Admiralty Orders
Search and Capture of the Mutineers
The Infamous Pandora's Box
Towards Disaster
Olivers Travels
Shipwrecked !!
The Ship's Cat
To England
The Admiralty's Wrath

The Pandora Story

Information obtained from "Pandora: an archaeological perspective" 
By Peter Gesner: ISBN 0 7242 4482 4
Queensland Museum

plus internet sources



Admiralty Orders

The Admiralty held it essential that the Bounty mutineers should not escape punishment for the capital crime of mutiny. About eight months had passed after Bligh's return to England.

The Lords dispatched Captain Edward Edwards with the 24 gun frigate "Pandora" and 135 men in search of them. The "Pandora" was loaded to the gunnels and provided with Extra officers, midshipmen and able seamen as well as additional stores and fittings to man and refit the Bounty. They sailed on November 7, 1790.

The Pandora's first port of call was Teneriff in the Canary Islands where a cargo of wine was taken on board for the crew. After a brief visit to Rio de Janeiro in early January 1791, the Pandora rounded Cape Horn on 2 February and set a direct course for Tahiti. They anchored in Matavai Bay on March 23, 1791.


The Search and Capture of the Mutineers

During this early stage of the voyage the Pandora came within one day's sail of Pitcairn Island which, unknown to Edwards, Fletcher Christian and his associates had found in January 1790 and where, soon after their arrival, they had set fire to and scuttled the Bounty. The mutineers were to remain detected there until 1808.

When the Pandora dropped anchor in Matavai Bay the Bounty's armourer Joseph Coleman immediately came on board to surrender His example was followed a few hours later by two of the Bounty's midshipmen, Peter Heywood and George Stewart, a master's servant Richard Skinner and the Bounty's nearly-blind fiddler Michael Byrne.

The heaviest tragedy fell on George Stewart, the midshipman, who had married and lived in utter harmony with a chief's daughter who, at the time of his arrest had a baby at breast. Several years later, when missionaries told her about George's death, she died of a brroken heart. It seems unlikely that Stewart played any real part in the mutiny; like Heywood, the other midshipman to reach Tahiti he had been taken away in the Bounty under duress.

Early the next day three more seamen, Thomas Ellison, Charles Norman and James Morrison, also surrendered. (comment :  They were actually captured in another part of Tahiti - Morrison claims they surrendered to a shore party who were rounding up mutineers). These three had spent their time on Tahiti building schooner in which they had hoped to sail for America or the Dutch East Indies.

Within twenty-four hours of the Pandora's arrival at Tahiti, eight mutineers had given themselves up From the information they gave about events after the mutiny, Edwards was able to ascertain that the Bounty had sailed off for an unknown destination in September 1789. Sixteen of Bounty's crew had elected to stay behind on Tahiti while eight of their former shipmates had chosen to throw in their lot with Fletcher Christian.

Of the sixteen mutineers on Tahiti, Charles Churchill and Matthew Thompson had been killed in a feud. With these two and the eight who had surrendered, ten of the twenty-five mutineers were accounted for. Edwards immediately made arrangements for the capture of the remaining six known to be hiding on the island. Armed shore parties were sent out to hunt them down and in a matter of days Henry Hildebrandt, Thomas McIntosh, Norman Birkett, Jonathan Millward, Jonathan Sumner and William Muspratt were also sharing the same fate as their former shipmates.

The Infamous Pandora's Box

By coincidence, the day before the Pandora arrived in Matavai Bay, the mutineers had returned to Tahiti after setting out for Batavia. They had decided to abort their escape voyage because of problems with the schooner's sails.

The captured men were manacled and locked away in a makeshift prison,  referred to as "Pandora's Box",  which Captain Edwards had ordered built on the ship's quarter deck.

As the prison was only 3.3 m by 5.4 m on deck and about 1.5 m high, the mutineers' existence was cramped and miserable. Armed sentries were placed around the prison and presumably for fear some of the crew could be incited to mutiny or help with an escape attempt the Pandora's men were ordered not to communicate with the prisoners.

Although he does not mention it in his account of the voyage, Edwards must have been feeling satisfied with his progress so far. However, he did not have any reason to be complacent as the eight mutineers who had joined Fletcher Christian and pirated the Bounty were still at large.

As for the whereabouts of the Bounty, Edwards did not gather any additional details which called for a change of plan or would have induced him not to act on his orders, which specifically listed the islands he was to search after Tahiti.

The Pandora remained in Matavai Bay for several more weeks, during which time her crew took on fresh water and provisions and prepared the captured schooner for duty as a tender.

