Literary Yard

Search for meaning

BEN BOYD: A cautionary tale of slavery, whaling, and cannibalism

By: James Aitchison

The British Empire threw up hundreds of bizarre individuals who set out to find fame and fortune

in remote corners of the earth.  Scotsman Benjamin Boyd (1801-1851) was an ambitious young London stockbroker whose thirst for adventure and riches knew no limits.  Born in Scotland with aristocratic connections, Boyd cut a flamboyant, imposing figure.  Like others of his generation, Britain’s far-flung colonies held the promise of wealth and success.  Boyd set his sights on New South Wales.

      Before sailing to Sydney, Boyd floated the Royal Bank of Australia in 1839 and sold debentures to unsuspecting investors to the tune of two hundred thousand pounds.  His pockets appropriately stuffed, Boyd sailed from Plymouth in his schooner Wanderer and reached the fledgling colony at Sydney in July 1842.  

      The arrival of his schooner created a stir.  People lined the shores of Sydney Harbor to watch it sail majestically to its dock.  Having commanded public attention from the outset, Boyd was on the path to fame and success.

      His first objective was to open the Sydney branch of his Royal Bank.  He selected Church Hill, upon which stood the colony’s first church.  While Boyd’s bank appeared legitimate, its funds were fraudulently used to finance his personal activities.  He then established a coastal paddle-steamer service on the southern route to the whaling port of Twofold Bay and Hobart.  

      Becoming a gentleman pastoralist was his next ambition.  By May 1844, Boyd was one of the largest squatters in the colony, with 380,000 acres of cattle runs and sheep stations to his name.  By that time, Boyd and Company operated three steamers and three sailing ships on the coastal run.  He was elected to the Legislative Council in September 1844.  Boyd was firmly established as one of the colony’s landed gentry.

      Whaling was his next enterprise.  His ambitions were centered on Twofold Bay, the third deepest natural harbor in the Southern Hemisphere.  Located three hundred miles south of Sydney, whaling had flourished there since 1791.  Soon Boyd had six whalers engaged in the lucrative trade.  His stature in the colony grew immeasurably, as did his self-worth.

      It was at Twofold Bay that Boyd’s flamboyance was given full rein.  Boyd determined to establish a port that would be named, unsurprisingly, Boydtown.  Vast sums from his bank were spent on founding the town complete with a steepled church, a 75-feet-high lighthouse tower that bore his name carved in stone, and a 300-foot-long jetty.  

      Nothing, it seemed, was impossible for Boyd.  

      With convict labor obtained as a favour through local officials, he commenced building the most elegant hotel in the colony.  It was a confection of Elizabethan, Tudor and Georgian architecture, with hand-carved doors, stained glass windows, winding staircases, large open grates, gothic arches and attic bedrooms.  Sandstone foundations from Sydney were shipped to Boydtown and carried from the shore by bullock wagon.  Convicts constructed the building from local stone, red bricks from clay quarried nearby, and pit-sawn hardwood.  The cedar and oak fittings were imported from England.  It was a folly of mighty proportions.

      Ironically, the whale oil industry at Boydtown prospered thanks to an unusual relationship between whales and whalers.  Killer whales — orcas — are predators that feast on all manner of sea mammals, seals, sea lions, and even whales twice their size.  The orcas which lived near Twofold Bay observed that humans were interested in killing Southern right whales.  After extracting whale oil and other products, whalers tossed the remains back into the sea, and into the mouths of orcas.  The orcas soon became whale “spotters” for the whalers, thrashing the water to signal that right whales were passing by.  After the whaling boats set out for the kill, the orcas circled for their effortless feasts.

      Boyd expanded his empire with supreme confidence, but slavery would prove a bridge too far.  

      In April 1847, desperate to obtain cheap labour for his cattle runs, Boyd imported a shipload of 65 Melanesians to Boydtown.  Without realising it, Boyd would forever be remembered for pioneering the practice of “blackbirding”.  (Over a 50-year period, 60,000 Pacific Islanders would later be coerced into slave labour on the Queensland cane fields.)  

      Boyd’s natives arrived naked and clearly confused.  The Boydtown magistrate investigated.  Boyd provided “contracts”, showing that the Islanders had put their marks on the documents, binding them to work for five years in Boyd’s service.  The magistrate refused to countersign the papers.

      It made little difference.  The hapless Islanders were despatched to Boyd’s properties.  Two more shipments of South Sea Islanders arrived in September and October.  Many absconded, begging to return home.  Soon they were wandering the streets of Sydney, starving and destitute.  Questions were asked.  An official enquiry learned that violence, kidnap and murder were used during the Islanders’ recruitment.  Boyd justified his actions by pointing to the African slave trade.  

      Boyd’s lack of remorse and arrogance shocked colonial society.  Boyd, it appeared, was a law unto himself.    

      Free settlers had long sought an end to the transportation of convicts from England; they found the importation of South Sea slaves distinctly unpalatable.  Besides, Britain had banned slavery in 1833.  

      Shortly after, the colonial authorities acted to ban the importation of “the Natives of any Savage or uncivilized tribe inhabiting any Island or Country in the Pacific”.  With more of his Islanders roaming the streets around Sydney harbour, desperate for transport back to their homelands, Boyd refused to take any further responsibility for them.  The once-admired entrepreneur found himself on the wrong side of public opinion.    

      In fact, time was running out for Boyd.  

      He needed slaves to underpin his increasingly expensive operations.  He lost two lawsuits for the insurance money when one of his vessels was wrecked.  Boydtown was bleeding money, and all construction stopped.  Meanwhile, the accusations of slavery had irrevocably damaged his reputation and his ability to raise funds.  

      The final blow came when shareholders of his Royal Bank did not receive their dividends.  Liquidators were called in.  They soon discovered that the bank’s capital was lost and all that remained was a deficit of eighty thousand pounds.

      In characteristic style, Boyd turned his back on Sydney and set out on his schooner Wanderer for California, where he spent an unsuccessful year on the gold diggings.  In his wake he left a crumbling business empire and angry creditors.

      His ultimate act of bravado came in 1851 when he set sail for the Pacific islands to establish a South Sea republic.  Perhaps he had forgotten how his men had treated the Islanders.  Perhaps he believed in his own supremacy.  On 15 October Boyd went ashore on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands to shoot game.  Two shots were heard.  Boyd did not return.  Fearing the worst, the crew of the Wanderer turned muskets, swivel guns and grapeshot on the local population.  His crew raided and destroyed several villages but all that was found of Boyd was his belt.

      In 1854 another attempt was made to find the missing entrepreneur.  The expedition learned that Boyd had indeed been taken prisoner.  After his crew’s violent actions, he was executed.  The fact that his head was kept in a ceremonial house indicated that he had met a grisly end at the hands of cannibals.


Boyd’s legacy survives to this day, but not as he would have wanted it.  Boydtown is now a sprawling caravan park.  His whaling tower still stands, surrounded by wild bush.  However his luxury hotel was refurbished and is now a luxurious boutique destination.  In that respect at least, Boyd was a visionary ahead of his time.  

      In 1971, the Ben Boyd National Park was proclaimed, in honour of the colourful entrepreneur.  However, in light of the Black Lives Matter campaign and Boyd’s association with slavery, the National Park has carried a new name since 2022: Beowa, chosen by the indigenous elders of the area.

      Boyd’s footprint in the early colonial days had been significant, and might have endured; nowadays though, he is merely a footnote in Australian history.

Leave a Reply

Related Posts