Image 'The blowing up of the Boyd', 1889

TLF ID R4410

This is an oil painting on canvas by the artists John Louis Steele and Kennett Watkins, painted in 1889. It depicts the destruction of the sailing vessel 'Boyd' by Mäori in Whangaroa harbour (far north of the North Island of New Zealand) in 1809. There are four Mäori waka (canoes) present. A waka in the foreground shows several Mäori leaping into the water in panic as the 'Boyd' explodes in the background. The painting measures 109.4 cm x 181.7 cm.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This asset is an example of the work of the Auckland artists John Louis Steele and Kennett Watkins - both were prominent New Zealand artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; they had previously collaborated on a historical painting in 1890 called 'The Arrival of Captain Cook - an incident at the Bay of Islands'.
  • It illustrates cultural confusion and conflict in the early contact period of New Zealand history - when the 'Boyd' was attacked and most of its 70 crew and passengers killed and cannibalised in Whangaroa harbour, Europeans saw the incident as an unprovoked massacre; local Mäori believed that the necessary utu (revenge) had been exacted because Te Ara, a chief's son who had been a crew member on the 'Boyd' when it left Sydney, had been beaten and mistreated while on board.
  • It depicts an event with wide ramifications - in the subsequent revenge attack by European whalers in the region, significantly more Mäori were killed, but the Europeans attacked the wrong Mäori chief; this in turn sparked a period of intense intertribal war in the region, as well as delaying the planned establishment of a Christian missionary station because conditions were deemed too dangerous.
  • It is one of John Louis Steele's historical paintings, which were sometimes very large and often painted in collaboration with another artist - other prominent collaborations include 'The arrival of the Maori in New Zealand' (1898), painted with his former pupil, C F Goldie.
  • It is a work by two artists who made an impact on the artistic life of Auckland - John Louis Steele excelled as a teacher while at the same time steeping himself in New Zealand life as a painter of historic events and portraits, leaving many notable works; he also excelled as an engraver, introducing skills not previously seen in New Zealand; Kennett Watkins also contributed to the Auckland and wider New Zealand art scenes, teaching at several colleges, while his work in both oils and watercolours (including his famous painting of painting of Von Tempsky being killed at Te Ngutu) revealed his great love of New Zealand landscape and history; some of his paintings were later reproduced as lithographs.
  • It illustrates a highly romanticised tradition of painting that was typical of the time - artists were interpreting events that had occurred much earlier (80 years earlier in this case), and about which there were not only conflicting accounts but often several other artistic representations as well; in this case, Walter Wright's 1908 oil painting was similar in a number of ways to John Louis Steele and Kennett Watkins's work, and has been described as 'documentary racism' because it depicts a populist view of early New Zealand as the Cannibal Isles.

Other details

  • Content provider
  • Copyright holder
  • Organisation: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Remarks: Reproduced courtesy of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Author
  • Date of contribution: 1889
  • Name: John Louis Steele
  • Remarks: artist
  • Author
  • Date of contribution: 1889
  • Name: Kennett Watkins
  • Remarks: artist
  • Publisher
  • Date of contribution: 02 Sep 2013
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia
  • Address: Melbourne VIC 3000 Australia
  • URL:
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  • Image
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  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements