Diving on the Pandora
October 22, 1998
by Frank Sturgess
Uncovering the ship that chased down the mutineers of HMS Bounty
The scuba tanks swayed in their racks like drunken sailors as our boat rolled in a frothy sea, fighting strong currents and keeping a respectful distance from the barely submerged, razor-sharp reefs that surrounded us. A greenish patch of tropical water straight ahead marked the spot where more than two centuries earlier the hapless HMS Pandora--exactly the size of our own charter craft--slid to the bottom. Thirty-five men were lost, including four prisoners who had taken part in history's most famous mutiny at sea.
It was a relief to slip below the waves, and even a greater one to find the currents had suddenly, but not untypically, relented. Guided by an orange-colored line, we glided downward through the placid, shimmering blue to a depth of 100 feet. A few coral trout finned through the rectangle of sea floor 150 feet long and 90 wide that had been marked off with aluminum poles. But there were few evident signs of a shipwreck except a small stove from which a reef resident, a small fish--safe by nearly two centuries from being fried--stared at us with curiosity.
However, below the sand lay, in the words of Australian marine archaeologist Peter Gesner, "an absolute jewel of a shipwreck," a freeze-frame of the age of Pacific exploration and eighteenth-century naval life complete with an estimated 100,000 artifacts, ranging from cannons to Polynesian souvenirs to jars still redolent with the scent of cloves. Also below were the bones of sailors who drowned when the ship sank.
The tale of the Pandora begins in 1789 with a more famous vessel, HMS Bounty, which was on a botanical voyage in the South Pacific when crewmen mutinied and cast adrift their captain, William Bligh, and 18 others. Although a series of Hollywood movies have cast Bligh as a cruel, hateful figure, it appears more likely that mutiny was sparked by beguiling Tahitian women, to whom some had become attached, rather than Bligh's character. After an epic, 3,100-mile ordeal in a small, open launch, Bligh and his loyal men landed on the island of Timor in the Indonesian archipelago.
Nearly a year after the mutiny, Bligh was back in England and before an Admiralty angered that one of His Majesty's vessels had been pirated. Pandora, a 513-ton, 24-gun frigate, set sail from England in 1790, commanded by Edward Edwards, a man whose demeanor was very close to Hollywood's portrayal of Bligh. He was ordered to "proceed as expeditiously as possible" into the vast reaches of the Pacific, there to track down the mutineers and bring them to justice.
The core rebel group of the Bounty, under Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, had found final refuge on the remote island of Pitcairn, where some of his descendants still live. But 14 others had stayed behind in Tahiti, and there Pandora's captain captured them with ease. On deck, Edwards ordered the construction of a claustrophobic, sun-seared cell--dubbed "Pandora's Box"--into which the prisoners were placed. The box soon crawled with maggots and stank of human waste. With his prisoners manacled, and unable to find the other mutineers, Edwards set sail for home.
||A map of Australia's Cape York Peninsula shows location of the Pandora wrecksite.(Courtesy Queensland Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]
On the dark night of August 29, 1791, trying to navigate a safe passage through the Great Barrier Reef, Pandora struck an isolated outcrop of submerged coral, wrestled with the sea until dawn and then succumbed.
"Never fear, my boys, we'll all go to hell together," yelled the master of arms when the prisoners begged him to free them from the box. As the vessel sank, a more humane crewman did unbolt the cell; ten of the 14 mutineers survived, along with 89 of the ship's company. Back in England the mutineers were tried. Four were acquitted, three hanged, two pardoned and one freed on a technicality. On the other side of the world, off the very wild and remote (then and now) northeastern tip of Australia, Pandora rested on the sea bottom.
On November 16, 1977, Australian film maker Ben Cropp and American-born naturalist Steve Domm found the wreck after extensive archival digging by one of Domm's associates, Australian filmmaker John Heyer, and a difficult search involving divers and airborne magnetometers flown by the Royal Australian Air Force. The latter honed in on the vessel's iron guns and metallic ballast.
Two years later a preliminary archaeological assessment survey was carried out, and Pandora received government protection under the Historic Shipwrecks Act of 1976. This legislation safeguards th estimated 5,000 wrecks off the Australian coast that are 75 or more years old.
Work on the Pandora began in earnest in 1984, with Gesner, curator of the Maritime Archaeology and Shipwreck Survey Section of the Queensland Museum, participating in the effort from the start. Although educated in terrestrial archaeology and history at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, the Hong Kong-born Dutchman was bitten by the underwater bug while diving on a wreck off Jordan in the 1970s. He looked around for a place to pursue his newfound passion and ended up in Australia.
Gesner describes the Pandora as a "marine Pompeii," covered not by volcanic ash but by another great preserver, sand. "It's a class I wreck" he says, "went down in one piece, settled on the bottom, and remained generally undisturbed. On the Pandora we have a snapshot, a frozen moment which can be excavated, reconstructed, researched and displayed."
|Isometric view of Pandora's upper deck (after John McKay, Courtesy Queensland Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]
For more than a decade Gesner and his team have been trying to develop this snapshot as clearly as possible. Eight expeditions have been mounted, with three more planned, the last scheduled for 2001. The excitement has mounted with each season as more of the ship has been discovered and in better condition than had first been expected. And some 70 percent of the wreck still awaits exploration.
