From Scotland to Australia: Ben Boyd was a nasty piece of work

Benjamin Boyd

Walk around any town any place and it is extraordinary who does and who doesn’t get honoured – with statues, streets and squares named after them, public parks and so on.

I stumbled upon one Benjamin Boyd in the way that is usual for me –by reading about something entirely different. In this latest instance I was fair enjoying a rip-roaring melodrama written and set in Aberdeen in the 1800s called the King of Andaman. Incidental to the story is a reference to an adventurous fellow called Ben Boyd who started up the Royal Australia Bank. I didn’t know if this was fact or fiction so checked him out and discovered it was true and that old Ben was a bit of a scoundrel. Let me tell you about him.

Benjamin Boyd was born on 21 August 1803 in Wigtonshire and met his unexpected death not a day too soon in October 1851, in the Solomon Islands. During the intervening forty-eight years Benjamin Boyd made a fortune, lost a fortune, dabbled in politics and wrecked many a life. In short Benjamin Boyd was a truly nasty and despicable piece of work.

Born in Scotland to an English merchant and his wife at the family’s country estate in the southwest Ben was ascribed Scottish nationality while his brother, Mark, who was a writer as well as brother-in-crime is said to be English. This is all pretty well besides the point.

The Boyd children, there were more of them, grew up in the expectation that life was about getting rich. Benjamin who became a stockbroker in London soon cast an eye towards Australia which he viewed as the place to make his fortune. Australia had been claimed as British in the 18th century because it could. But what use was all this land so far from Britain if there weren’t skilled people to work and develop it? Obviously the racist British dismissed Australia’s indigenous population as being nothing less than a nuisance with no claim to the place they had occupied for tens of thousands of years.

The first British colony there was established in 1788 in what was named New South Wales – an area covering over half of mainland Australia. The first imported labour comprised American Loyalists, Chinese and South Sea Islanders but in a light bulb moment it was decided that transported prisoners from Britain would make ideal captive workers to establish agriculture and industries. Unlike the popular image of these unfortunates torn away from their families the people shipped thousands of miles were not uncouth vicious criminals but skilled artisans, farmers and the like convicted of petty misdemeanours. Before long fleets of ships brought consignments of men, women and children to turn this far off land into profit.   

 Australia was regarded as the ideal place to acquire fortunes on the cheap. Ben Boyd certainly thought so. He tried to buy up land in New South Wales but was resisted by the British authorities who were unwilling to sell to an individual; leasing was his option. As a merchant trader Boyd established harbours and coaling stations for his vessels in Australia. The finance he needed to setup came from the Royal Bank of Australia – Boyd’s own bank. He and his brother Mark had taken the precaution of raising money in London in 1839, prior to Ben’s move to Australia. They gave the bank an appropriate name, Royal Bank of Australia, and sold debentures of £200,00 – that is they raised funds through promises of good returns for investors and so suitably financed Ben Boyd sailed to Australia aboard his luxury schooner, Wanderer.

I should say just prior to this Boyd set up two businesses in addition to the bank; The Australian Wool Company and Boyd Brothers. As with dodgy companies today these two were essentially the same but under two names.

Boyd dispatched several vessels filled with merchandise prior to his journey so his arrival in Australia meant he had items to trade. Once landed in Australia Boyd established a branch of his Australian bank in Sydney, along with fellow entrepreneur, Joseph Phelps Robinson. At the same time, c.1844, he became a squatter – taking over huge tracts of land for grazing thousands of sheep and cattle. Boyd’s bank stayed buoyant long enough for the pair to add to their livestock holdings several times over and enabled them to lease extra millions of acres of land. The money Boyd used to pay for land, sheep, cattle, horses, houses etc was borrowed from his own bank – in short he was speculating with bank money.

Having acquired the land for next to nothing Boyd also expected labour to come for a song.  His plea to the British authorities was to provide cheap labour, virtually slave labour, to enhance profits from investing in Australia but despite having access to transported convict labour Boyd remained dissatisfied.

He suggested to the government and it agreed that he take (take as in compel)people from nearby island communities including Tanna (New Hebrides) and Lifu (Loyalty Islands.) Ships were sent and bullies hired to kidnap and ship to Australia fit men and women, blackbirding, who would be indentured to Boyd for 5 years. As for pay that was set at 26 shillings a year along with meat, trousers, two shirts and a Kilmarnock cap (non-islander shepherds were paid £10 annually plus meat and flour but no luxuries such as tea and sugar.) Nervous British authorities recognised Boyd’s kidnapping activities were illegal. Some islanders ran away and tried to return to their homes. Others became ill. All in all these unfortunate people suffered dreadfully and despite their distribution across a wide expanse of land an organised uprising occurred with bids for freedom. Boyd saw people only in terms of profit and having lost some of the original islanders he tried to replace them by kidnapping others. At this point the New South Wales Legislative Council stepped in to stop him. While this was progress it didn’t help islanders already abandoned in Australia unlikely ever to get back home. White settlers and the press demonised victim islanders – describing them as wild savages which is extraordinary given the savagery of Ben Boyd’s behaviour.  He, in turn, was furious that the authorities had denied him and that the very people he was exploiting failed to appreciate the opportunities he provided them with.

