Image of Blackbirding

Australia’s history is full of famous entrepreneurs who worked for good or evil. The following is the colorful story of Benjamin Boyd, Australia’s nineteenth-century originator of the get-rich-quick scheme. He was certainly not the first in a long list of Australian Criminal Entrepreneurs and opportunists.  

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Also available is the Wikipedia version of Benjamin Boyd, Australian buccaneer and entrepreneur. Which version do you prefer? Leave comments. I left out the Orcas in Wiki. –HF

Benjamin Boyd. (2020). In Wikipedia.
Image of Benjamin Boyd
Benjamin Boyd c 1840. State Library of New South Wales, Australia

For the country’s history is strewn with the history of unethical rugged individualists. They range from “petty entrepreneurs”–who had simply stolen cloth to start a tailor shop and ended up in a Van Diemen’s Land penitentiary–to landed gentleman of means who loaded their boats with everything to make a living in the New World off of other people’s backs. Australia’s is a history of half-baked dreams that achieved fabulous success and of well-planned businesses that came to naught. 

Half-baked but eaten

We now tell the story of one such half-baked dreamer who came to naught literally, in the pot of cannibals.  The story combines grand visions and ethical dilemmas in the limitless vistas of colonial Australia.  It merges the most unlikely story-lines of the land development and gold rush fever with slave trade and cannibalism, and even throws in inter-species communication to boot! 

All these plots are connected to a beautiful sheltered harbour called Twofold Bay just north of Australia’s south-east “corner”.  What connects all these most unlikely dots, from killer whales to South Seas head-hunters?  It’s the great Victornian-age bucca-preneur Benjamin Boyd. 

Scotsman banker plans a schooner business in Australia

Already a wealthy stock- and insurance broker at age twenty-three at the beginning of the 1840s, Scotsman Benjamin Boyd of the London Stock Exchange was a self-made man without a drop of aristocratic blood.  With a passion for adventure and profit, one day he may have idly rotated his globe of the world pointing out his dreams to his girlfriend.  He told her his grand scheme was to risk the £200 000 he had accumulated in London to achieve even greater profits in Australia and the Islands of the Pacific. 

Using that almost extra-sensory perception that entrepreneurs have to see over the horizon, he had set his sights around the other side of the planet on whaling, sheep farming, and passenger steamships, not to mention his own Pacific republic.  He spent a big chunk of his wealth on a glorious schooner named The Wanderer.  Just owning such a vessel got him into the Royal Yacht Squadron, where he could associate with the landed classes.  But he dreamed of becoming his own aristocrat.  As the globe spun under his fingers, he paused at a bay north of Cape Howe.  “This is Twofold Bay,” he told his lady, “and there I will found my own town, Boydtown”. 

Ben Boyd Road
Commemorative plaque at Ben Boyd Road, Neutral Bay, NSW, Australia. Wording on the left plaque reads: “To commemorate Benjamin Boyd, Banker, Merchant, Pastoralist, & Whaler. A resident in this locality from 1842 to 1849. Who was killed by the natives of the Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. October 1851. R.A.H.S.” Wording on the right plaque reads: “Benjamin Boyd’s yacht, Wanderer, which arrived from England, July 1842. Boyd established his industry at Neutral Bay & various parts of N.S.W. & thus formed a link of the early history of Australia. The yacht after a tragic voyage, during which Boyd was killed by cannibals & carried off, was wrecked at the entrance to Port Macquarie.”

Boyd recruits orcas in inter-species communication

Whether by coincidence or he learned it through long-distance research, Twofold Bay was already a well-known whaling centre due to its proximity to the whales’ annual migration route to and from Antarctica.  Amazing as it may sound, Twofold Bay is actually the famous place where human beings and killer whales (orcas) collaborated in hunting the much larger baleen whales for their tasty meat and their valuable oil and bones.  A pack of orcas would locate the baleens, corral them into Twofold Bay, and then, by breaching and tail-slapping the surface, would alert the human whalers onshore, who would quickly pour into their boats.  While the humans watched, the orca pack divided into three groups, one underneath to prevent the baleen from diving, one repeatedly putting their snouts into the blow-hole to weaken the beast, and the third progressively ripping away at the flesh.  The orcas would help kill their larger cousins and turn over the carcasses to the people —as long as the orcas got the baleen tongues and lips, which they adored, before the whalers hauled in their treasure.[i] 

However he learned of it, one thing Ben did know:  Whale products were to his era what petroleum is to the world today.  Whale oil greased the cogs of the Industrial Revolution and illuminated factories and homes.  Whale bone was that century’s plastic.   Entrepreneurially ambitious men would include whaling in their portfolios in the same way they would Information Technology today.  Of course there was no regard to bio-diversity.  Breeding females and calves were slaughtered just a freely as less biologically important. 

Australian entrepreneur sets up passenger ferry

A man of quick action and copious resources, and persuasive to his (largely Scottish) investors, Boyd dispatched a steamer to that far coast to set up passenger serve even before he himself ventured there.  Undeterred by the lukewarm reception by the colonial authorities to his ideas, he dispatched a second and third steamer to Australia.  With wide-eyed ambition, he floated the “Royal Bank of Australia” with his own and others’ capital, who were lured into the scheme by the prospects of handsome returns.  He gathered around himself a band of gentleman entrepreneurs and set sail in 1841 on his spectacular yacht buccaneer-style with cannon and long guns. 

Upon arrival, Boyd stepped up his steamship activities connecting Sydney with Tasmania and Port Philip (Melbourne).  But disaster came early when his Seahorse steamer struck rocks.  The insurance company claimed captain’s negligence and Boyd was saddled with the entire loss of £25,000.  No worries, he started buying up land for cattle and sheep to become at two million acres in the Riverina and on the Monaro plateau the largest landholder after the Crown.  

Ben Boyd's Tower
Ben Boyd’s Tower, Ben Boyd National Park, Eden, NSW, Australia. Used for whale-spotting, was not a light-house.

The capital city of his empire was called Boyd Town and it had a hotel, a store, rendering facilities, a jetty and a large whaling watch tower.  Taking advantage of the orca feast, by 1844, he had three dozen whale boats for pursuit of any leviathan that might venture near his port.  The Sydney newspaper observed: “Perhaps there is no individual who has done so much for the colongy and in so short a time”.[ii]

On land, he spent vast sums of money and employed hundreds of workers.  To avoid cash flow problems, Boyd even issued his own currency based upon wool, cattle, whale-oil, tallow, and hides.  Workers spent these notes in the company stores. 

Many problems confronted this fearless entrepreneur.  There was dishonesty amongst his managers, exorbitant commissions by suppliers; misrepresentations by his book-keepers; and extortion.  But he was also covering up huge losses to his English shareholders in expectation of short- to medium-term revenues.  His Royal Bank of Australia had raised money by issuing (unsecured) debentures.  Boyd insisted that its directors should maintain utmost secrecy, thus setting the scene for a massive fraud against the debenture holders.  The quintessential charlatan (shades of Alan Bond and Richard Scase), the Bank with its proper sounding name was really a front designed for his own personal use.[iii] 

Benjamin Boyd seeks indentured slaves as workforce

Then there was the problem with the phlegmatic workforce.  Boyd’s whaling and vast land holdings required huge numbers of workers.  He advertised everywhere ““To the labouring classes unemployed: Free passages to Twofold Bay and rations will be given for one hundred persons, consisting of shepherds, stockmen, shearers, artizans [sic], labourers . . .”  He had no shortage of volunteers to take his free passage, but the offer of an extra pound of wages from a rival sheep rancher always induced them to break their engagement.  At first beset with prejudice against the prisoner class, Boyd ultimately resorted to employing convicts who had served their time, and learned to prefer them.  But there were never enough workers. 

So this ever-innovative entrepreneur seized upon one of the most loathsome and unethical practices of the time, blackbirding.  A cross between slavery and indentured servitude, blackbirding meant coercing people through trickery and kidnapping to work as labourers.  By 1847, Boyd ordered his ship Velocity to travel to present-day Guadalcanal to capture workers, bring them back and send them to the pastoral districts.  Typically, they would lay anchor in a harbor and then beseech the local leader for fifty able-bodied men to clean the vessel.  In another locale they would invited some dozens aboard to trade tobacco, knives, files, matches and seamen’s clothing.  The men aboard, he would then weigh anchor and kidnap the unsuspecting Islanders.  But even this experiment proved to be a failure as the Island workers were unfit for work or for existence in the interior.  A very few managed to find a friendly vessel to return home but most perished. 

Blackbirding - Slavery
Example of Blackbirding. In 1869 HMS Rosario seized the blackbirding schooner Daphne and freed its passengers.

Having barely missed success due to insurance debacle and the late forties depression, in seven short years by 1849, Boyd’s operations at Twofold Bay had ground to a halt.  What was worse, another of his ships was wrecked bringing back a crew of Islanders and the ship was uninsured.  Shipwrecks, dishonest manager, unfit labourers, not to mention his own swindler instinct, and many other challenges did him in before he could ever quite achieve success.

