X at the end of Pandora’s Box


What has Pandora’s Box got to do with Townsville?  Filling in a few hours one afternoon on a trip up north we visited the Museum of Tropical Queensland and discovered the gripping story of the HMS Pandora and the significance of the Box.

Most people have heard the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty when Fletcher Christian and his followers put the irascible William Bligh and eighteen supporters adrift in the ship’s open launch. Against all odds Bligh and his men sailed 6,701 km to Timor (now part of Indonesia), losing only one man in a fight with hostile natives in Tofua.


Meanwhile Fletcher Christian left sixteen mutineers in Tahiti who wished to part company with him. Before he left he married Maimiti, the daughter of one of the local chiefs, on 16 June 1789. The remaining nine mutineers, six Tahitian men and eleven Tahitian women went with him to start a new life on the remote island of Pitcairn, hoping they would never be found by the British authorities.

Pitcairn Island

Their hiding place was not discovered until 1808 when the New England sealer Topaz (Captain Mayhew Folger) came upon the tiny uncharted island. By then, all of the mutineers but one were dead, most having died under violent circumstances. John Adams was the sole surviving mutineer and had renamed himself Alexander Smith.

John Adams

Britain did not allow mutineers to go unpunished so as soon as Bligh returned to England plans were made to capture the missing men. The HMS Pandora sailed from the Solent on 7 November 1790, commanded by Captain Edward Edwards and manned by a crew of 134 men.

Of the 16 crew members in Tahiti, four had remained loyal to Bligh but could not fit in the open boat and so had been left on the Bounty. He had recorded their names and assured them he would testify to their innocence. Two others had died violently so 14 were rounded up when Edwards arrived in Tahiti. These fourteen men were locked up in a makeshift prison cell, measuring eleven-by-eighteen feet, on the Pandora’s quarter-deck, which they called Pandora’s Box. Those who had remained loyal were treated exactly the same as the others.

On 8 May 1791, the Pandora began its search for the remaining mutineers. It visited many islands in the south-West Pacific without finding any trace of the Bounty or its crew.

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Model of men escaping Pandora’s Box in the Museum of Tropical Queensland

At this time there was a fledgling three-year-old settlement in Sydney, New South Wales, but the HMS Pandora was much further north when it ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef. Can you imagine the terror of those in Pandora’s Box as the ship went down? Four of the mutineers drowned as well as 31 crew. That all of the prisoners escaped from the Box was thanks to a last-minute release from a crewman, William Moulter. A Cay was renamed Moulter Cay in 1984 in recognition of his humane deed. Four prisoners did not make it to shore, however.

The foundering of the Pandora (artist Oswald Brett)

What about those four men who had wanted to go with Bligh but couldn’t? Well, they survived the shipwreck but spent the next two nights on a small treeless sand cay. Fortunately, there were four open boats rescued from the wreck on which they made their way to Kupang and then to Batavia.

The ten remaining mutineers must have wondered what lay ahead as they travelled by ship back to England. The court-martial  began on the morning of September 12, 1792, in the captain’s great cabin of Lord Hood’s ship, the Duke, moored in Portsmouth Harbour. Of the ten, the four detained against their will were exonerated and given a pardon. The other six were sentenced to be hanged but three more escaped the noose, two receiving pardons and one getting off on a technicality.

Three men, Burkett, Millward and Ellison were hanged at the yardarm aboard the Brunswick in Portsmouth Harbour.

The wreck of the Pandora lay peacefully under the water until it was discovered by several competing explorers on 15 November 1977, Ben Cropp, Steve Domm and John Heyer. After the wreck site was located it was immediately declared a protected site under the Australian Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.

I was totally enthralled with the artefacts and the story that went with them on my visit to the museum in the year 2000. There had been nine excavations of the site between 1983 and 1999 and much has been discovered about life on board ship in the 18th Century. There is still much to excavate from the site as it is in deep water and difficult to access. It is extremely well preserved and 30% of the hull is intact.

What happened to the people on Pitcairn Island is another gripping story but as we can’t visit it in our caravan  regretfully I will leave it out of this A to Z.

9 thoughts on “X at the end of Pandora’s Box

  1. Thanks for telling this part of the story. I knew some of it, of course, but certainly not this part. The whole Bounty take is quite sordid, isn’t it? As I recall, Bligh was governor of Australia for a time, too. It sure was harsh what they did to the men left on Tahiti.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It seems as if the name Pandora’s Box brings nothing but tragedy! I’ve come across articles about Pitcairn Island and find the stories about that place quite fascinating

    Liked by 1 person

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