Oliver's Travels

At Samoa, Captain Edwards lost the mutineers' schooner which he had put in charge of William Oliver, a master's mate.

Oliver, soon after, was attacked by canoes which he and his men beat off with great difficulty. Since they feared another attack they sheered off the island of Upolu altogether and headed south to Nomuka in the Tonga group for a rendezvous previously arranged with his captain for just such a separation.

Oliver was too far downwind for the rendezvous, and brought up at volcanic Tofua, where Bligh in the open boat had lost his man. On this same day Edwards in Pandora arrived at the Nomuka rendezvous, sending off Lieutenant Hayward in a double canoe to look for Oliver, a wise precaution in view of the reefs abounding.

Oliver was very conscious of the treachery Bligh had reported at Tofua, and that was as well. He traded nails for food and water, but then, within 24 hours of his arrival, stood off a severe attack. Midshipman Renouard was very seriously ill; the eight men remaining fought off their opponents and they headed west.

Ahead of them lay the Fiji's, by then the least explored group in the Pacific and the most savage. But Oliver was lucky. His landfall was Matuku in the southern Lau, one of a small group of islands of purely volcanic origin, rearing from a seabed two miles deep, well wooded, watered with streams, and ranking amongst the most beautiful islands in the world.

Oliver in his schooner, a 35 foot vessel which the mutineers who built it had named Resolution, (comment : Edwards had renamed it 'Matavai") stayed at Matuku five weeks while his men rebuilt their strength. First Europeans to live in the Fijis, or even anchor there, they left a legacy of a strange new sickness which the Matukuans attributed to supernatural agency. More probably it derived from the sickness of Midshipman Renouard.

From here Oliver threaded the New Hebrides, presumably landing from time to time for water and food, and then crossed the Coral Sea. Between New Guinea and Australia he cruised the length of that section of the Barrier Reef.

In September the southeast monsoon blew as strongly as ever; he could not see a gap in the long white breaks of surf upon the reef and eventually drove successfully where they seemed the least. Mistaken as the Bounty Mutineers Oliver was arrested by Dutch authorities at Surabaia in the nearer East Indies; eventually he and his men were taken under guard with their schooner to Samarang.

Oliver was later released when Edwards verified their identity.

Towards Disaster

On 8 May 1791 the Pandora sailed for Huahine, one of the Northern Society Islands, on the first leg of what was to be a futile search lasting more than three months and visiting most of the major Polynesian island groups west of Tahiti.

Admiralty's instructions to Captain Edwards included a survey of the Endeavour Strait, where Cook had threaded the reefs to enter the straits of Torres between Australia and New Guinea; those reefs that Oliver had successfully charged.

By August Edwards had begun to run short on supplies and had lost twelve men and two boats which had become separated from the Pandora during storms." Edwards decided that further efforts to find the Bounty would be to no avail. On 15 August 1791 the Pandora set a westerly course for Timer via Torres Straits.

The Pandora reached the Great Barrier Reef on 26 August 1791 in the latitude of the Murray Islands and then skirted the outer fringe of the reef southward in an attempt to find a safe passage through these treacherous and uncharted waters.

He steered towards them only to discover a maze of reefs as savage as any in the world, made probes north and south, and finding no opening stood away to the south where indeed he would have already been had he followed Admiralty instructions.

Shipwrecked !!!

Early in the morning of 28 August a promising opening was discovered in the endless barrier of reef.  The long boat was launched to reconnoiter. The boat, commanded by Lieutenant John Corner, set off in a south-westerly direction and was sighted again late in the afternoon. Corner had hoisted a pennant signaling that the opening was safe to navigate. As it was almost dusk, Edwards considered a passage through too dangerous and decided to wait until the next morning.

Orders were given to pick up Corner's boat and stand out to ocean waters for the night. While maneuvering to pick up the boat, the Pandora struck an isolated outcrop of submerged reefs nearly 4.6 km to the north-west of a sand cay at the southern end of the opening.

Unfortunately she had run aground sometime close to low tide and within an hour of striking the reef it was apparent that Pandora would not be refloated easily. With each wave she was driven further onto the reef, her bottom grinding heavily on the hard coral. The ship lost part of her rudder and steering gear and very soon afterwards, the carpenters reported that there was almost 8 feet (2 m) of water in the hold.

The frantic efforts of the men at the pumps produced results and after several hours aground the Pandora beat over the reef, aided by the rising tide. At about ten o'clock that night she was brought to anchor in relatively sheltered waters in the lee of the reef. Here, still buffeted by strong winds which had increased in strength since the afternoon, the crew spent an anxious night working desperately to save their ship.

