga to Captain Farmer, dated in the Bay of Cruizada, June 8, 1770.
My Dear Sir,
Finding myself with incomparable superior forces of troops, train of artillery, utenfils, ammunition, and all the rest corresponding, for to reduce a regular fortification, with fourteen hundred men for disembarking, of which five hundred and twenty-fix are of choice regular troops, as you may see, I see myself in this case obliged to intimate to you, according to the orders of my Court, that you should quit that begun establishment: for if you don’t execute it amicably, I will oblige you by force, and you will be answerable for all the ill results of the action and measures I shall take. I am always at your service ; pray unto God to preserve you many years.
I kiss your hand, &c.
JOHN IGNACIO MADARIAGA.
Farmer surrendered and was repatriated to England aboard Favourite. Naturally, once there he was court-martialled for the loss of Swift but acquitted with the praise of the court for his conduct in saving his crew.
Captain Farmer quickly received a new command, in 1773 taking over HMS Seahorse, a 24-gun frigate. Farmer had first gone to sea under Captain Maurice Suckling. He obviously staying in contact with Captain Suckling because shortly after he assumed command of Seahorse he received on board an unimpressive, 15 year old midshipman who was Suckling’s nephew: Horatio Nelson.
The Swift was lost for over a century until rediscovered by local divers. Swift lies in about 30 feet of water and is about 2/3 preserved. The excavation of the wreck has provided a treasure trove of information about life aboard a man o’ war in the in the late 18th century. The Mario Brozoski Municipal Museum in Puerto Deseado has an extensive collection of artifacts.
Anyway, as I mentioned above Swift’s cook and two of her marine detachment were drowned as the ship was abandoned. The cook’s body was recovered and buried. The two marines, 21-year-old Robert Rusker and 23-year-old John Ballard, were never recovered.
In 2005, divers working under the direction of Dr. Dolores Elkin discovered a foot bone in a shoe found near the captain’s cabin. They stopped work and contacted the British Defence Attaché in Buenos Aires, Captain Christopher Hyldon of the Royal Navy. Permission was given to continue and a complete skeleton was recovered. Subsequent tests determined that the remains belonged to a right-handed man, 5’6″ tall and approximately 25-years-of-age. Attempts were made to trace the descendants of the men based on Royal Navy records, which are surprisingly complete and detailed, so as to match DNA but this was unsuccessful.
On March 2, 2007, the remains were interred in the
British War Graves section of Chacarita Cemetery in a grave simply marked “an unknown private marine, HMS Swift, 13 March 1770”.