DNA clues to Pandora’s secrets?

The remains of three men, found on the wreck of the warship Pandora, open again the story of the chain of events connected with the mutiny on the Bounty.

The Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef of Australia on the evening of 29 August 1791. She had 14 of the mutineers aboard, held in irons and confined in a low hut built on the quarterdeck. With its cramped conditions, just eleven feet by eighteen, they called it ‘Pandora’s Box’.

Several had come aboard voluntarily at Tahiti; four had been named by Captain Bligh of the Bounty as loyal men who had been forced to stay with the mutineers. But the Pandora’s commander, Captain Edward Edwards, was clear that his orders were to take everyone back to England where a court could decide who was innocent and who was guilty.

Edwards himself had been the near victim of a mutiny nine years before, off the north-east coast of America, which had been harshly punished by the authorities. With the 14 men from Tahiti aboard, he went from island to island in search of the rest of the men and the Bounty itself.

The departure from Tahiti was heart-rending, as the wives and friends of the mutineers came out in many canoes, tearing off their clothes and cutting their heads in grief, while the men above in Pandora’s Box could only listen in anguish.

They were almost four months in those conditions, as the Pandora sailed on through the Pacific – to the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, the Solomon Islands. On a beach in one of the Union Islands they found some spars and a yard with the Bounty’s name; they later realised that these were flotsam. Ironically, their journey to Tahiti, sailing round Cape Horn and past Easter Island, had carried them within a day’s sail of Pitcairn Island, where Fletcher Christian and the rest of the mutineers had taken the Bounty.

Pandora lost

The route back specified in the Admiralty orders was through Torres Strait, between Papua New Guinea and the north-eastern tip of Australia, but it was uncharted water reefs and shoals, and despite careful surveys, a promising channel turned out to have an isolated submerged reef – known as Pandora Reef today. She struck violently and within minutes there were several feet of water in her hold.

Three of the men whom Bligh has singled out as being innocent were now released to help work the pumps. The rest, trapped in the darkness, desperately struggled to escape and managed to break free of their fetters. Captain Edwards, hearing their cries for help – ordered the irons to be replaced and sentinels to be posted over the box, with orders to shoot if there was any movement within.

She had grounded at low tide, and as the water changed she lifted clear. The crew worked hard to lighten her, heaving guns overboard, and to try to make repairs; but the hull damage was too great. As dawn broke and the officers led the way to the boats, the armourer’s mate, Joseph Hodges, opened the prison trapdoor – a 20-inch-square section in the roof – and started to remove the fetters on the mutineers.

Someone above closed and barred the door but he carried on working. The Pandora rolled to port, throwing into the water the men guarding Pandora’s Box, which began to fill with water. In these final moments, the boatswain’s mate, William Moulter, pulled back the bolt and opened the door.

‘Scrambling inside the box, the men fought their way towards the light and air,’ writes Caroline Alexander in her book The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty. ‘Peter Heywood was one of the last to get out, and when he emerged in the sea he could see nothing above the water but the Pandora’s crosstrees. All around him, men floundered and called for help, lurching to take hold of anything afloat.’

‘Slowly the lifeboats circled the wreckage, gathering up distressed men as they found them,’ she continues. ‘One by one, the boats made their way to a sandy key, some three miles distant.’

Here when they counted, they found that 31 of the Pandora’s crew had been lost, along with four of the prisoners. The next day, a boat was sent back to the wreck, to salvage what it could, which was very little but included the ship’s cat, which was clinging to the rigging.

In the rush to launch the boats, some provisions had been thrown into one of them, and a landfall near Cape York brought a supply of water from a spring; and then they set off eastwards through the Indian Ocean, on a journey of over a thousand miles for Timor. The journey replicated part of that made by the Bounty’s own boat under Captain Bligh, less than two years before. Indeed one of those present, the Pandora’s third lieutenant, Thomas Hayward, formerly a midshipman on the Bounty, had been on that same journey with Bligh.

But though they suffered from heat and thirst, and had to drink the blood of captured birds and their own urine, the group arrived safely in Timor after eighteen days at sea. The mutineers were taken back to Britain to stand trial, where the four loyal men identified by Bligh were acquitted. Of those found guilty, two were pardoned one discharged, and three executed.

Pandora found

The Bounty, destroyed at Pitcairn after the mutineers, went on into history, and so did the Pandora, also assumed totally lost.

But the great Australian filmmaker John Heyer, often described as the father of Australian documentary film, combed archives for information, and others took up the search. A maritime reconnaissance aircraft from the Australian Air Force detected a magnetic anomaly – from the ships’s iron guns and metallic ballast – and dropped a flare to mark the location. The next day the wreck was found by two teams, one led by Australian filmmaker Ben Cropp, and the other by American-born naturalist Steve Domm.

