Saturday, 2 June 2012

Thinking Outside the Box

                   The story of the Mutiny on the Bounty has yet more twists and turns. When Lieutenant William Bligh reached the Admiralty in March 1790, the Royal Navy was gearing up for an expected war with Spain. Warships mothballed after the Seven Years War were being brought back into service in expectation of a future conflict. Furthermore, revolution had broken out in France in July of the previous year and there were fears it may well spread elsewhere in Europe, including Britain. On the other hand, the outrageous acts of seizing one of His Majesty’s ships by armed mutiny, and setting a British naval officer adrift in an open boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean demanded appropriate responses. 

The First Lord of the Admiralty. John Pitt, (son of Pitt the Elder), sent Captain Edward Edwards to Portsmouth to take command of HMS Pandora, a Porcupine class Frigate (well, not technically a frigate, but let’s just look the other way), armed with twenty six-pounders and four eighteen-pounder carronades, and crewed with 134 men, including a newly promoted third lieutenant Thomas Hayward, who had served as a midshipman on the Bounty and had survived the journey in the launch with Bligh. Captain Edwards had himself survived a near mutiny in 1782, whilst commanding HMS Narcissus, which had resulted in the leader of the mutiny being hanged in chains, five more men hanged, fourteen more flogged, two of whom died, two sentenced to 250 lashes each. 

Title Page Voyage of HMS Pandora by Edwards

The Pandora departed Portsmouth on November 7th 1790, with orders to hunt down the Bounty mutineers. She rounded Cape Horn without difficulty, and reached Tahiti on March 23rd 1791. Immediately, before she had even dropped anchor, Joseph Coleman, the Bounty’s armourer who had dived from the ship to escape the mutineers, came to Pandora and presented himself. He told how Charles Churchill, the ‘most murderous’ of the mutineers had himself been murdered by Mathew Thompson, who, in turn, had been killed by Churchill’s taios. Another loyalist, Peter Heywood, on hearing Thomas Hayward was on the Pandora, also presented himself voluntarily, and like Coleman, to his surprise, was deemed to be a ‘Piratical Villain’ and the pair were clapped in irons. On the second day, former able seaman Richard Skinner was also taken. Edwards learned the mutineers had built a small 30-foot schooner, which they had called Resolution, and had sailed to the south of the island, unaware of his arrival. He set off in pursuit, and on March 29th three more fugitives, and the schooner, were captured. Over the next couple of weeks, Edwards and his crew rounded up, in ones and twos, the remaining mutineers. 

Pandora with Resolution in tow

On the Pandora, Edwards had a special prison built at the rear of the quarterdeck; at eleven–by-eighteen feet, with an eighteen-inch square trapdoor on the top, the fourteen prisoners were handcuffed and shackled and forced into what they called ‘Pandora’s Box’. They were guarded, round-the-clock, by armed men. Their friends and families surrounded the Pandora, standing in their canoes, weeping and wailing, cutting themselves with sharp shells, and tearing their clothes, and watched helplessly as the frigate, with the schooner Resolution in tow, left Tahiti on May 8th 1791. Edwards was now determined to recover the Bounty and the remnants of her crew. He could not have known he had missed Pitcairn on his outward voyage, (after all, it was wrongly charted), but his orders were to search the islands of Whytootackee and the Friendly Islands to the west. For three months he moved from island to island, but no leads emerged. There were rumours, but all proved to be dead ends. Morale began to fail, two boats with fourteen men were lost, and at Anamooka a landing party was attacked. By August, with the monsoon season approaching, Edwards decided to return home. 

HMS Pandora sinking

He set course for the Torres Strait, (then called the Endeavour Strait), between Papua and New Holland. He arrived at the Great Barrier Reef, and set about looking for a passage through, sending out a yawl to take soundings. Despite all precautions, on August 29th, Pandora struck the reef, tearing a hole in the side, and began to take on water, “In 5 minutes after there was 4 feet of water in the hold”, Edwards noted. It was obvious she was sinking, and she was abandoned. In Pandora’s Box, still handcuffed and shackled, the Bounty men pleaded to be released. Coleman, McIntosh and Nelson, all identified by Bligh as innocent, were released to aid with the pumps. The eighteen-inch scuttle on the Box was bolted shut again. At dawn on the next day, Pandora’s armourer, Joseph Hodges went into the Box, and began to strike off the fetters, and the prisoners began to escape, until someone unknown again closed the bolt. Hodges continued to work, until the Pandora rolled to port and more water was taken on. Boatswain’s mate, William Moulter, drew back the bolt as he abandoned ship, and more prisoners came out of Pandora’s Box. Boats took up survivors and mustered on a sand bar, some three miles away. Thirty-one of the ship’s crew had been drowned, together with four of the prisoners. 

The Wreck of the Pandora

No one, it seems, had had the foresight to salvage provisions, although the Pandora had taken all night to sink, and with scant rations Captain Edwards and the survivors departed in a pinnace, two yawls and a launch, across the Timor Sea, bound, with cruel irony, for Coupang, the very destination for which William Bligh had navigated in the Bounty’s launch. Poor Thomas Hayward was undertaking his second open-boat ordeal in two years, undergoing the same starvation and privations, in the same South Seas, bound for the same place once again. 

HMS Pandora foundering

Blistered by the sun, and reduced to drinking the blood of seabirds or their own urine, the men crossed the eleven hundred miles in sixteen days, and astonishingly, on arrival at Coupang, the ten Bounty men were taken to the Dutch fort and put in the stocks. A Dutch officer later took pity and had them transferred into shackles. After a period of recovery, Edwards led his sorry company onto the Rembang, a Dutch East Indiaman, bound for Batavia, on Java. Six days out, off the coast of Flores, a great storm struck, shivering the sails to shreds in minutes. The Dutch crew fled below decks, so Edwards took charge and the English crew brought the Rembang to safety, although the prisoners, freed from their bonds for the work, were too weak to man the pumps. 

The Route of the Pandora

They made it eventually to Batavia, a pestilential port surrounded by filthy swamps, were malaria raged. Fifteen men from the Pandora died from disease there, the rest departed for home seven weeks later, divided on various Dutch vessels. Edwards and the Bounty men boarded the Vreedenburg, and on arrival at Table Bay, Cape of Good Hope, they transferred to HMS Gorgon, departing for England on April 5th 1791. The Gorgon dropped anchor off Spithead, Portsmouth, on June 19th and the ten mutineers from the Bounty were moved, in chains, to the Hector, awaiting court martial. Captain Edward Edwards, like Lieutenant Bligh, would go before a court martial, for also losing his ship.

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