The Pandora’s Story

The saga of the mutiny in the Bounty is one of the best known stories from the annals of Pacific exploration history. Most people have probably heard something about it and perhaps also know the names of some of the story’s main characters: William Bligh, Fletcher Christian, Peter Heywood or James Morrison.

But few are as aware of the story’s sequel, which saw the Pandora, a Royal Navy frigate, sent to the South Pacific in pursuit of the mutineers, where it was subsequently lost on the Great Barrier Reef in a shipwreck that claimed the lives of 35 sailors in 1791.

The crew of the Pandora appears to have been quite typical of any ‘run-of-the-mill’ British naval crew on the eve of Nelson’s Navy’s heyday. Many of them had been recruited by press gangs which had coerced them into accepting a bonus and 2 months’ advance pay. As far as the Admiralty was concerned, having accepted, the men were subsequently regarded as ‘volunteers’.

It is likely the men came from all over Britain, but there may also have been a few foreigners on board –most probably Germans and Scandinavians. And of course there were also dozens of Scots-, Irish- and Welsh- among the scores of Englishmen who made up the majority of the crew.

There were 134 men at the start of the voyage. 31 crew would die during the wrecking. Another 25 died before or after the wrecking. And one -Henry Nichols- finally deserted (‘ran’) in Capetown while on the way home, having survived the wreck and an Indian Ocean crossing.

Prior to the 31 deaths, they had been at sea since 7th November 1790 on an unusual voyage to the South Pacific looking for the Bounty mutineers.

When their ship was wrecked, they had been on their way home, their difficult, almost unachievable mission partially accomplished. There were 14 prisoners from the Bounty on board, who had been captured in Tahiti and locked up in a makeshift prison cell built especially on the quarterdeck – referred to by the prisoners as‘Pandora’s box’. They were being taken to England to face a trial which would determine their guilt or innocence.

Shipmate in the water

The Pandora’s captain, Edward Edwards, interpreted his orders literally and kept all of the prisoners in ‘close confinement’ – to ‘preclude escape’ but to have ‘proper’ regard for the ‘preservation of their lives.’ (Adm.2/120 S BP 491, Capt. Edwards’ orders)

Yet 4 of the 14 Bounty prisoners died in the wreck, together with 31 Pandoras.

A voyage story was later published by their surgeon, George Hamilton (Hamilton 1793)

Age 36 when he joined the Pandora, he was soon “superannuated” from the Navy having lost an arm while serving in the Mediterranean in HMS Lowestoff in 1794

The Pandora's surgeon

Surgeon Hamilton

The crew’s names are all recorded in Admiralty documents (Adm.36/11136) and at first glance it would appear that not much else is known about most of them. But recent in-depth research has turned up more details – for instance, that 8 of the original 134 were from Orkney; and that 5 of the Pandora’s 8 Orcadians died when the ship was wrecked off the Far North Queensland coast.

These men from Orkney are the main focus of this research project, which sets out with the objective of tracing their living male descendants with a view to matching their DNA signatures with DNA signatures sequenced at Bond University in 2010 from the 3 human skeletons -Tom, Dick & Harry- recovered from the wreck during the 1990s.