Orkney clues to Pandora’s secrets?

A hunt is on for Orcadian links to the warship Pandora, wrecked off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef more than two centuries ago. The investigation brings in archaeology, history, genealogy and forensic science.

The Pandora was sent to the South Pacific in pursuit of the Bounty mutineers, and there were 14 of them aboard when she went down in August 1791. One, who died in the wreck, was George Stewart from Stromness, believed to have been one of the ringleaders.

Thirty-one of the Pandora’s crew were lost – with six Orcadians among them. These were men who had been forced into the Royal Navy by the press gang.

The skeletal remains of three bodies have been recovered from the wreck, but are so far unidentified. However, a new breakthrough in DNA analysis made by an Australian PhD student has made it possible to sequence DNA from heavily waterlogged remains. So the search is on for family connections, and an Australian archaeologist is coming to Orkney in search of clues.

Peter Gesner led a series of expeditions to the Pandora wreck in the late 1990s, when he was senior curator of maritime history at the Queensland Museum. He says that from the location of the three bodies, it is likely that they were crewmen.

Analysis of the bones has given the men’s age and height, and from the recorded description of the Orcadian crew, several could fit. The next step for Peter Gesner is to seek out any links to existing Orkney families and ask if DNA tests can be made for comparison.

The six who died on the Pandora were William Cray (probably Croy), Robert Fea, George Eglington, James Gordon, Richard Mackie (probably Mackay) and James Miller. Two others from Orkney, James Murray and James Scott, had died earlier on the voyage, and William Steward (probably Stewart) and Hugh Houston (possibly Hourston) survived the wreck.

The Orcadian group were taken by HMS David in the late summer of 1790. J D M Robertson’s book The Press Gang in Orkney and Shetland describes the visit of the ship and the reluctance of the Orcadian authorities to lose men to the Navy. It may thus be that George Eglington, recorded as being taken in Kirkwall Roads, was not in fact Orcadian but simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

For others in the group, the links are a little more substantial. For instance, Peter Gesner has matched Richard Mackie with a Richard Mackey who was born in Stronsay in 1765.

He now wants to hear from anyone who may be descended from the Orcadians who were aboard the Pandora. He is coming on a short visit to Orkney this weekend and is then returning in September to give a full presentation of this story on Orkney International Science Festival’s closing day (Wednesday 12 September).

There is more information about the Pandora on the Queensland Museum website.

There is also a TV programme featuring Peter Gesner, following the progress of his team of divers on the wreck.