Boyd’s ruthless approach to making money attracted a large amount of criticism at the time but that hasn’t dented the apparent admiration later generations of Australians felt for the guy.

The town he set up was called, naturally, Boyd Town or Boydtown and established on Twofold Bay on the south coast of New South Wales. It was used to service Boyd’s farming interests. Here his livestock was butchered and processed by boiling and salting. In addition to houses and the essential stockyards the town had a hotel and church and, of course, a jetty several feet long as well as a lighthouse for the safety of Boyd’s merchant ships carrying mutton, beef, wool and skins to Britain. Always on the lookout for yet another source of cash Boyd also set up a whaling station with 9 or 10 sperm whalers.

Boyd’s house

Boyd’s decision to enter politics appears to have been pragmatic; to smooth the way for his business interests. Australia was attracting attention for its economic potential and Boyd got himself into a position of representing big farmers like himself. It’s clear he was ambitious and his ambitions ran away with him. He had fingers in numerous pies and he was secretive about his business activities which were obviously shady enough to be criminal. When his financial ship ran aground he was found to have lied about the business profits and in 1847 he was ousted by angry shareholders and replaced by yet another brother, William Sprott Boyd. This Boyd proved as unreliable as Benjamin and a couple of years later a liquidator took over. When in 1848 the debenchers who had funded the Royal Australian Bank were due to be paid back it was discovered the money was gone and Boyd’s property was seized as some kind of recompense. I’m fairly certain that the bulk of monies taken out of the failing bank were sent back to London to Boyd’s accounts there. Boyd’s murky financial deals were described by one of his contemporaries as a Chinese puzzle. It cannot be but argued that the bank he set up was a shell company to advance the Boyds. Both Ben and Mark were made bankrupt.

Smarting from his downfall in Australia Benjamin Boyd turned his attention to America and the lure of California’s gold rush in 1849 but when that didn’t work out he jumped back onboard his ship Wanderer to set up a republic in the Pacific Islands. As you do.

The deeply ingrained racism and hypocrisy that drove European colonisation was never far from Boyd’s thoughts. The Wanderer docked at Guadalcanal in the Solomons at San Christobal Island and early one morning Boyd disembarked for a spot of shooting. And disappeared.

Shots had been heard, presumably fired by Boyd. Who or what he shot at is not recorded but it was supposed that islanders dealt with this usurper – “wandering, perhaps, among antipodean savages, naked and tattooed, or perhaps tomahawked, or probably eaten!” A tough bite. During the day, before it was realised Boyd had disappeared, islanders had tried to coax the ship’s crew ashore. When they refused some attempted to board Wanderer but were fought off and killed. An armed party went ashore and found Boyd’s footprints surrounded by other prints along with a piece of his double barrelled rifle. They searched every house for miles but didn’t unearth Boyd. On its return to Australia Wanderer was wrecked in a storm.

Rumours persisted that Boyd still lived and was a prisoner. It was said his initials were seen carved on trees. Guadalcanal islanders claimed he was alive. A search was undertaken in 1854 but to no avail. More stories emerged – that Boyd had been killed by native islanders after their own folk were attacked by the crew of Wanderer; Boyd was said to have been hanged in the canoe house of King Tabula. Such accounts led to a reward being issued for Boyd’s skull and an enterprising native produced a skull. By the time it was realised the skull belonged to a long dead Papuan with perfect teeth, as opposed to Boyd’s false teeth, the payment of 20 tomahawks had been paid.

During his lifetime Boyd made a great show of his wealth but it was built on criminal schemes and borrowed cash. He lived the life but like his bank it was an empty shell. All the money that slipped though his fingers he spent on a lavish lifestyle that was enabled by the very labourers on whom he depended and ruthlessly exploited. He was a man on the make without the acumen to succeed without cheating.  When he died Boyd was worth less than £3000.

The town he established, Boydtown, became a ghost town after his business empire collapsed until the 1930s when it underwent a revival. Boyd has been commemorated in other ways including the Ben Boyd National Park, set up in 1971. Frankly it seems gauche and extraordinary that Australia regards Benjamin Boyd worthy of honouring. I’d have thought Australia’s indigenous population or those kidnapped and enslaved Pacific Islanders were far more deserving.

Ben Boyd National Park

https://www.smh.com.au/national/blackbirding-shame-yet-to-be-acknowledged-in-australia-20150603-ghfn9c.html

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