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Quest For HMS Pandora


Colonel John Blashford-Snell

 February 2023


The HMS Pandora (launched 1779) was an ordinary 6th rate post ship of the Royal Navy, made famous by its involvement with the HMS Bounty mutiny of 1789. To tell of the quest, discovery and restitution in part, of Pandora’s artefacts, was John Blashford-Snell, army officer (Colonel), explorer, adventurer, founder of Operation Rayleigh, an organisation with the initiating role in the Pandora rediscovery, and holder of a CBEColonel Blashford-Snell gained prominence in the public imagination by adescent of the Blue Nile in 1961 (inventing white water rafting in the process), the first crossing of the Darien Gap in Central America in 1971, an Alaska to Cape Horn expedition in 1970 by vehicle and descent of the entire Congo river in 1974. In his long, eventful life, John has made over 100 scientific voyages and founded the Scientific Exploration Society in 1969. He is holder of a Livingstone Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in recognition of his leadership in expeditions.


Figs 1 & 2: HMS Bounty and HMS Pandora, floundering on the Barrier Reef

The narrative behind the incident of the Pandora is in two strands. The first is the establishment of Operation Raleigh. In 1977, the Prince of Wales, now King Charles, was concerned about the inner cities. Youth, it seemed, needed the, ‘challenges of war in peacetime’, to create future leaders and positive influencers. Initially, Operation Drake (1978) was established, inspired and administered by the Scientific Exploration Society. Entry requirements were aged 17-25, physically fit, competent in water and able to get on with others. The aim is to give those selected challenging experiences to develop mind and body with the hope, if not expectation, that these young people would become leaders and positive forces for change in their own communities. 27 nations would eventually be involved with Raleigh. Interestingly, the first selection tests for Drake took place in Sherborne at the Castle. After two years the project morphed into the much larger Operation Raleigh.The idea was of exploration on a ship, anchoring at a coastal location and involvement with much needed community projects with scientific experimentation and research throughout. The government, keen on the project, provided a substantial ship, the Sir Walter Rayleigh, fully equipped for scientific work with labs and scientists. They also took with them a brigantine to teach sailing.The second strand was that of the saga of the HMS Bounty. In the late 1700’s, the feeding of Caribbean slaves was proving increasingly difficult. Cultivation of breadfruit, a non-Caribbean species, was identified as a solution and Lt William Bligh was charged with sailing as commander, the HMS Bounty, originally a squat Collier and converted specifically for this purpose, to Tahiti to obtain breadfruit plants which would then be transported to the Caribbean for cultivation, growth and harvest. Two factors mitigated against harmonious relations between crew and commander. Firstly, Lt Bligh, although an extremely skilled navigator, was an unpopular disciplinarian and secondly, unusually for a RN crew, the ship’s company of 45 were all volunteers and perhaps more independently minded than the more usual pressed crews. Added to that, room on the ship, limited even during the best of times, was constrained further by conversion of various spaces for storage of breadfruit plants. Bligh initially lacked other commissioned officers, increasing his isolation though Fletcher Christian was eventually raised to mate. By 1788, the Bounty had reached Tahiti, a ten month voyage. The five month stay over to collect and pot breadfruit plants, proved a temptation for many of the crew, preferring island life with recently acquired official or unofficial local wives. Iron nails proved a particularly lucrative item of exchange, much in demand by Tahitians, and the stock of ship’s nails soon ran out.

Figs 3, 4 & 5: Lieutenant, later, Captain Bligh (1754-1817). Fletcher Christian (1764-1793). The breadfruit plant (Artocarpus altilis), foliage and fruit


The ship eventually departed west to the Caribbean. Some 1,300 miles out from Tahiti, near Tonga, in April 1789, many of the crew mutinied. Bligh and 18 loyal men were placed in the ship’s rowing boat and set adrift with minimal supplies and the ship ‘s quadrant and compass which Bligh, an able navigator, was able to use to full effect reaching Timor by island hopping across the archipelago.The mutineers, led by Fletcher Christian, including 4 loyalists unable to accompany Bligh, headed to the island of Tubai to establish their own settlement. Conflict with locals proved too much and a return was made to Tahiti where sixteen mutineers and four loyalists remained. With several local men and women on board the Bounty set sail from Tahiti, rediscovering Pitcairn island, wrongly positioned on admiralty charts, remote in the southern Pacific Ocean. Christian retained the ship’s chronometer and a compass which assisted with navigation. On reaching Pitcairn, the Bounty was burned and sunk. Positive social cohesion was not evident in the new colony. The women were very much in the minority and fights occurred amongst the men; Christian was killed, one mutineer became insane, another died from Asthma. Of the original mutineers, only Alex Smith remained when the absconders were discovered, for the first time, by an American sailing vessel in 1808.