California Gold Rush leads to more failure

Ever the irrepressible optimist, he slipped quietly away from Sydney (and from his creditors) to start a new escapade when he heard about the California Gold Rush in 1849.  He set off for San Francisco with a brigand of followers in his glorious yacht “Wanderer”.  Stopping in New Zealand, they loaded the ship with flour and Maori potatoes, which they sold at prodigious prices in the Golden Gate.  Little is known of Boyd’s activities after San Francisco, but all his labours in the California foothills came to naught.  His heart was not in the panning for gold (fortunately he had a crew of kanaka sailors who did the digging for him).  After the disappointment in the California gold fields, he shook off the dust and reviewed his options.  He still had this glorious schooner and a sizeable amount of funds and investments. 

Persuades King Kamehameha of Dream of Pacific empire

Turning his career westward again, his buccaneer spirit came to the fore and he launched another grand scheme.  This time he sought to create a principality in the Pacific.  Stopping first in Hawaii, Boyd convinced legendary King Kamehameha III to become regent of a Pacific empire ranging from Hawaii and the Marquesas to Samoa and Tonga, but his real plan was to loot them of their presumed resources.  He reconnoitred various South Seas islands and finally settled on two islands in the Solomons to base a South Seas republic.  They were San Cristobal (now Makira) and Guadalcanal. 

Portrait of King Kamehameha III
Portrait of King Kamehameha III

Arriving from Hawaii, and presumably not knowing that Makira was the very harbor whence his ship Velocity, under different command, had kidnapped so many Islanders, Boyd lay at anchor for several days while he inspected ashore.  On 15 October 1851, Boyd paddled off for a little pigeon-shooting before breakfast and never came back.  The rest of the story is certainly embellished in the re-telling. 

Rapid gunfire was heard and a search party was launched.  When they arrived, all they saw were great numbers of foot imprints, evidence of a struggle, and his deserted paddle boat.  Boyd was nowhere to be seen, but they did recover his belt.  Was entrepreneur Benjamin Boyd stripped, killed and eaten by the victims of his blackbirding expedition in Guadalcanal?  The evidence points to that.  The irony that the man who first brought indentured labour to Australia should finally be killed by those same islanders was not lost on his countrymen.  As one historian quips, “Australia’s penchant for cutting down tall poppies was never more dramatically gratified . . . That he had been eaten merely added titillation to a good story”.[iv]  

Cannibals in Papua New Guinea
Cannibals in the South Pacific

Three years later in 1854, hearing rumours of a “wild white man” still alive and possibly a prisoner on the island, the cutter Oberon and the H.M.S. Herald arrived to search for Boyd.  They found trees that Boyd had marked and so the searchers announced that they would give 100 tomahawks if Boyd was delivered to them alive.  Two enterprising natives assured them that Boyd was dead and they presented what they claimed was Benjamin Boyd’s skull for “twenty tomahawks”.  (Examining the skull, Australian phrenologists asserted that it was not Caucasian and the bone still resides in the Australian Museum in Sydney with the inscription “Skull of a Polynesian [sic—it was Melanesian] sent as Captain Boyd’s”.)  Another Islander told the rescuers the probable truth that Boyd was “killed by Chief Possakow”.  Unconvinced, the rescuers left behind hatchets, spectacles and cards with the inscription “Seeking you.  Advise us. H.M.S Herald”.  Nonetheless, the captain’s log concludes Boyd was killed after being captured.[v]  A report in the Sydney Morning Herald believes that Boyd had been eaten and his skull was hung outside the chief’s house.  Whatever the truth, the re-telling of the story of the sale of Boyd’s “skull” to trusting white men remains a national industry in Guadalcanal to this day. 

In actual fact, headhunting was practised at the time in Melanesia, as was anthropophagy (eating human flesh)[vi].  It is documented that the captain of another blackbirding vessel, the Minolta, was beheaded during a labour “recruiting” drive.[vii] 

Always close but no bananas

The ultimate irony was that Boyd was a man ahead of his times in the sense of just a few years ahead of his times.  He was so close to success in Twofold Bay.  Done in primarily by his insurance failing to pay, he almost pulled off a brilliant con on his investors.  Having lost huge land value in the depression of the late 1840s and finding no gold in California, it is poignant that just after his death gold was discovered in his beloved Australia and land values throughout the colony soared.  Historian Tom Mead agrees, “Ben Boyd was a man before his time.”  Mead also adds the Boyd would have felt in in good company with the “corporate cowboys” of Australia’s 1980s and 1990s.  See above “The rise and fall of criminal entrepreneurs in Australia”.[viii] 

The last enduring irony was that his dreamship Wanderer, returning to Sydney after his being eaten by cannibals and buffeted by the fury of tempestuous gales and seas, struck the bar on Port Jackson and was completely wrecked, ending her days after a most eventful career in both Australia and the South Seas.  