There are no current plans to recover the remains of Pandora, about 30 percent of the original structure, but with enough funds--possibly as much as $60 million--the copper-sheathed hull could be brought to the surface and put on display like the seventeenth-century Swedish warship Vasa or England's sixteenth-century Mary Rose.
"Pandora should be raised to become Australia's Mary Rose," one visitor wrote after seeing an exhibition which has traveled through the country since 1995. Assembled to educate the public, the show includes a number of the ship's artifacts, 14 photographic panels and a video.
The exhibition also helped raise some of the $2 million the recently formed Pandora Foundation has on hand to complete retrieval and conservation of the ship's contents by 2001. A new wing of the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville in North Queensland, scheduled to open several months before the Sydney Olympics in September 2000, will serve as a permanent repository for the artifacts-- just over 2,000 of which have been recovered and registered to date--along with associated research material.
Systematic excavation began during the 1984 expedition, when the site was divided into grid lanes and movable, 6-by-6-foot aluminum grid frames. To locate and profile the 114-foot wreck, a sonar survey was carried out. The survey showed that about a quarter of the hull was still intact although its exact condition couldn't be determined.
That year, clusters of items from the officers' cabins in the stern were also uncovered, and their locations recorded to the nearest quarter-inch like all other objects subsequently found on the wreck and surrounding sea floor.
||Diver records location of artifacts on the seafloor. (Gary Cranitch, Queensland Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]
It soon became clear that much of the vessel had been quickly sealed with sand and did not appear to have been attacked by borers, sedimentary bacteria, or man. Over the years, the forecastle, quarterdeck and upper deck rotted away but the rest of the hull--the lower and platform decks--had lodged itself, layer upon layer, beneath the sand.
From historical records it was known that each of the ship's decks had its special function: the hold was used to store water and spare parts; crewmen kept their personal gear on the platform decks; most cabins were located on the lower deck; the upper deck housed the captain's cabin, day room, and galley; the functions of steering and command were carried out on the quarterdeck. Thus, as Gesner and his team sifted their way downward, layer by layer, deck by deck, determining where all the items recovered were at the time of the disaster, a wonderful portrait of Pandora and its crew began to emerge.
"It was like entering a room which had been locked for 200 years," said Gesner after the 1997 expedition, 22 on-site days during which 500 artifacts were recovered. The focus was the captain's storeroom, from which sand was carefully removed. The first feature the team came upon was shelving built by the ship's carpenter and containing some of Captain Edwards' creamware dinner service, blue and white bowls as well as wine glasses and tumblers. On the floor stood rows of ceramic jars, many still corked and packed in sawdust. They had probably contained essence of spruce, used to brew "spruce beer," used for preventing scurvy in the eighteenth century. Checking the ship's logs against finds, Gesner's team believes the some 100 jars recovered were among the 343 "pots of essence of spruce" taken aboard.
Skeletal remains of a crew member were also found within the storeroom, and nearby two fancy shoe buckles, some buttons and two wax seals the hapless sailor may have carried in his jacket pocket. One of the seals, or intaglios, is stamped with a warrior's head--possibly Hannibal--and was manufactured by the renowned firm of Wedgwood & Bentley. The other shows Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders.
Intriguing items surface each season. Among the 489 objects recovered during the 1996 expedition was a clump encased in marine growth. When conservators removed the encrustation, they found a lead letter stamp with "LARKIN" inscribed in mirror image. It confirmed the suspected location of First Lieutenant John Larkin's cabin, and the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth, England, subsequently described the stamp as the first of its kind found from the eighteenth century.
"The wreck's condition is much better than expected and further excavation will reveal other storerooms in the same state of preservation as the captain's," says Gesner. Still to be explored are the storerooms of the officers, carpenter, bosun, gunner and steward; and, probably the most significant archaeologically, the living areas used by the ordinary crew.
|Among the artifacts recovered from the wreck were more than 100 jars of spruce essence used to brew a scurvy preventative. (Courtesy Queensland Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]
Work on any sunken vessel is fraught with problems, but those Pandora presents are particularly difficult. For a start, the site is a long way from nowhere, making the operation a logistical nightmare and extremely expensive. The cost of a charter boat alone is some $4,500 a day. Each expedition is limited by funds and weather conditions. None have been longer than 40 days. Oddly, the chances of getting sustained periods of calm weather are most favorable during the cyclone season, from December to April.
Once underway, divers face what they call the "washing machine"--strong, swirling, unpredictable currents. Also, the depth of the wreck allows less than 20 minute on the bottom each dive when scuba is used. With compressed air supplied by the ship the time that divers can safely stay below is doubled.