While the carpenters were below decks trying to repair the damaged hull, the rest of the crew were busy throwing the Pandora's heavy iron guns overboard to lighten the ship. For a moment it seemed that they might save the vessel, but disaster struck again. This time one of the pumps broke down and very soon afterwards the water level in the hold started to rise again. A last desperate attempt was made to save the ship by passing under the damaged hull to stop the holes and stem the leaking.

All these efforts were fruitless and at first light on the 29 August Edwards and his officers agreed that nothing more could be done to save the Ship. As the boats had already been hoisted out, they were provisioned in readiness for the crew's escape. Orders were given to cut loose from the decks any material which would float so that the men who could not swim would have something to cling to while waiting to be rescued by the boats. Almost immediately after these orders, the Pandora heeled over and sank within minutes.

During the night three prisoners, Coleman, McIntosh and Norman, had been allowed to help at the pumps. The others had been kept in "Pandora's Box" under armed guard,   Edwards had left his prisoners ironed, even after Pandora 's fate was settled. They certainly would have drowned but for the humanity of the bosun's mate William Moulter who unlocked the hatch as he scrambled onto the prison to jump overboard.

Although all the prisoners, except Hildebrandt, managed to struggle out of "Pandora's Box", not all of them succeeded in breaking their manacles. Hildebrandt, Sumner, Skinner and Stewart perished with thirty-one of the Pandora's crew. In all, four of the mutineers drowned here; all four left widows and children in Tahiti.

Besides the four Bounty men he lost 31 of his crew.


The survivors, eighty-nine of the crew and ten prisoners,   spent three days on one of the sand cays near the wreck. During this time the four boats were prepared for the arduous voyage to Timor where the survivors hoped to find passage on ships bound for Europe.

While on the sand cay and during the open boat voyage the prisoners suffered unbearably. Their clothing had been in poor repair when they had been taken prisoner and they were not allowed to take shelter under the make-shift tents which had been pitched on the cay. And so, almost naked, their skin softened by three months of confinement in their dark prison,   they were forced to bury themselves in the sand for protection from the burning tropical sun.

At noon on 1 September, after Edwards had divided the survivors into groups and distributed the remaining food and water, the boats departed from Pandora Entrance on their 1100 nautical mile (2100 km) journey to Timer. For Lieutenant Thomas Hayward, having been one of the loyalists cast adrift from the Bounty with Bligh, this was to be his second open boat voyage through Barrier Reef waters.

The Ships Cat

Before leaving the cay, a boat was sent back to the wreck to see if anything could be salvaged, but returned with only a few useful items and, incredibly, with the ship's cat which had been found clinging to the masthead. The cat's fate after the rescue is unknown.

If you look carefully .. the cat is on the top of the mast
Queensland Museum sketch of the Pandora

To England

The survivors' progress through the Barrier Reef and the Torres Straits was comparatively uneventful. According to the prisoner James Morrison,  Edwards continued his vindictive treatment of the surviving mutineers.

Within twenty-four hours of their departure from the wreck they made landfall on the coast near Cape York where they found fresh water. In another twenty-four hours they safely passed through the Torres Straits into the Arafura Sea, which they traversed in ten days. They sighted Timer on 13 September and reached the Dutch East India Company (VOC) settlement at Coupang three days later.

Their reception by the authorities at Coupang was cordial. The Governor did everything possible to ensure that they made a speedy recovery from their ordeal. The mutineers' hardships continued; they were not treated with the same solicitude and were confined to the settlement's prison. Their situation was of course better than during their squalid confinement in "Pandora's Box", but for most of them there was to be no real improvement in their miserable conditions until after their trial on board HMS Duke in England.

The Wrath of the Admiralty

Before reaching home, however, the prisoners were to become acquainted with several more gaols: the VOC ships Rembang and Vredenburg  in which they were transported to Sourabaya, Batavia and Capetown; and HMS Gorgon which took them on to Portsmouth.

After. a six-day trial in September 1792, Byrne, McIntosh, Coleman and Norman were acquitted. Heywood, Morrison, Burkitt, Millward, Ellison and Muspratt were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged for their part in the mutiny. However, only three of these sentences were carried out. On the recommendation of the court, Peter Heywood and James Morrison were pardoned and William Muspratt's case was discharged on a technicality. Burkitt, Millward and Ellison were hanged in October 1792.

Captain Edwards and his officers were not indicted for Pandora's loss. The court of enquiry found no fault with Edwards or his officers and stated that the loss had been unavoidable after the accidental grounding.




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