Sailing into Sydney in his yacht Wanderer in July 1842, Benjamin Boyd was welcomed by the press of the day as a flamboyant saviour to the failing economy.
Boyd arrived in Sydney rich and ambitious at a time when New South Wales was experiencing its first real economic depression. A Scottish stockbroker, he came to start whaling, steam ship and grazing enterprises and was backed by his own bank, established and used by him to fund his ideas. His steamships the Seahorse and the Juno had already arrived in Sydney as the start to his his shipping business, but on discovering there was already stiff competition in this regard, this became a secondary interest from then on.
Running his businesses from his property in Neutral Bay, he quickly established his grazing and farming enterprises. Within twelve months of arrival he was the largest landholder in the country having already secured large tracts in the Monaro and Riverina areas in southern NSW, and land at Twofold Bay near Eden on which he began to develop a port town for access to his inland estates. His confidence in the future was displayed in the new name for his port: Boydtown.
Eden and Twofold Bay was already well known as a whaling port when Boyd arrived there in 1843, although there was little in the way of development. Whales had been taken in the area since 1828 when shore based whaling began there. Boyd joined this trade as a side business to his main grazing enterprise, running both shore based and deep sea whaling from Boydtown.
Boyd had arrived in New South Wales at a time of great upheaval in the economy and labour market. Convict transportation had stopped to NSW in 1841, labour shortages were exacerbated by the need to pay workers, and Boyd along with others pushed hard on various schemes to get people onto their grazing estates. The re-start of transportation was mooted, making him few friends, as was the allowance for ticket-of-leave convicts in Tasmania to move to NSW to work, and the same idea for convicts in London. Emigration of free English workers was also encouraged of course.
However, one other scheme was initiated by Boyd that saw him accused of trying to introduce a form of slavery into NSW. In 1847 Boyd ‘imported’ 65 men from Vanuatu to work at his Monaro farms, followed soon after by another 15, and about 200 in all. The scheme was a disaster. The men were made to sign five year contracts, but with no English and dubious claims about how they had been taken, it had the whiff of forced or coerced labour at best and slavery at worst. The Sydney press were vocal in both support and condemnation and Boyd’s enemies in the Legislative Council established committees to inquire. The men themselves largely abandoned Boyd before they even made it to his estates, making their way back overland towards either Boydtown or Sydney in a desperate bid to get home (which some did succeed in doing).
Under a cloud, and facing financial ruin as his Bank and his enterprises began to unravel, Boyd slipped out of Sydney on the Wanderer in October 1849, heading to America and the goldfields. What he did there is unclear, but he did not stay. In 1851 he sailed back to the Pacific, where, on a stop off at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, he was killed. A rumour that he had been eaten as well brought his blazing life to a dramatic end.
Visit the Dictionary to read Alison Vincent’s entry on Ben Boyd in Sydney here.
Dr Mark Dunn is the author of ‘The Convict Valley: the bloody struggle on Australia’s early frontier’ (2020), the former Chair of the NSW Professional Historians Association and former Deputy Chair of the Heritage Council of NSW. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of NSW. You can read more of his work on the Dictionary of Sydney here and follow him on Twitter @markdhistory here. Mark appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Mark!