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Object: The blowing up of the Boyd

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Title The blowing up of the Boyd
Production Steele, Louis John (artist), 1889, Auckland
Watkins, Kennett (artist), Auckland
Medium summary oil on canvas
Materials oil paint, canvas
Classification paintings
Dimensions Support: 1218mm (Height) x 1837mm (Width)
Sight: 1094mm (Height) x 1817mm (Width)
Frame: 1580mm (Height) x 2210mm (Width) x 130mm (Depth)
Credit line Purchased 1992 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds
Registration number 1992-0019-2

At the time The Blowing up of the Boyd was produced, there was an enthusiastic market for sensationalised pictures of such ‘historical’ events. Louis John Steele and Kennett Watkins, both established New Zealand artists, made this work in that European history-painting tradition.

The attack
The subject is the attack on the brig Boyd by Ngäti Pou in Whangaroa Harbour in 1809. It is estimated that seventy crew and passengers were killed, with five survivors. The Boyd had been sailing from Sydney Cove to London, via Cape Horn, carrying hardwood, coal, whale-oil, and fur skins. The owner had instructed the brig’s master to stop at New Zealand and take on kauri spars. While the crew were on shore collecting the timber, they were attacked by their Mäori guides who then returned to the Boyd and killed those on board. The guides also looted the ship and inadvertently caused an explosion of gunpowder. The resulting fire burned the brig down to its copper sheathing.

The primary motive for the attack appears to be utu (retaliation) for the crew’s harsh treatment, including flogging, of the Ngäti Pou chief Te Ara who had travelled with them from Australia. Most of those who survived had shown him kindness. The resentment that led to the incident may have been further fuelled by the visit from an earlier ship that had brought disease to local people.

These reasons for the attack were pieced together, some years later, by missionary Samuel Marsden. At the time of the incident, however, it was seen as a senseless and barbaric act. This attitude led to general acceptance of an account from a Sydney merchant and trader, Alexander Berry, who cast blame on a Bay of Islands chief, Te Pahi. Berry’s story was based on hearsay from information relayed back to Sydney. A year after the attack, Te Pahi paid a high price for this misinformation when the crews of six whaling vessels came to take revenge. The chief’s village was attacked and set on fire and more than 60 inhabitants were killed.

After the fact
The Blowing up of the Boyd was painted eighty years after the event. Then, many New Zealanders believed that Mäori were disappearing as a people, and that the destruction of the Boyd demonstrated their inability to embrace ‘civilisation’. This painting has been described as an example of ‘racist mythmaking’ because it misrepresents events for a political purpose - to show Mäori ‘getting the just desserts of their depraved condition by blowing themselves up through their own foolishness’.(1) As a painting of an ‘historical’ subject, the work is a melodramatic ‘blow-up’ of the event. Steele was more given to this kind of exaggeration than Watkins, whose other paintings of Mäori show he had a genuine interest in his subjects.

1. Simpson, Tony. (c. 1993). Art and Massacre: documentary racism in The Burning of the Boyd. New Zealand: Cultural Construction Company.

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