The HMS Pandora was a British naval frigate of the late eighteenth century. She was in use during England’s threatened invasion by France and Spain in 1779, and in American Revolution. The Pandora captured or helped capture several American privateers. But she is best known for her final mission, in 1790—to capture and return the mutineers of HMS Bounty.
The Pandora set sail Nov. 7, 1790, with Edward Edwards as captain. At the start of the voyage, 134 men made up the crew. Most were English, Scottish, Irish, or Welsh, but there were also quite a few Germans and Scandinavians. Their mission was to recover the Bounty, capture the mutineers, and return them to England for trial.
The refitted ship had twenty six-pound guns and four eighteen-pound carronades. Lots of firepower. They sailed by way of Cape Horn, arriving in Tahiti March 23, 1791.
|Captain Bligh of the Bounty
The mutineers had split up. Eight of them had left with Fletcher Christian, who led the uprising, to set up a new home on the then uncharted island of Pitcairn. They took a number of Polynesian men and women with them and burned the Bounty to avoid detection.
|Bligh and loyal men set adrift
The plan was for the Pandora to return the mutineers they took into custody to England to face trial. The prisoners were locked in a makeshift cell on the quarterdeck, which they referred to as “Pandora’s Box.”
For three months, the ship sailed about, stopping at various islands in fruitless search of the rest of the escaped mutineers. During this period, fourteen of the Pandora’s crew went AWOL with two of the ship’s small boats, perhaps succumbing to the same allure of the islands as the Bounty’s crew had before them.
|Site of the Pandora wreck courtesy Queensland Museum
After two nights on a small sand cay, the remaining eighty-nine men of the ship’s company and ten prisoners set out in four open boats, hoping to make it to Timor, where Captain Bligh had sailed with the other eighteen displaced Bounty officers and crewmen a couple of years earlier. Bligh’s accomplishment of navigating 5,800 kilometers (3,100 miles) in an open boat is seen as one of the greatest navigational feats in history.
|Sinking of the Pandora, painting by Peter Heywood, one of the mutineers who survived.
The Pandora’s captain and crew arrived in Timor Sept. 16 and went on to Batavia (modern day Jakarta). Sixteen more men had died on the way after surviving the wreck. One man deserted in Capetown while on the way home. Eventually, 78 of the original 134 crewmen made it home.
Captain Edwards, after a court martial, was exonerated in the wreck of the Pandora. No attempt was made to salvage the ship at that time. The ten surviving prisoners were tried for mutiny. Four were found innocent. Three of the six found guilty were hanged. The other three were either pardoned or acquitted.
A final note: the wreck of the Pandora was rediscovered in 1977. It was declared a protected site under the Australian Historic Shipwrecks Act of 1976. The Queensland Museum gradually excavated part of the wreck. A large collection of artifacts is now on display at the museum.
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Susan Page Davis is the author of more than sixty published novels. She’s always interested in the unusual happenings of the past. Her newest books include The Seafaring Women of the Vera B. and The Cowboy’s Bride Collection, which was recently named to the Publisher’s Weekly Bestselling Religious Fiction List. She’s a two-time winner of the Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award, and also a winner of the Carol Award and the Will Rogers Medallion, and a finalist in the WILLA Awards and the More Than Magic Contest. Visit her website at: www.susanpagedavis.com .