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John Boston (?–1804)

by Judith Iltis

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John Boston (d.1804), settler, hovered as a young man on the outskirts of the Birmingham circle of radicals and, like Joseph Priestley, became a staunch republican. Perhaps because of his political opinions he decided to leave 'reactionary England' in 1793, and in December recommended himself to the Colonial Office as a trained surgeon and apothecary, versed in the arts of brewing and with 'theoretical and some practical knowledge of agriculture'. The secretary of state agreed to his going, hoped he would prove useful, and urged Governor John Hunter to keep him. He sailed with his wife and three children in the Surprize, the ship which carried out the Scottish Martyrs. Immediately they arrived, on 25 October, Thomas Palmer and William Skirving were accused of having tried to foment a mutiny on board; though they were never brought to trial, in the declarations drawn upon the affair, John Grant, another Scottish convict, an attorney guilty of forgery, stated that Boston had drunk 'damnation to the King, his family, and all crowned heads', while the Surprize's master swore that Boston had described himself as 'an avowed Jacobin'.

After this affair Boston and his wife and James Ellis, another friend of the 'martyrs', who had come out as a free settler, appear to have lived with Palmer, who had bought a farm. In 1795 Boston, Palmer and Ellis built a small vessel and in June Boston offered to relieve the food shortage by catching fish at Lord Howe Island; but this needed more boats and men than could be supplied. In August Hunter allotted him seven men to make salt at Bennelong Point; as he produced 'only three or four bushels of salt … in more than as many weeks' he had to abandon the experiment. Meanwhile he continued his farming and had five convicts assigned to him, but in October, Private William Faithful, on the orders of Quartermaster Thomas Laycock, in the presence of two other members of the New South Wales Corps, shot a fine sow of Boston's which had 'trepassed' on the ground of an officer of the corps, but which was considerably advanced in pig. When Boston protested, the soldiers assaulted him, so in due course he sought £500 damages for assault; the court gave a verdict against Faithful and Laycock, but assessed the damages at only 20s. each. Faithful's appeal to the governor, the first such appeal in New South Wales, was dismissed.

In 1796, with the aid of an encyclopaedia, Boston found that he could make beer from Indian corn. This was so successful that by September he had 'erected at some expense a building proper for the business', was making soap, was granted 170 acres (69 ha) at Mulgrave Place, and had built a windmill. Despite this, in June 1797 Governor Hunter had come to the conclusion that Boston was 'one of those whom the colony will not derive any advantage from'. It seems quite likely that in 1798, true to his radical political opinions, he wrote the anonymous letter to Portland criticizing the governor, which greatly roused the latter's ire in November 1799. By then he had become a trader, and was friendly with both George Bass and Charles Bishop. In 1799 Hunter gave Boston & Co. materials from the public store to build the 30-ton Martha in place of a 'boat they had unfortunately lost'; in her William Reid, previously quartermaster in the Sirius and master of the government schooner Francis, went sealing in Bass Strait, where he probably discovered King Island.

In January 1800 Boston, Ellis, Simeon Lord and fifteen others were granted permission to purchase goods, including spirits, brought in the convict transport Minerva. In March Reid took goods to Norfolk Island in the Martha; but in August she was wrecked. Meanwhile Reid, Boston and others had bought the unseaworthy Spanish prize El Plumier; on 20 January 1801, carrying miscellaneous cargo and accompanied by Boston's wife and family, they sailed in her for the Cape of Good Hope. Calling at New Zealand for timber, they were delayed for four months for repairs, and then went to Tongatapu to replenish their stores. The ship was damaged on a reef off Koro Island; making for Macao, she entered Guam Bay on 10 January 1802 in great distress, and was made a prize by the Spaniards in their turn. However, the owners were hospitably treated by the governor, and during the year Boston, Ellis and Reid, with some of the ship's company, reached Manila. Boston and Ellis successfully ran a distillery there, and Reid became master of an American ship, the joint property of Boston and himself.

In May 1804 in the Fair American Boston returned to Sydney. There he agreed with Simeon Lord to buy a ship in America and, to finance the purchase, they agreed with Captain Pendleton of the American brig Union to obtain a cargo of sandalwood for their joint profit. They also bought the 14,000 sealskins already collected by the Union, and sailed in her for Fiji. On 30 September they reached Nukualofa on Tongatapu Island; deceived by the friendly welcome of the Tongans, Boston, Pendleton and six men put ashore in a boat, but were all killed as soon as they landed.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 4
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-2
  • T. F. Palmer, A Narrative of the Sufferings of T.F. Palmer and W. Skirving During a Voyage to New South Wales, 1794, on Board the Surprise Transport (Cambridge, 1797)
  • D. Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1798-1802)
  • Monthly Magazine (London), 1 Feb 1804
  • Sydney Gazette, 12 May, 3 June, 28 Oct 1804
  • manuscript catalogue under J. Boston (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

Judith Iltis, 'Boston, John (?–1804)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

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Tongatapu Island, Tonga

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