- A.N. Other
- Biographies and personal histories, History - pre-Federation
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
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- September 2022 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Walter Burroughs
The French Revolution of 1789 declared ‘All men are born and remain free and equal in rights’. This virtually brought about the end of slavery but it was many more years before the practice finally ceased. This is important to this story which progresses through the period of changes in the provision of labour from slaves, transportation, indentures and migration.
The Ben Boyd National Park is to be found near the picturesque New South Wales coastal township of Eden1. In 1971 the park was established near Boydtown comprising 10,400 ha (25,700 acres). It has an interesting maritime history but changes are afoot as the name, no longer considered politically correct, is being changed in favour of a more appropriate indigenous title.
The latest published information from the NSW Department of Planning & Environment website says: ‘The next step is listening to and speaking with Elders, Aboriginal community representatives and Australian South Sea Islander representatives, in consultation with Bega Valley Shire Council and inviting their suggestions on a new name for the park. There is no time limit and consultation will not be rushed’.
Time for Change
Far distant events in Britain and the United States may have aroused local interest. In particular, on 25 May 2020 in Minneapolis a 46-year-old African-American, George Floyd, was forcibly detained and brutally killed by a white male police officer. When this event was broadcast via news media it led to global protests against police brutality, police racism, and a lack of police accountability.
In the English city of Bristol, the event took on a physical dimension when a statue of one of its most prominent citizens, Edward Colston (1636-1721), was defaced, toppled and thrown into a river. This was in retaliation for Colston’s association with the slave trade. A prominent merchant, Colston had indeed prospered from the slave trade which took native Africans to work in West Indian and American plantations. In a contemporary setting this is unthinkable but during that period it was an accepted method of providing labour.
Amongst his peers Colston was considered an upright character. He was a Member of Parliament and a philanthropist who did much to benefit the local community by establishing almshouses, hospitals, schools and churches. At his death he left a considerable portion of his fortune to charity. However, in present times and with a changing society, now including many of West Indian descent, the protest was heard and the centuries old Colston School is to change its name. This had not escaped the notice of those in the antipodes.
Benjamin Boyd (1797-1851) was the second son of a wealthy Scottish shipowner whose father, like others of those times, was involved in transporting African slaves. Benjamin moved to London where he became a stockbroker. Using an imposing appearance, skilled oratory and aristocratic connections to his advantage, commercial success followed. By age 23 Benjamin was a self-made man with a personal fortune of £200,000. He carefully planned an expedition to the Australian colonies, for which he acquired ships and provisioned these to establish a new settlement. In 1839 he floated the Royal Bank of Australia through a series of debentures. Benjamin already had family connections in the colonies with cousins Archibald and William Boyd taking up squatting licences.
Boyd spent a great deal of his fortune on an ocean-going luxury yacht Wanderer which he purchased from the industrialist Lord Allendale. At 145 tons she was a vessel of exquisite proportions, with admirable sailing qualities and luxurious accommodation. The acquisition of Wanderer gained Boyd membership of the prestigious Royal Yacht Squadron. As part of the privileges of membership, his vessel wore the White Ensign and was exempt from port dues.
Wanderer, rigged as an armed schooner with six swivel mounted brass guns, sailed from Plymouth on 23 December 1841 calling at South America and the Cape, and arrived at Port Jackson on 18 July 1842. In addition to a crew of 14 under a professional sailing master, were his brother James Boyd, Doctor Hargood, Oswald Brierly2 (later Sir Oswald), and Adam Bouge and Henry Downes, who were to command ships in Boyd’s whaling fleet. Their arrival at Port Jackson was greeted by his steamers Cornubia, Juno and Seahorse and sailing vessels Velocity and Ventura, which had all preceded him with supplies for this great enterprise.
A few years later he was one of the largest landowners in the country with fourteen cattle-runs and sheep stations comprising over 2,000,000 acres (over 800,000 hectares) of land; he also had three steamers and three sailing ships in commission. His ships worked between Boydtown, Sydney, Melbourne and Tasmania. They brought wool from Boydtown to Neutral Bay where he had his main residence, Craignathan3, and a store and wool-washing facility, in preparation for shipments to London.
He spent large sums on founding Boydtown on Twofold Bay on the south-eastern coast of NSW. This included a 300-foot jetty and a 75-foot lighthouse (which was also used for whale spotting). The township had a church, storehouse, brick-built houses, and a hotel. Oswald Brierly managed Boyd’s pastoral and shipping interests from Twofold Bay where he was also a magistrate. But with Boyd’s approaching bankruptcy, in 1848 Brierly accepted an invitation to join HMS Rattlesnake on an expedition through the Barrier Reef to New Guinea.
Boyd had taken over an existing whaling station established by George Imlay in the 1830s. He had grown the business with eight whalers working from Boydtown. These were deep sea vessels and they were supplemented by a number of shore-based boats. Of these whalers, Lucy Ann had at one time provided an uncomfortable berth for Herman Melville, the famed author of Moby Dick.
With the phasing out of the convict system there was a shortage of labour in the Australian colonies and in an attempt to provide an alternative source ‘recruiters’ found inexpensive indentured labour from the Pacific islands. This they did by encouraging unsuspecting islanders to join an all-expenses-paid working holiday scheme whereby they agreed to provide five years labour to an Australian master for the very low rate of 26 shillings per annum, with food, clothing and shelter provided by the master. This system, later known as ‘blackbirding’, became prevalent in Queensland where it was run by ruffian crews who exploited disadvantaged islanders.
Boyd used his own ship Velocity to bring back 65 islanders taken from Lifu in the Loyalty Islands (New Caledonia) and Tanna in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) in exchange for trade goods such as tobacco and knives. They arrived at Boydtown on 16 April 1847. The scheme was unsuccessful as many islanders escaped and only a few became shepherds on remote stations.
