The Australian Continent Discovered
There have been three major waves of colonisation of the Australian continent. The first wave was thought to be 70,000 years ago from the Indonesian Archipelago. The second wave was 20,000 years ago with the "Gracile" ancestors of the modern indigenous Australians. The third wave came after the European discovery of "Terra Australis Incognito" by the Dutch, French and English in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In 1616 the Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog hit the western coast of Australia at Shark Bay. This inspired another Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman, to further explore the Australian coastline in 1642. Tasman sailed under the Great Australian Bight landing on modern day Tasmania which he named Van Diemens Land. Tasman continued his easterly voyage and became the first European to discover New Zealand. Tasman undertook a second voyage in 1644 and determined that the western coast and the northern coasts of Australia were part of the one land mass.
These enterprising voyages by the Dutch explorers inspired Captain James Cook in 1770 to chart and map the Australian coastline. Cook meticulously charted the northern Australian coast. During this voyage Cook discovered two excellent ports in Botany Bay and Sydney Harbour on the south-east coast of Australia. Here he made contact with the Aboriginal people of the Botany and Sydney regions.
The Aboriginal People had a sophisticated communal ownership and spiritual attachment to land within a language grouping. This mixed the necessity of survival in a harsh Australian bush with the protection of territory from other Aboriginal peoples. This concept of property was alien to the European view of private land ownership. To the European eye and laws it appeared that the land was "Terra Nullius" and there for the taking.
England in the late Eighteenth Century
The end of the eighteenth and start of the nineteenth century were times of upheaval for England both internationally and domestically. England and France warred consistently through this period from the Seven Years War to the Napoleonic Wars. In 1776 the American War of Independence was fought in which the new nation of the United States of America won their battle to be free of English governance. All these wars placed stress on the public purse, England's credit and the population.
In 1760 the Industrial Revolution exploded which increased Britain's wealth significantly but also decimated several centuries of cultural norms and villages in the pursuit of wealth. Villages and Towns now poured able bodied workers and unemployed into the cities seeking the wealth of factory work. This densely concentrated the impoverished unemployed youth that late eighteenth century England created. With this rapid social change came an equally rapid increase in crime. Robert Hughes writes;
Two centuries later one can see broader reasons for this growth in crime. English society was violently changing, under the stresses of industrialisation, the growth of towns, and a soaring birthrate. From 1700 to 1740, the population of England and Wales remained constant at about 6 million people. Then it started rising fast - so fast that between 1750 and 1770 the population of London doubled - and by 1851 it stood at 18 million. This meant that the median age of Englishmen kept dropping and the labor market was saturated with young. No mechanisms existed for the effective relief of mass unemployment; it was not a problem England had ever before had to contend with on this scale. The Poor Laws had been written for a different England. Parish relief and the workhouse were the primitive devices of a pre-industrial society; now they were overwhelmed. But crime is, was and always will be a young man's trade, and English youth, rootless and urban, took to it with a will.
The English system of privatised jails and hulks were overrun with the growing prison population. The English Parliament decided to kill two birds with one stone and establish a naval presence in the Pacific Ocean at Botany Bay and Norfolk Island. The Norfolk Island pines appeared good wood for mast and ship manufacture. The increasing English convict population would be sent to these places to work and establish a penal colony. In 1787 the First Fleet left Portsmouth, England with its payload of convicts and landed in Botany Bay, Australia in January of 1788.
Turmoil and Rebellion in Ireland
Oliver Cromwell had led a brutal invasion and suppression of Ireland in 1649. This had resulted in a strong undercurrent of anti-English sentiment that constantly simmered both openly and beneath the surface of Irish society. The resistance to English rule coupled with the centuries old cultural conflict between the Protestants and Catholics contributed toward Ireland being a tumultuous place.
In 1791 the Society of United Irishman formed in Belfast as a response to the increasing involvement of the English in Irish affairs. The society initially embraced Protestant, Catholic and Republican Irish. They found a new friend in England's foe in 1793 when England and France went to war once again. The United Irishmen were suppressed in 1794 once the English found that the society had been talking to the French.
In 1796 a French fleet with fourteen thousand soldiers arrived off Irish shores but was unable to land due to bad weather and ultimately were forced to return to France. While this incident gave the English a shock, in Ireland it precipitated several atrocities by the British military and loyalist Orange Order. By 1798 hostilities were completely open in Ireland when Wexford County rebelled.
The rebellion in Wexford led to the Irish Battle of Vinegar Hill where twenty thousand rebels had encamped. The Rebel group was armed with muskets and pikes but had no artillery. The Rebels faced four columns of well drilled British infantry supported by artillery. The battle lasted over a period of two hours with the British artillery being the difference. While skirmishing continued as part of the rebellion, this battle effectively ended the Irish uprising.
