The Boyd Massacre – The Gruesome Tale of Cannibalistic Revenge

The tale of the Boyd Massacre; an act of bone-chilling cannibalism perhaps the worst to occur since the Aztec Empire

The subjects of Europe’s empires often saw the world beyond as one inhabited by varieties of savage, and in the most exotic corner of the world the image of Pacific islanders as fierce cannibals remained in the European conscience well into the 20th Century.

For intrepid European sailors in the Age of Discovery, a voyage across the vast Pacific only sporadically revealed specks of land on the horizon, but these would expand into verdant, comely refuges for sore-eyed sailors once they drew near. But locals might also appear, stocky and erect, the whites of their eyes clear to see. The ship would launch its tender ashore to trade for supplies and a taste of terra firma.

There was always the risk of a bloody outcome; the mariners might outstay their welcome; they might commit some offence; they might be forced into a lung-busting retreat back to their ship under a hail of stones and spears.

European explorers fighting off a hostile party of Polynesians (

If those mariners were not fleet of foot or fast enough with the trigger they could be killed and even butchered and turned to ‘long pig’ – the euphemistic term for human meat. On islands such as Fiji it was the supreme act of dominance to consume a defeated foe. These islanders’ notoriety mushroomed with the tales of their cannibalism.

They were once explorers themselves, and crossed the sea in their large canoes to settle the world’s last remaining major uninhabited landmass in the 13th/14th Century. That landmass came to be called New Zealand, and those people came to be the Maori people – some of the Pacific’s most violent and cannibalistic of all.

In the first ever meeting between the Maoris and Europeans in 1642, four of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s crew were murdered, and the locals had to be driven off with canister shot before the Europeans could escape. And as a harbinger of what would come later, French explorer Marc-Joseph du Fresne led a two ship expedition in 1772 to explore New Zealand and establish relations with the Maori. After a cordial first few months, the locals turned hostile and butchered Du Fresne and 25 of his crew. Accounts of Du Fresne’s death would circulate widely. ‘The Land of the Long White Cloud’ became the place to be wary around. 

It was to this backdrop that a ship set sail for New Zealand in December, 1809. That enterprise was destined to end in an even more gruesome feast of human flesh.

The Boyd

The Boyd was a 400 tonne brigantine with a Captain John Thompson at the helm. She was transporting passengers, including ex-convicts, plus women and children from the fledgling colony of Australia to New Zealand, and the plan was to return with some kauri spars – wooden poles much prized for use for ship’s rigging. There were 70 souls on board. 

One of those was a native of New Zealand; a young man named ‘George’ by his ship mates, but whose real name was Te Ara, or Tarrah, a name given to him by his father who was a prominent chieftain in Whangaroa Bay where the ship was sailing to. It was only because of the ship’s convenient destination that the chieftain’s progeny agreed to work his passage home, although he did have experience as a crewmember on other vessels.

So, the ship set forth from Sydney Cove in October 1809. Sometime early into the weeks-long voyage the wheels of tragedy were set in motion.

Because of the dearth of survivors we can’t be sure what happened, but Tarrah, it seems, ran afoul of the unyielding code of discipline Captain Thompson wielded. It was discipline typical of European ships abundantly crewed by rowdy, hard-hearted brutes. Corporal punishment was meted out at the slightest offence lest such men dared be so insolent as to repeat the antics of Christian Fletcher and his accomplices in the Bounty Mutiny 20 years before.

It’s said Tarrah either refused to do a task required of him because he was ill or because of his status as a chief’s son. Another account states that the ship’s cook accidentally threw some pewter spoons overboard and accused Tarra of stealing them to avoid being flogged for it himself. Yet another report of the event suggests it was for a slight theft. 

The punishment was flogging. Tarrah was tied down and the Captain ordered him to be lashed 25 times with a cat o’nine tails; a whip multiplied nine-fold with lengths of coarse, thin rope, knotted at the ends. It could shred the skin of a man’s back and even the flesh underneath. One lurid newspaper account from 1910 describes Tarrah receiving his lashes as onlookers leered and jeered at him, piling humiliation upon his agony which would account for his later actions.

Tarrah certainly didn’t take the punishment with the indifference sea dogs of the age were accustomed to receiving such agony. Tarrah received his flogging towards the start of the voyage and the rest of Boyd’s crew had forgotten about it by the time they reached Whangaroa. Although he’d since continued with his duties in sullen silence, this proud young Maori nobleman had forgotten nothing. The flogging had been the severest of violations and demanded violent utu retribution.

In blissful ignorance, Captain Thompson sailed the Boyd into the tree-rimmed Whangaroa Bay in December.

Tarrah’s father had been waiting avidly for his son’s return and, once the brig had dropped anchor, his warriors sped across the water in their narrow, swift canoes and swarmed up the sides of the brig to greet Tarrah with their customary rubbing of noses.

The Captain thought it prudent to allow Tarrah to go ashore together with a handful of crew members to secure the fine bounty of wood they’d sailed so far for. Tarrah hence returned in the Maori canoes for his long awaited return home. 

Maori warrior with Taiaha weapon, New Zealand (

It should’ve been a joyful reunion, but after greeting his father, Tarrah took him to one side to vent about what the Captain had unforgivably done to him and displayed his unhealed wounds. 

The chieftain’s nostrils flared. He wanted to assault the Captain immediately for this outrage. Yet, his son had a plan for a most bloodthirsty revenge. They and their warriors began thirsting for blood. 