Boyd, however, was not given to failure. He persisted and a further group of 70 men brought out in Porenia, another of his ships, arrived in Sydney in September, and they were joined by a further 54 men and three women in a second voyage by Velocity in October 1847. When a magistrate refused to approve the indentures Boyd lost interest and the islanders were left very much to their own devices to find employment, with some returning home.
When things go wrong
Drought in New South Wales from 1837 to 1842 contributed to a catastrophic fall in land values and the onset of a depression, with government resources severely stretched, placing the financial system under great pressure. New businesses needed to be to be undertaken with great caution.
In 1843 Boyd’s steamer Seahorse ran aground in the Tamar River and was damaged beyond repair. An extensive insurance claim was made which was challenged by the insurers, alleging negligence of the Master. Boyd was saddled with the entire loss of £25,000. With his financial resources fully stretched dividends were cut, causing investors to question the financial viability of the enterprise.
The Royal Bank of Australia never carried out significant banking operations, instead its funds were used to support Boyd’s business enterprises. In 1846 the bank was liquidated with heavy losses sustained by depositors and shareholders. One of Boyd’s employees, Alexander Davidson, purchased the whaling business at a discounted price and this enterprise continued in business until 1929.
With creditors circling, on 26 October 1849 Boyd slipped out of Port Jackson to try his luck on the Californian goldfields. First calling at New Zealand, they loaded flour and sweet potatoes and made a small fortune selling these in San Francisco. As the diggings did not provide the anticipated profit Wanderer, with Boyd and now only six crew, sailed for the Pacific islands looking for new opportunities. A vague plan had been developed to form a South Pacific Republic based on the Solomon Islands.
John Webster, who was the sailing master of Wanderer on her fateful last voyage, wrote of his experiences. He tells us that in October 1851 Boyd with a companion went ashore on Guadalcanal in the Solomons to shoot pigeons for breakfast but they failed to return. The following day a search party found their boat and expended firearms cartridges. The ship was then attacked by natives resulting in desperate hand-to-hand combat in which Webster shot two natives. In trying to find their leader the crew became involved in a further altercation with the natives resulting in more natives being shot, their villages burnt and canoes smashed. With no further news of Boyd, the crew then left for Australia, arriving off the coast at Port Macquarie on 13 November 1851. Here they had the misfortune to strike the bar and Wanderer was severely damaged, becoming a total wreck, but the crew and some possessions were saved. The ship’s bell now resides in the vestibule of the headquarters of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, a stone’s throw from its owner’s original home at Craignathan.
With rumours persisting that Boyd was still alive the NSW Government provisioned an experienced island trader, Captain Lewis Truscott with his 43-ton cutter Oberon, to investigate. Oberon was shadowed by HMS Herald during her cruise throughout the region. The Truscott expedition was able to ascertain that Boyd was initially taken prisoner and later executed in retribution for the actions taken by Wanderer’s crew. Boyd’s head had been cut off and the skull kept in a ceremonial house. Truscott was able to purchase the skull for 25 hatchets and then returned with it to Sydney. Upon examination Australian doctors declared the skull was not Caucasian, accordingly it still resides as a curiosity within a cabinet in Sydney’s Australian Museum.
On a good-will Pacific cruise in late 1950 the frigate HMAS Culgoa (CMDR V.G. Jerram RAN) called at Honiara, Guadalcanal. Here the Resident Commissioner of the Solomons Protectorate, Mr H.G. Gregory-Smith, requested that Culgoa call at Wanderer’s Bay for a small ceremony marking the centenary of the fateful meeting between the adventurer Benjamin Boyd and the local people. The Resident Commissioner made an address to the residents and the ship’s company on the main features of the tragic encounter as recorded by John Webster.
Benjamin Boyd was born in the mould of merchant venturers of old, a visionary who had a dream of his place in an idealistic and prosperous new world. He was a dynamic leader who within a couple of years had become one of the largest landowners within the colonies. While dependent upon the money of investors in rapidly building this enterprise all was going well until the unfortunate loss of his ship Seahorse with the insurers refusing to accept the large claim. Nervous investors then caused the house of cards to fall with land being sold during a depression at a loss. With labour shortages Boyd sought alternatives but maintained he was never involved in the slave trade. He did whatever he could in keeping his business afloat, which at its peak employed 800 persons. Ironically he was killed by islanders similar to those he sought to recruit.
Whatever his faults Benjamin Boyd made his mark on Australian history and deserves to be remembered. Changing a name may appeal to some but does little to preserve an accurate historical record, or to make ourselves less tolerant of one another. It is poignant that a few years after his death gold was discovered in his beloved Australia and land prices boomed. The ultimate irony was that his glamour ship Wanderer bringing back news of her owner’s loss was herself wrecked when so near to home.
- The township of Eden is not named after some idyllic biblical garden setting but after George Eden, who as Lord Auckland became the First Lord of the Admiralty.
- Sir Oswald Walters Brierly became a famous marine artist and a favourite of Queen Victoria. He left behind some important images, especially evocative paintings of whaling carried out off Twofold Bay.
- Craignathan overlooking Neutral Bay was demolished in 1968 and is now the site of luxury apartments. A plaque to his memory was installed nearby but in 2020 the Council covered this up to avoid vandalism. Today the only reminder of his footsteps here is Ben Boyd Road.
- The term ‘blackbirding’ was unknown during Boyd’s lifetime and his experiment in recruiting island labour was a failure. No more was heard of this until the 1860s when islanders were brought to work on Queensland plantations. This grew into a business involving thousands of workers until it was made illegal in Australia in 1904.