An archaeological survey found that much of the vessel had been quickly sealed with sand which had prevented decay. Some of the upper parts had rotted away but the rest of the hull had lodged itself beneath the sand and so a huge number of artefacts were preserved in their original location.

‘It was like entering a room which had been locked for 200 years,’ was the description of the captain’s storeroom after the sand had been carefully removed. The comment came from Peter Gesner, curator of maritime archaeology at the Queensland Museum, who led a series of excavations in the 1990s.

In the storeroom was shelving built by the ship’s carpenter, and containing some of Captain Edwards’s dinner service – blue and white creamware bowls as well as wine glasses and tumblers.

‘On the floor stood rows of ceramic jars, many still corked and packed in sawdust,’ reports the American journal Archaeology. ‘They had probably contained essence of spruce, used to brew “spruce beer,” used for preventing scurvy in the eighteenth century.’

And also in the storeroom were the skeletal remains of a crew member, with nearby two shoe buckles, so buttons and two wax seals that he may have carried in his jacket pocket.

Analysis of the bones showed that they belonged to a man aged between 29 and 31. The combination of the age and the storeroom location pointed to the man being the purser’s steward, Robert Bowler, who was 28 years old when the Pandora went down.

‘It was suggested that he had been going about his routine and may have been in the captain’s storeroom at the time the ship struck’ says Peter Gesner. ‘He may have been knocked over by the impact and was drowned as seawater flooded the part of the ship where he was working.’

Further investigations revealed two more sets of skeletal remains, this time on a part of the ship where many medical implements were found and which the architect’s plans for a similar naval vessel show to be the quarters of the ship’s surgeon. Study of the bones showed that both of these men were aged between 17 and 21 when they died.

The bone specialists decided for simplicity to call the three men Tom, Dick and Harry, with Harry being the man thought to be Robert Bowler.

New scope for DNA

The location of Tom and Dick near the medical quarter may well tie in with the account of the wreck given by the Pandora’s surgeon, George Hamilton. He wrote that in the earlier efforts to save the ship, two men were killed, one hit by a falling mast, the other crushed by a cannon. So rather than leave them where they were, it is possible that the bodies were taken down to somewhere near the surgeon’s quarters to be formally buried at sea when the battle to save the ship had been won.

But Hamilton does not give their names, so for some years the story has remained where it is. Then, a few months ago, PhD student at Bond University in Australia, Sheree Hughes-Stamm, made a technical breakthrough in the analysis DNA from heavily water-logged human remains. As a result, she has been able to study the DNA of the three sets of skeletal remains and give details of the DNA that the men carried on their Y chromosomes – the male chromosomes that each man inherits from his father.

Since the names of all those lost on the Pandora are recorded, a new possibility has emerged. If there is a descendant from a close male relative of any of the men who dies on the ship, then their DNA can be compared with that of the three sets of skeletal remains.

There were 31 men who perished, of whom no less than 6 were described as coming from Orkney. Their names were William Cray (probably Croy), Robert Fea, James Gordon, Richard Mackie (probably Mackay), James Miller; and George Eglington. The latter is clearly not an Orcadian name, but a possible explanation comes with the story of how the six came to be on the Pandora – they were part of a group of ten men who had been taken by the press gang.

Taken by the press gang

The wars against France led to a big expansion of the Royal Navy and hence a big demand for men. To meet it, a quota of men was allocated to every county, and the press gang went to round them up by force if necessary.

John D M Robertson’s book The Press Gang in Orkney and Shetland tells how in 1790 a quota of 100 men was set for Orkney and on 30 July the tender David arrived in Kirkwall to collect them. The number built up only slowly until by 9 September it had reached a total of 58, with nine others on the tender Resolution and three delivered at Leith. With numbers short, it would be tempting for the press gang to take anyone else available, so George Eglington may have been a sailor on a ship in Kirkwall harbour who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But the others look Orcadian, and Peter Gesner has found some possible matches. For instance, for Richard Mackie, recorded as 24 when taken aboard the David and so 25 when he died, there is a parish record of a Richard Mackey who was born in Stronsay on 11 February 1765, the son of Peter Mackey and Elspeth Wasson.

For Robert Fea, aged 21 when recruited, there is a man of the same name, also from Stronsay, born on 26 April 1769, the son of James Fea and Isobel Keldaly (probably Keldie).

There were four other Orcadians among the Pandora’s crew, of whom one died earlier on the voyage, a second died on the journey home, and two others survived.

And one more Orcadian was lost with the Pandora, this time one of the mutineers. George Stewart was amongst the 14 in Pandora’s Box, he was able to get out from it, according to the account by another of the mutineers, James Morrison, but was struck by a falling gangway and died.

That being so, it seems unlikely that any of the bodies could be that of Stewart or any of the other mutineers, but the search for their identity opens up many questions about the whole story of the Bounty, and the chain of events that linked the lives of so many people from different parts of the world.

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