Edward Edwards (Royal Navy officer)

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Admiral Edward Edwards (1742–1815) was a British naval officer best known as the captain of HMS Pandora,[1] the frigate which the Admiralty sent to the South Pacific in pursuit of the Bounty mutineers.

Biography[edit]

The early years[edit]

The fifth of six children, Edward Edwards was born in Water Newton, a village near Peterborough, to Richard Edwards of Water Newton and Mary Fuller of Caldicot. He was born in 1742 and christened in St Remegius Church, Water Newton. He never married.

On 7 September 1759, age 17, he was commissioned as a lieutenant. To qualify for this commission he would have been required, in addition to passing a lieutenant’s exam, to produce evidence of at least six years of sea time. No documents have been located to date which would establish exactly when, and under whose patronage, he started his naval career. It is likely he first went to sea as a captain's servant when about 10 years old and subsequently completed at least part of the required sea time as a midshipman.

His naval career after he was commissioned included service in the following ships, before being appointed to Pandora:

Pandora and the Bounty[edit]

He spent the following six years on half-pay after the end of the American Revolutionary war; until 6 August 1790, when he was appointed to take command of the frigate Pandora. He received new orders on 11 August to prepare his new command for a journey to "remote parts", on a mission in pursuit of the Bounty mutineers.

With the help of former Bounty midshipman Thomas Hayward - a Bligh loyalist recently returned to England from the South Pacific - Edwards succeeded in finding fourteen mutineers, but the Pandora foundered on the Great Barrier Reef on 29 August 1791 during the journey home from the South Pacific. Four mutineers and 31 of Pandora '​s crew died in the destruction of the ship. After an arduous open boat voyage from the wreck to Timor and on to Batavia (Jakarta), only 78 men of Pandora '​s original 134-strong crew eventually reached England, accompanied by ten mutineers. For Hayward this was the second time in as many years that had he found himself in an open boat making for a safe haven in the Dutch East Indies.

Edwards was court-martialled on 17 September 1792 for the loss of the Pandora. Immediately prior to the proceedings, he submitted to the Admiralty his account of the events leading up to the sinking. All of his officers supported Edwards' contention that the frigate had been lost due to circumstances beyond anyone's control.

The court-martial was attended by William Dillon, then a midshipman, who later became a vice-admiral in the Royal Navy and described Edwards in his memoirs as a "fine, venerable- looking officer. His appearance completely absorbed all my attention during the trial, and I felt an inward satisfaction at the result, after all the hardships and dangers he had overcome".

Captain Edwards and his officers were exonerated and subsequently Edwards served for a few years as a 'regulating' captain (recruiting officer) in Argyll and Hull and then resigned himself to inactivity on the half pay list. However, he was promoted to vice-admiral in 1809 and eventually ended his career as admiral of the white, titularly the third most senior officer in the Royal Navy. He died aged 73 in 1815 and was buried in St Remigius Church in Water Newton, a village in Huntingdonshire.

His reputation and character were effectively blackened by members of the Heywood family, who were unable to forgive him for what they perceived as excessively harsh treatment of their son, Bounty midshipman Peter Heywood, who was tried and convicted as a mutineer and pardoned. Yet Edwards had staunch supporters among other officers who had served under his command and he was also remembered by his niece as a "sweet old man", often out on a walk in the country lanes around his native Water Newton and Uppingham where he owned several farms. According to an obituary in the Lincoln, Stamford & Rutland Mercury (21 April 1815), he suffered for the rest of his life from the effects of the hardships he endured during the open boat voyage to Timor after the loss of the Pandora. This could be the reason the Admiralty never appointed him to a seagoing command after his court-martial in 1792.

Legacy[edit]

Notwithstanding his niece's fond memories, Edwards' conduct on the Pandora has been regarded in some circles as every bit as cruel as popular opinion claims that William Bligh was on the Bounty.[2] Edwards, as ordered, kept his captives in close confinement, as if they had already been convicted, in spite of the fact that four of them had been identified by Bligh as being innocent and were subsequently acquitted at the court martial in Portsmouth.