Study questions

  1. How would you describe or define the opportunity that attracted the entrepreneur to venture to Australia? Was the idea well grounded?
  2. Consider such things as natural resources, labour, money and social pressures and discuss the points that undermined the sustainability of the various ventures.
  3. Given the mores of the times, was Boyd an ethical entrepreneur? 
  4. Referring to the discussion of traits in Chapter 2, was Boyd’s irrepressible optimism actually just bloody-minded ignorance?
  5. Should history judge him as a failed entrepreneur?  Was it due to his own devices or was he a victim of circumstances?
  6. Compare and contrast Ben Boyd’s entrepreneurial trajectory to that of Joseph Hatch (see pg. XX). 
  7. What lessons could be drawn from this case for pioneering entrepreneurs today? What would be the moral to this story?
  8. What are the physical places or technology fields in the twenty first century that may parallel setting sail to a distant land in the nineteenth century? Using the story as an analogy, what hazards may face the pioneering entrepreneur?


Adapted from the historical record.  Sources in addition to the footnotes:  Walsh, G. P. “Boyd, Benjamin (Ben) (1801–1851)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography,; Wellings, H.P.M (1940). Benjamin Boyd in Australia (1842-1849) Shipping Magnate; Merchant; Banker; Pastoralist and Station Owner; Member of the Legislative Council; Town Planner; Whaler. Sydney: D S Ford); Lawson, Will (1939). In Ben Boyd’s Day (Sydney: New Century Press); Diamond, Marion (1988). The Sea Horse and the Wanderer. (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press).

[i]This inter-species co-operation, known locally as “the law of the tongue” stems apparently from the Aboriginal Nullica people who had a strong spiritual relationship with the killer whales before the advent of European whaling.  This was reinforced by Maori whalers who arrived to assist in the kill. See Toft, Klaus (Producer) (2007). Killers in Eden (DVD documentary). Australian Broadcasting Corporation; Danielle Clode (2002) Killers in Eden, Allen and Unwin ISBN 1-86508-652-5; Pritchard, G.R. “Econstruction: The Nature/Culture Opposition in Texts about Whales and Whaling.” Deakin University Ph.D. Thesis. 2004; Oswald Brierly (1842-8) Diaries at Twofold Bay and Sydney, State Library of New South Wales, MLA503-541; H. S. Hawkins and R. H. Cook (1908) Whaling at Eden with some “killer” yarns, Lone Hand: 265-73; Brady, E. J. (1909) “The law of the tongue: Whaling, by compact, at Twofold Bay”, Australia Today, 1 December: 37-9; Tom Mead (1961) Killers of Eden, Angus and Robertson

[ii] Cited in Coleman, Martin (1985). “Benjamin Boyd and the Killer of Twofold Bay,” This Australia, Vol. 4., No. 2, pp. 34-39.

[iii] Holcomb, J. (2013). Early Merchant Families of Sydney: Speculation and Risk Management on the Fringes of Empire. Melbourne:  Australian Scholarly Publication, pp. 257-8.

[iv] Mead

[v] Geoffrey Scott, “The mystery of a vanished adventurer”, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 December 1953; “Survey Ship, HMS Herald: Historic Voyages”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 March 1924

[vi] van der Kroef, J.M. “Some Head-Hunting Traditions of Southern New Guinea”, Anthropologist, 54, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun. 1952), pp. 221–235; “Villagers apologize for eating missionary”,; From primitive to post-colonial in Melanesia and anthropology. Bruce M. Knauft (1999). University of Michigan Press. p. 104. ISBN 0-472-06687-0

[vii] Jack London (1911). The Cruise of the Snark. (Harvard University Digitized Jan 19, 2006).

[viii] Mead, Tom (1994).  Empire of Straw: The dynamic rise & disastrous fall of dashing colonial tycoon Benjamin Boyd. (Sydney: Dolphin Books).

Cover of Frederick, O'Connor, Kuratko (2019), Entrepreneurship Theory Process Practice (Melbourne: Cengage) Excerpted from Asia-Pacific edition of Entrepreneurship Theory Process Practice (Melbourne: Cengage, 2019)
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