24 Gun Frigate
HMS Pandora was a 24-gun Porcupine class frigate of the Royal Navy, built by Adams and Barnard at Deptford, England and launched on 17 May 1779. She was deployed in North American waters during the American Revolutionary War but was put ‘in ordinary’ (mothballed) after 1783. She was best known as the ship sent in 1790 to search for the Bounty and the mutineers who had taken her. She was wrecked on the return voyage in 1791.
Voyage in search of the Bounty
After the news of the mutiny on the Bounty reached England on 15 March 1790, the Admiralty deliberated about the best response and eventually dispatched the Pandora to the South Pacific to recover the ‘pirated’ Bounty, capture the mutineers and bring them back to England for trial. The frigate sailed from Portsmouth on 7 November 1790 with Captain Edward Edwards in command of a crew of 134 men.
Unbeknown to Edwards, sixteen of the mutineers had by then already elected to return to Tahiti, after a failed attempt to establish a colony (Fort St George) under Fletcher Christian’s leadership on Tubuai, one of the Austral Islands. They were living in Tahiti as ‘beachcombers’, many of them having fathered children with local women. Fletcher Christian’s group of mutineers and their Polynesian followers had sailed off and eventually established their settlement on Pitcairn Island.
The Pandora reached Tahiti on 23 March 1791 via Cape Horn. Five of the men from the Bounty came on board voluntarily within 24 hours of the frigate’s arrival, and nine more were arrested by armed shore parties a few weeks later after fleeing to the mountains. These fourteen men were locked up in a makeshift prison cell on the Pandora’s quarter-deck, which they called Pandora’s Box. Edwards was told that two of them had already died before the Pandora’s arrival.
On 8 May 1791 the Pandora left Tahiti and subsequently spent three months visiting islands in the South-West Pacific in search of the Bounty and the remaining mutineers, without finding any traces of the pirated vessel. During this part of the voyage 14 crew went missing in two of the ship’s boats. In the meantime the Pandora visited Tokelau, Samoa, Tonga and Rotumah. They also passed Vanikoro Island, which Edwards named Pitt’s Island; but they did not stop to explore the island and investigate obvious signs of habitation. If they had done so, they would very probably have discovered early evidence of the fate of the French Pacific explorer La Perouse’s expedition which had disappeared in 1788. From later accounts about their fate it is evident that a substantial number of crew survived the cyclone that wrecked their ships L’Astrolabe and La Boussole on Vanikoro’s fringing reef.
HMS Pandora in the act of founderingHeading west, making for the Torres Strait, the frigate ran aground on 29 August 1791 on the outer Great Barrier Reef. She sank the next morning claiming the lives of 31 of her crew and four of the prisoners. The remainder of the ship’s company (89 men) and ten prisoners – seven of them released from their cell as the ship was actually sinking – assembled on a small sand cay and after two nights on the island they sailed for Timor in four open boats; arriving in Kupang on 16 September 1791 after an arduous voyage across the Arafura Sea. Sixteen more died after surviving the wreck, many having fallen ill during their sojourn in Batavia (Jakarta). Eventually only 78 of the 134 men who had been on board upon departure returned home. Captain Edwards and his officers were exonerated for the loss of the Pandora after a court martial. No attempt was made by the colonial authorities in New South Wales to salvage material from the wreck. The ten surviving prisoners were also tried; the various courts martial held found four of them innocent of mutiny and, although the other six were found guilty, only three (Millward, Burkitt and Ellison) were executed. Peter Heywood and James Morrison received a Royal pardon, while William Muspratt was acquitted on a legal technicality.
Descendants of the nine mutineers who ‘got away’ (from the Pandora) still live on Pitcairn Island, the refuge Fletcher Christian founded in January 1790 and where they burnt and scuttled the Bounty a few weeks after arrival. Their hiding place was not discovered until 1808 when the New England sealer Topaz (Capt. Mayhew Folger) happened on the tiny uncharted island. By then all of the mutineers – except John Adams (aka Alexander Smith) – were dead, most having died under violent circumstances.
Discovery and archaeological excavation
The wreck of the Pandora was discovered in 1977 and was immediately declared a protected site under the Australian Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. It is located approximately 5 km north-west of Moulter Cay 11°‹23°ŒS 143°‹59°ŒE / -11.383, 143.983Coordinates: 11°‹23?ŒS 143°‹59°ŒE / -11.383, 143.983 on the outer Great Barrier Reef, approximately 140 km east of Cape York, on the edge of the Coral Sea.
The Queensland Museum has been excavating the wreck according to a research design. Archaeologists and historians at the Museum of Tropical Queensland are still gradually fitting together pieces of the Pandora story puzzle, using the archaeological evidence as well as the extant historical evidence. A large collection of artefacts is on display at the museum.
In the course of nine seasons of excavation during the 1980s and 1990s, the museum’s marine archaeological teams established that approximately 30% of the hull is preserved as a more or less intact structure. The vessel came to rest at a depth of between 30 to 33m on a gently sloping sandy bottom, slightly inclined to starboard; consequently more of the starboard side has been preserved than the port side of the hull. Approximately one third of the overburden in which the wreck is buried has been excavated by the Queensland Museum to date; it is estimated that the remainder to be excavated amounts to approximately 350 m3. This would probably require at least another ten full-blown seasons of excavation – assuming a similar methodology and level of technology is used as on previous museum expeditions. If an expedition were to be mounted from the 2008/09 summer – and subsequently at a rate of one excavation per summer (until 2017/18)- it is estimated that at least A.5 million would be required to complete 10 seasons of fieldwork. Additional funds (approx between 0k -0k p/a) would also be required to provide for salaries of at least four additional full-time, ‘back-of-house’ professional contract positions at the museum, until at least 2020.
For strategic and financial reasons there are no plans to continue excavation in the foreseeable future. However, if the Queensland Museum were to continue excavation, priority would be given to the area under the stern and to the bow section of the wreck; especially to the various petty officers’ storerooms that were erected in the bow at platform deck level in vessels of the Pandora’s design. In addition to exposing professional and personal items belonging to the ordinary sailors and to such crew members as the carpenter and the bosun, the forward storerooms are expected to contain a range of extra spare stores and fittings which the Pandora was carrying in anticipation of the need to refit the Bounty after her recapture.
Izak J H Hough
Member of The Nautical Research Guild