The Maori restrained themselves for three days no less… perhaps to work up an appetite. 

On the third day the chieftain invited the Captain to send a party of men ashore to a spot where there was a great stock of Kauri trees to be felled. Captain Thompson sent five men and once they were safely out of sight of the ship the Maori’s heinous massacre began. These five crewmen were clubbed to death and their bodies were carried away to be prepared for eating.

Their clothes were then taken to be used to disguise Maori canoists for the next stage. 

At nightfall, the Boyd’s crew at last spotted their crewmates returning from ashore in a canoe belonging to ‘George’s’ village. And it was the familiar voice of the sulky Maori that called out to them in the darkness.

The officer of the watch oversaw the canoe approach and his five shipmates climb back aboard. At that moment, he stiffened with a barely perceptible sense of something wrong. As the men clambered aboard their eyes met – the wide-eyed glare of a murderous savage and a stunned seaman. As the significance of the moment registered, the hapless officer fell under successive blows from a Taiaha club.

The assault on the Boyd was swift and stealthy, and only witnessed for posterity because a handful of crew managed to clamber up into the rigging before they could be spotted. More Maori now swarmed onto the Boyd who’d been waiting out of sight to be called. Now that the night watch had been murdered, the vengeful islanders proceeded to call the dozens of people below to come up on deck, where they were butchered then dismembered for a great feast that was being prepared.

A feast of human flesh being prepared on nearby Vanatu (

The terror those hidden above must have felt, looking down breathlessly at the candle lit deck as the Captain, men, women and children were slaughtered can only be imagined.

By dawn the islanders had departed and only now could the survivors who had spent the night up the masts sigh in relief when another canoe approached to provide their rescue. 

The approaching canoe carried a chieftain who was well inclined towards Europeans. His name was Te Pahi. He had visited Sydney four years before and had now come to trade with the Boyd. 

Te Pahi was happy to take aboard the survivors on his canoe. As they set off for shore, however, the Europeans gasped at the sight of two Whangaroa canoes in hot pursuit. Te Pahi managed to get the survivors ashore for them to dash off, yet he could do nothing to stop their pursuers and witnessed the Whangaroan canoeists beach and catch and kill all but one of their prey. 

66 of the 70 souls aboard the Boyd were butchered and turned to ‘longpig’ in a feast where perhaps hundreds of Tarrah’s tribe gorged themselves on human flesh. It may have lasted for days as the detritus of cannibalism – human bones, skulls, and half eaten limbs littered their village clearings. 

Later the Whangaroans towed the Boyd to be beached and ransacked, especially for its prized stocks of muskets and gunpowder. As they were in the process of this, a flint ignited the gunpowder causing a spectacular explosion. 15 Maori including Tarrah’s Chieftain father were blown sky-high and the Boyd burned to the waterline.

The Boyd explodes (


Of the survivors, Ann Morley with her baby and apprentice Thomas Davis were spared because they showed Tarrah compassion and friendship after he received his sadistic punishment days before, according to some accounts. And a two-year-old Elizabeth “Betsey” Broughton was taken by a local chief who put a feather in her hair and kept her for three weeks before she was rescued. The Boyd’s 2nd mate tried to stay off the menu by making himself useful. He endeavoured to make fish hooks but proved incompetent at this, so he too was butchered.

30 miles (50km) away news reached Alexander Berry of the awful massacre. Berry was not only Captain of the City of Edinburgh but a hard frontier mariner to boot. He set off immediately to rescue the rumoured survivors. Once in the vicinity, Berry captured two local chieftains to trade for the survivors. The survivors were returned to him but Berry then demanded the Boyd’s papers before he would finally release the chieftains.

But the saga did not end there. It ended most unfortunately for the one well-disposed Maori who’d actually tried to save the survivors.

The Whalers’ Revenge

Three months on, after the European community had time to process and get a clearer picture of the enormity of the atrocity that had occurred, Te Pahi’s name kept cropping up as the man who’d led the attack on the Boyd. This appears to be simple mistaken identity as his name was very similar to Te Puhi – one of the plotters of the massacre.

The crews of five whaling ships being confident of their combined numbers set off with the obstinate aim of investigating the coastline and rescue any possible survivors. But no doubt they sought to spill blood of their own and provide the Whanaroans the kind of musketry none coveted.

They landed at Te Pahi’s ‘Pa’. There, they ran amok, cutting down at least 60 of its defenders before returning to their boats with the village now a smouldering tangle of death and disarray. They also badly wounded the innocent Te Pahi. A small boat of the Boyd’s and some booty were discovered as if to vindicate the misdirected raid, however.

Having his village destroyed, his people killed and himself wounded for an attack he hadn’t even approved of caused Te Pahi to feel no little ill will towards his Whangaroan neighbours. The enraged Chieftain led his remaining warriors on a raid of his own on their village where the old warrior died from a spear thrust.


In the passing decades relations between encroaching Europeans and the Maori tribes would, of course, turn pacific, but for the immediate future the Boyd Massacre sent shockwaves across the British Empire and all interested European parties, severely denting the perception of Maoris as being ‘noble savages’. Instead New Zealand became the islands where its murderous cannibals must be given a wide berth. 

A planned visit of missionaries was delayed until 1814 and shipping to New Zealand fell away to almost nothing for the next three years as a result of this grisly chapter in New Zealand history. 


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