An Australian archaeologist is searching the far north of Scotland for the relatives of 7 men killed in a shipwreck on the Great Barrier Reef with apprehended HMS Bounty mutineers on board. The DNA of modern day Orkney Islanders with the same surname as the sailors will determine whether the remains of 3 bodies recovered from the ocean off Australia are those of the missing men.
History’s most infamous mutiny occurred aboard HMS Bounty in April 1789, led by Fletcher Christian against the ship’s captain Lieutenant William Bligh. One of the suspected ringleaders was Orkney Islander (Orcadian) George Stewart, who was captured and imprisoned with 13 other men on board the Royal Navy frigate HMS Pandora (in a makeshift prison below decks known as ‘Pandora’s Box’).
The Pandora, and her crew of 134, had been sent to recover the Bounty, capture the mutineers, and return them to England for trial. They had captured the 14 men in Tahiti in March 1791 where they had been living as ‘beachcombers’, many of them having fathered children with local women. After a fruitless search for the Bounty and the remaining mutineers in the South Pacific, the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef and sank in August 1791. Four of the prisoners, including George Stewart, and 31 of the Pandora’s crew drowned; among them were Orcadians William Croy, Robert Fea, James Gordon, Richard Mackay, James Miller and George Eglington. The remaining crew and prisoners escaped in open boats, but only 88 of the original 148 eventually returned home.
The wreck of the Pandora was discovered in 1977 and was gradually excavated. The remains of the 3 unidentified bodies were recovered between 1995 and 2000, and recent advances in genetic analysis have allowed scientists to sequence their DNA. Australian archaeologist Peter Gesner, who led the series of expeditions to the Pandora wreck in the late 1990s, is now visiting Orkney to begin the search for their relatives through DNA matching. He also plans to present the story at the Orkney International Science Festival in September.
The director of the Festival, Howie Firth, told the Scotsman,
“All the Orcadians lost in the tragedy match the age profile of the skeletons. Genealogy is the next step in the process…The three front runners are the Croys, the Mackays and the Millers because there are a good local pool of those names to work from. We want to find people with the right surnames still living on the island. The men from Orkney who died in the tragedy were all unmarried and are unlikely to have had children. But they may have had brothers and cousins. Once we have found the links, DNA tests can be carried out to make the link and identify those from the Pandora.”
Archaeologist working on the wreck of HMS Pandora and replica scene at the Museum of Tropical Queensland of prisoners’ attempt to escape ‘Pandora’s Box’