Edwards was accused of being excessively callous when it came to the captives' well-being - for instance by refusing to let them use an old sail to prevent them from being sunburned on a sand cay, and also by collectively referring to, and treating them all as mutineers and pirates. Indeed one of his officers, Lieutenant John Larkan (1746–1830), is alleged to have been "brutal" to the prisoners, which Edwards allegedly condoned.[3]

One of Edwards' main detractors was Commodore Sir Thomas Pasley, convicted mutineer Peter Heywood’s uncle, whose measured tone in one of his letters to Heywood leaves no doubt about his disapproval of 'that fellow' Edwards; he was especially critical of the prisoners' confinement in 'Pandora's Box'. Pasley omits to mention how he would have handled the situation had command been his. Presumably he might have occasionally let the prisoners out of their captivity location; thus, midshipmen Stewart and Heywood might have been allowed to spend some time walking the quarterdeck, as Peter Heywood was permitted to do after his transhipment to HMS Gorgon in Cape Town during the last stage of his voyage home. Much was made of this by Heywood’s friends and defenders during his court martial, as if to underscore their plea that Edwards' conduct towards the prisoners had been excessively harsh and that Heywood had already suffered disproportionately and therefore had, in fact, already been punished.

Most damningly, Edwards is often accused of excessive callousness towards the prisoners by keeping all of them locked up in the prison cell after the frigate had run aground. However, this overlooks the fact that three prisoners were immediately ordered out of the cell to help the crew man the pumps; while several hours later, after the decision had been made to abandon ship because she could not be saved, Edwards gave orders to release the remaining prisoners. To this end Joseph Hodges, the armourer's mate, was subsequently ordered into the cell to knock off the prisoners irons, but he was not able to complete the job because the ship sank very quickly.

On the other hand there is substantial documentary evidence that contradicts the critical view of Edwards' actions, suggesting instead that he was fair and even-handed when it came to dealing with his prisoners and exercising the responsibilities of his command. In this respect it is noteworthy to cite the positive opinion the Pandora '​s midshipman James Atkins had of his commanding officer's conduct; this was reported in May 1792 from Harwich, where Atkins had returned, having been one of the 16 Pandoras who accompanied Lieutenant John Larkan in the VOC ship Zwaan. Larkan’s group had been the first group of Pandora survivors to leave Batavia and to reach England via The Netherlands.

Even though six of the captives were found guilty of mutiny, only three of them -Millward, Burkitt and Ellison- were eventually executed; William Muspratt was acquitted on a legal technicality and the remaining two, Peter Heywood and James Morrison were subsequently pardoned by the King.

Edwards' search for the mutiny ringleaders ultimately proved fruitless, but his voyages might have provided clues to the fate of one of the 18th century's greatest mysteries, the fate of the Lapérouse expedition. When passing Vanikoro, Santa Cruz Islands in the Pacific Ocean on 13 August 1791, smoke signals were observed rising from the island. However Edwards, who was only interested in prisoners, reasoned that mutineers fearful of discovery would not be advertising their whereabouts, so he ignored the smoke and sailed on. Sven Wahlroos, in his 1989 book, "Mutiny and Romance in the South Seas", suggests that the smoke signals were almost certainly a distress message sent by survivors of the Lapérouse expedition, which later evidence indicated were still alive on Vanikoro at that time; three years after the Boussole and Astrolabe had foundered in 1788.[4]

Later life[edit]

Edwards is said to have retired to Cornwall; according to a story linking him to the 'Pandora Inn' along Restronguet Creek near Mylor, which he is alleged to have owned and renamed after retiring from the Navy. However, there is no documentary evidence to support this claim. Rather, together with a story about a figurehead adorning the Inn's stairwell, said to be based on an 18th-century original from the Pandora; this claim can be confidently refuted and relegated to the realm of creative copy-writing to advertise the inn, which according to cadastral records was called 'The Passage House' until 1851, following the death of Alexander Luben, tenant and Restronguet Passage boatman from 1823 until his death in 1848.

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Pandora
  2. ^ Pandora FAQ.
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ Wahlroos, Sven, "Mutiny and Romance in the South Seas", Salem House Publishers, c/o Harper & Row, New York, NY, 1989

External links[edit]