Fig 6: Green- course of Bligh's open-boat journey to Coupang, Timor. Red- voyage of Bounty to Tahiti and to location of the mutiny. Yellow- movement of Bounty under Christian after the mutiny

Bligh and his remaining crew eventually returned to England. Along with Sir Ernest Shackleton, Bligh is credited with one of the most extraordinary feats of seamanship in an open boat. With 18 loyal crew, Bligh navigated the 23 foot (7m) launch on a 47 day voyage to Timor in the Dutch East Indies. He recorded the distance as 3,618 nautical miles (6,701 km/4,164 miles). 

The admiralty, somewhat miffed that one of their ships had been hijacked, set in train a plan to send another ship, the HMS Pandora, in search of the missing vessel and mutineers. Bligh naturally briefed the Pandora’s captain, Edward Edwards.In March 1791, Edwards reached Tahiti and found the 14 mutineers. Two had died. However, these remaining men had made plans to escape their island confines and return to civilisation by building a schooner which had yet to put to sea. Despite these encouraging signs of loyalty, Edwards imprisoned the men on the deck of the Pandora in chains in a 11x18 foot prison (known as Pandora’s box) and put out a crew on the schooner to act as a tender. The Pandora spent 3 months visiting neighbouring islands in search of the Bounty and its remaining crew finding only an anchor from the Bounty, which they attached to their own vessel.For the return home, Edwards continued west through the Torres Strait, as the name suggests a narrow route between the north coast of Queensland and New Guinea beset by shoals and strong tides, making a difficult passage for a sailing boat.In August 1791, whilst making way through the passage, the ship was holed and driven over the Great Barrier Reef by a storm. Boats were put out and some refuge was found on a nearby sandy island. During the demise of the ship, one mast fell, and cannon broke lose. Discouragingly 2 pumps broke. The master of arms had been able to release some prisoners from their confinement. 31 crew and 4 prisoners died with 89 crew and 10 prisoners making it to the island.Edwards had 4 boats to save his shipwrecked prisoners and crew. He set sail for Timor, Bligh’s destination two years before, making the passage in 50 days compared to Bligh’s 41 days. On the way, they picked up several escapees from Botany Bay. In Timor, they also found that the schooner, from which they had previously separated, had safely made landfall. Eventually, a return to Plymouth was made. The verdicts at a subsequent court martial of the mutineers were:4 acquitted2 received a Royal Pardon1 released on a technicality3 hanged2 lives successfully.Bligh and Edward had subsequent naval careers. Bligh was eventually promoted to full Captain and later Vice-Admiral; Edwards rose to the rank of full Admiral. An apocryphal story is that Edwards, in retirement, owned and ran a pub (the ‘Pandora’) near Falmouth, in deepest Cornwall.For historians the Bounty/Pandora story is a cracking yarn, a human tale of oppressive authority/courage/loyalty/betrayal with the possibility of enhancing this bit of history with the collection and archiving of artefacts. With this in mind, in 1986, the Queensland Museum commissioned Raleigh to investigate the wreck of the Pandora. Its initial location was determined by a submarine hunting RAAF Orion aircraft which detected the wreck, approximately 5 km north-west of Moulter Cay towards the northern reaches of the Great Barrier Reef - approximately 140 km east of Cape York, on the edge of the Coral Sea. The Bounty’s anchor, previously recovered by the Pandora, was discovered and raised. Care was needed in the area due to a plethora of sharks. A friendly whale shark became a regular visitor. There was one tragedy where a crewman, checking moorings during the night, disappeared after falling into the water- with strong tides and sharks, it was felt he would have died quite quickly.A grid was immediately established over the wreck site on the ocean bottom to permit accurate logging of finds. Artefacts were embedded in sand which was mechanically vacuumed away. A notable find was the cast iron ship’s oven, used to cook meat and bake bread but unfortunately too large to raise. The crew’s dietary requirement included sauerkraut which was an important addition to provide vitamin C and prevent that scourge of early expeditions, scurvy. After removal from the sand, artefacts were lifted to the surface in hampers. Items such as tools and island items such as headrests were found. Also discovered were some navigation items and interestingly a watch. Records show that only the ship’s surgeon possessed such an item. His watch was restored to working order. Local oceanic wildlife was also studied. These included the rather too common Bronze Whaler sharks, Giant Wrasse, and Potato Cod. The latter were extremely partial to Australian Army sausages which few of the expedition members liked. Moray eels were also in evidence and like the Potato Cod had a distinct preference for army sausage.


Information from this exploration is displayed at the Museum of Queensland at the Townsville site (see Fig. 7), Townsville being Queensland’s second city.



Fig. 7: Queensland Museum Tropics in Townsville featuring an HMS Pandora display.

In 1990, the Science Exploration Society decided that running the extensive Rayleigh project was too demanding for a small society. The Prince of Wales suggested setting up a separate, organisation, Raleigh International, continuing on the same lines, but reflecting the increasing diversity of volunteers. There have been notable participants, including the Prince and Princess of Wales, Tim Peake (astronaut), Kate Silverton (BBC journalist) and Ray Mears (survivalist). The organisation continued until 2021, when impacted by COVID and lack of government grants. The brand was sold to a South African company, the Impact Travel Group, who despite being a private enterprise seem keen to continue the same excellent work.


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