Oh, have you heard the news of late,
About a mighty king so great?
If you have not, ’tis in my pate?
The King of the Cannibal Islands.
So began a broadside ballad of the early nineteenth century, a song that would live on in popular culture for generations. Herman Melville knew it, fragments ended up in a mid-twentieth century children’s rhyme and it became a popular folk dance tune.
Who was the King of the Cannibal Islands’, and why was such an inane piece of doggerel so popular for so long?
According to the song, the King was
‘… so tall, near six feet six.
He had a head like Mister Nick’s,
His palace was like Dirty Dick’s,
‘Twas built of mud for want of bricks,
And his name was Poonoowingkewang,
And a lot of Indians swore they’d hang
The King of the Cannibal Islands.
Hokee pokee wonkee fum,.
Puttee po pee kaihula cum,
Tongaree, wougaree, chiug ring wum,.
The King of the Cannibal Islands.[iv]
The initial cause of the song’s composition was a grisly tale of shipwreck and mystery.
After transporting a cargo of convicts to Sydney Cove in 1809, the Boyd under Captain John Thompson sailed from Sydney in October that year. Aboard were around seventy passengers and crew, including a number of Maori, one a chief’s son named Te Ara. Thompson was keen to obtain some kauri spears to add to his cargo of seal skins, coal, lumber and whale oil. Te Ara recommended Whangaroa where his people lived and where he assured Thompson there were excellent stands of kauri.
The Boyd moored and Te Ara went to greet his kin after a long absence. The Maori came aboard the ship and relations were cordial at first, until Thompson took a small boat party ashore to search for spears. They never returned. The Whangaroa Maori clubbed and axed them all to death. The Maori then rowed out to the Boyd and began to massacre those aboard, dismembering the victims while a few survivors watched in horror from the rigging.
At the end, only five of those aboard the ship escaped the butchery, aided by Te Pahi, a visiting Maori chief from the Bay of Islands apparently shocked at the scene. One survivor was later killed, leaving Ann Morley and her baby, a two-year-old Betsey Boughton and cabin boy Thom Davies in dangerous captivity.
What caused such brutal events?
At some point before the Boyd reached Whangaroa, Te Ara was lashed to a capstan and either flogged or threatened this punishment by Captain Thompson for his refusal to work his passage. He protested that he was a chief’s son and should not be so basely punished but was mocked by the sailors and denied food. This was a loss of face among his people triggering an obligation to take revenge. [i] A dreadful vengeance it was.
According to the rescuers under Alexander Berry who arrived at the scene in December there was evidence of mass cannibalism. As Berry later wrote: ‘The horrid feasting on human flesh which followed would be too shocking for description’.[ii] They also found the charred remains of the Boyd, apparently blown up when the Maori tried unsuccessfully to make use of the muskets and gunpowder aboard. The flames ignited the whale oil and the ship quickly burned and sank, a number of Maori, including, including Te Ara’s father, dying in the conflagration.
Assisted by Maori from the Bay of Islands, Berry secured the safe return of the four survivors as well as the government despatches and private letters carried by the Boyd. Betsey was in a poor condition, crying ‘Mamma, my mamma’.[iii]After threatening the killers with a murder trial in Europe Berry relented, avoiding further bloodletting, though so great were tensions in the region that a planned mission settlement was postponed for several years.
Berry took the remaining four survivors on his ship. They were bound for the Cape of Good Hope but suffered storm damage and eventually ended up in Lima, Peru. Here Mrs Morley died. Davies went to England aboard another ship and the two children went with Berry to Rio de Janeiro and then to Sydney.
Meanwhile, news of the massacre, cannibalism and capture of the survivors fuelled darker emotions. Men from a small fleet of whalers attacked Te Pahi and his people. This seems to have been a complete misunderstanding of the massacre as Te Pahi by most accounts tried to help the Europeans. Berry may have confused the similar names of the two chiefs in his account of what had happened. Up to 60 Maori and one whaler died in this misguided act of revenge. Te Pahi then attacked the Whangaroa Maori and died from wounds dealt in battle.
In later life, Thom Davies returned to New South Wales where he worked for Berry but was drowned on an expedition to the Shoalhaven River with Berry in 1822. Betsey Broughton married well, living until 1891. Mrs Morley’s daughter eventually ran a school in Sydney.
As the story of the Boyd massacre became more widely known in Britain and beyond, it encouraged both shock and humour. The grisly tale of blood, betrayal, cannibalism and survival fuelled the growth of a ‘savage natives’ stereotype that would become the stock in trade of rip-roaring adventures and south seas island concoctions for decades to come. Pamphlets appeared, warning people against migrating to such dangerous places. Popular comic songs like ‘The King of the Cannibal Islands’ were based on this and other colonial encounters, reflecting European attempts to process such dramatic cultural and social differences through absurdity.
[i] New Zealand History, ‘A Frontier of Chaos? The Boyd Incident’, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/maori-european-contact-before-1840/the-boyd-incident
[ii] Augustus Earle, A Narrative of Nine Months’ Residence in New Zealand in 1827, Whitecombe & Tombs Limited, London, 1909, chpt 11 at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11933/11933-h/11933-h.htm#CHAPTER_XI, accessed November 2016.
[iii] Alexander Berry in The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, volume 83, 1819, p. 313.
[iv] Eric Ramsden, ‘The Massacre of the Boyd’, The World’s News, 29 April 1939, p. 6, http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/137004962?searchTerm=last%20convict%20expiree%20dies&searchLimits=l-australian=y|||l-format=Article|||l-decade=193|||sortby=dateAsc|||l-year=1939|||l-category=Article , accessed February 2021.
[v] National Library of Scotland, http://digital.nls.uk/broadsides/broadside.cfm/id/16439, accessed November 2016.