"There is another potential for danger," says Gesner. "You realize you're the first person to see it after 200 years and you get carried away, and ignore the beeper indicating that it is time to surface." Meanwhile, the vessel's rear deck is a beehive of activity as divers bring up items from the seabed in plastic crates and turn them over to an on-board conservation laboratory, where they are immediately reimmersed in seawater. Metal objects and concretions are treated with corrosion inhibitors; some items are partially cleaned on site, all on an often rolling deck.
Should some generous benefactor come up with the sums needed to bring up, conserve, and display the Pandora's hull, a mini-armada of barges, cranes and workers would have to make their way to the remote Cape York waters. One imaginative, but probably impractical proposal, is to envelop the entire site in a caisson-like container, bring it up and excavate the hull on land with water still inside the container while videotaping the entire process.
Despite handicaps, work on the Pandora has already yielded artifacts that are more important than the hull itself. "`It's such a meaty wreck," Gesner says, taking me through the storage area of the Queensland Museum where some of the finest recovered items are kept in specially made boxes. Among them are a telescope, a gold and silver pocket watch which may have belonged to George Hamilton, the ship's surgeon; a rum shot glass and a cocoa cup with an almost contemporary design--"I thought someone had played a joke on us and bought one at Woolworths and buried it," Gesner jokes.
The storehouse is bulging: a fireplace from an officer's cabin, sand-timers to determine the speed of the vessel, a sandstone basin to purify water, and three of the ship's 24 cannons.
We move on to the conservation room to examine five ornate Polynesian war clubs, raised in 1986 and 1995. To maintain their consolidation, the artifacts were dried out very slowly, then heated and impregnated with polyethylene glycol (PEG), a preservative which displaces the salt water, is absorbed by the items. The clubs were worked on for more than six years before becoming stable enough to be handled with gloves. A heavily encrusted brass field telescope will take at least 1,000 hours of conservation work.
||Divers clear sediment from a cache of Polynesian war clubs. (Gary Cranitch, Queensland Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]
Conservation is painstaking, but the hardest part is the interpretation. "The final analysis of it all will probably take 20 years," Gesner says.
Gesner is especially interested in details of the social fabric and daily life of the sailors and those who sailed to the South Pacific for exotic discovery and scientific inquiry. The vessel sank towards the end of this era, which began in the 1740s and reached its apogee with the voyages of James Cook, the great British navigator was killed by Hawaiian natives 12 years before Pandora's final voyage. "We're actually excavating Cook by proxy," Gesner says. "Life on board his ships was about the same and technology did not change very fast in those days," .
Souvenirs were an important aspect of ship life. During this era, British gentlemen collectors would send their lackeys to departing ships, tip the sailors and ask them to pick up handicraft items and other "curiosities" while in the South Pacific. On return, they would be paid a welcome sum that supplemented their meager wages, or they might keep the artifacts as mementos. The seamen would take along nails, axes, tools and glass beads to exchange with the natives for the collectibles, as well as food and the favors of Polynesian women.
The five wooden Polynesian clubs, uncovered from the area of Larkin's cabin along with an assortment of items labeled "artificial curiosities," were almost certainly from Tonga where either sharks' teeth or iron nails were used in the eighteenth century to produce intricate surface carvings on the clubs, which were probably used for ceremonial purposes.
Gesner says that even at the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Hawaii most of the great Polynesian collection is not securely dated. But artifacts off Pandora, like the clubs, can be pinpointed in time. So can the tourniquet clamp, syringes for treatment of venereal disease and other items from the doctor's medicine chest, which add to knowledge about health and hygiene aboard His Majesty's vessels.
Pandora's anchor, visible on the seafloor (© Ashley J. Boyd, courtesy Queensland Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]
It's not easy keeping up with the material that must be cataloged, photographed, researched and conserved. Gesner is also worried about someone damaging the Pandora with an errant anchor or pilfering its treasures." A wreck is like a 1,000-page book. If somebody comes along and tears out a few pages for the illustrations, nobody coming afterwards can read it in its entirety," he says.
Its remoteness offers perhaps the best protection. And, there are rules about dropping anchors in its vicinity, while a special permit, difficult to obtain, is required to dive on the site.
Our own inspection of the Pandora ended at a concrete obelisk set into the sea floor during the 1993 expedition. "The 24-gun frigate Pandora was sent into the South Pacific," an inscription on the plinth reads. "This monument contains the skeletal remains of one of Pandora's crew who perished."
These remains, three-quarters of a skeleton found in 1986, are believed to be those of one of two crewmen killed as the ship was rolling on the reef. One was struck by a falling beam, the other by a gun carriage. The remains appear to have been wrapped up with some material, and it is thought that the victim was taken to a lower deck to preserve morale until he could be buried.
As we began our slow ascent from the plinth, I saluted, both the unknown sailor and those bringing the Pandora back to life.
||A monument containing the remains of one of Pandora's crew members was erected at the wrecksite during the 1993 dive season. (© Ashley J. Boyd, courtesy Queensland Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]
Frank Sturgess is a freelance writer based in Thailand.
Click on the image for the Queensland Museum's HMS Pandora website. (Courtesy Queensland Museum)
© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America