The British Method For Dealing With Seditionists And Dissidents
The British Government preferred deporting or exiling political prisoners to Botany Bay rather than risking having them martyred if they were hung. This was an effective policy for the British and the manner in which they dealt with all political dissent in England, Scotland and the British colonies. The first political dissenters sent to Australia were the Jacobin "Scottish Martyrs" who were shipped out on the Surprize in 1794. The last political prisoners sent to Australia were the Irish "Fenigans" who were sent to Western Australia in 1868.
For Britain the quelling of political rebellion was important to its ruling class. Most rebels were fiercely republican after having seen the success of a Constitutional Republic in the United States and the changes the French Revolution had wrought. The British upper class believed in their pre-ordained right to rule and the institutions such as the monarchy and titled upper house protected their perceived right. Republican notions such as natural rights, and a popularly elected upper house were frightening to those whose power rested with the current monarchist and titled institutions. Political dissidents were seen and handled as a threat to British society. Audrey Oldfield writes;
There is a case for contending that Britain (unlike many other European nations) escaped outright revolution in the nineteenth century by being able to siphon off its radicals (as convicts) and its paupers (as assisted immigrants) to the other side of the world.
This view was shared by the anti-transportation leagues in Australia.
Deportation To Australia; Bound For Botany Bay
In 1799 the penal colony in Sydney received its first Irish political prisoners with the arrival of the Minerva. This transport ship contained amongst the Irish rebels; Joseph Holt and James Harrold. Many of the United Irishmen on the Minerva were sent off to the dreaded Norfolk Island in an attempt to disperse them. Joseph Holt had struck up a friendship with the land owner William Cox on the ship and was given a job managing Cox's Dundas farm in western Sydney.
The arrival of the Irish rebels posed problems for the New South Wales Governor Hunter. Many of those deported from Ireland had been leaders in the United Irishmen and in the Wexford battles. To Governor Hunter it was a matter of time before those same leaders raised seditious thoughts in the wider and predominantly English convict population. Hunter was wise to worry; in 1800 just six months after the arrival of the Minerva a new rebellion was being planned on the Government Farm at Toongabbie.
A Sequence of Attempted Uprisings
In August of 1800 a plan was acted upon to win freedom for the convicts. The Irish leaders who were aware of the role arms played in the rebellions in Ireland also planned for pikes to be manufactured and hidden to ensure the rebels were well armed. The rebellion involved taking Parramatta and dealing with hated Anglican Minister and Magistrate Samuel Marsden. Marsden had earned the nickname the "flogging parson" for his use of the cat 'o nine tails for punishment. After Marsden was dealt with the rebels would pike the soldiers in their beds, take their muskets and march on Sydney.
The plan was defeated by informants who gave Marsden word of the insurrection. Once the population of Sydney, Parramatta and Green Hills [Windsor] learned that the planned uprising included pikes, the population went hysterical in their fear of the Irish convicts. When the leaders of the rebellion learnt they had been betrayed they quickly cancelled the uprising. Governor Hunter led an inquiry into the insurrection in which Marsden in his typical manner over-zealously pursued the issue of the hidden pikes.
Marsden threatened the Irish Catholic preacher James Harrold on the issue of the location of the pikes. Harrold sent Marsden on several wild goose chases until finally he gave up the name of a supposed pike maker, Bryan Furey. Furey denied making the pikes but later told Marsden that Harrold had contacted him to make some fake ones to get Marsden off Harrold's back. Marsden eventually sent Harrold to the feared Norfolk Island and Furey to gaol despite any evidence linking them to the pikes.
Joseph Holt had been implicated as a leader in the rebellion but without substantial proof of his involvement he was spared the lash as was Harrold. As a form of punishment for their suspected complicitness with the rebels both Holt and Harrold were made to watch the lashings of other suspected rebels.
Another Major Attempted Insurrection
The failed insurrection of August and the shipping off of the suspected Irish leaders to remote parts of the colony did not dampen the convict populations enthusiasm for organized rebellion. In September of 1800 another insurrection was planned. This one was to use the pikes that hadn't been found from the August attempt. The rebels were to assemble at Parramatta on a Sunday morning when the local authorities and hierarchies would be in Church service. There the rebels would over-power the soldiers and then march on Sydney.
The leaders used an escaped convict, John Lewis to send messages from farm to farm. Unfortunately Lewis was captured, gaoled and eventually talked of the rebellion. From the information Lewis gave, Captain John MacArthur of the New South Wales Corps received a shakily written letter that relayed that a 'Croppie' uprising was about to occur. MacArthur's advice to the Governor was to wait for the convicts to rebel and once they were out in the open deal with them. The rebel leaders learnt of their plan being discovered and halted their operations.
In reprisal the New South Wales Corps gaoled the ringleaders. Marsden once again zealously set about trying to discover the hidden pikes. Two Irish convicts suspected of making and hiding pikes were Maurice Fitzgerald and Paddy Gavin. Marsden unlawfully flogged them both in an attempt to get information out of them. Holt and Harrold were still being detained from the previous insurrection. Marsden made Holt and Harrold watch the floggings. Holt's account of the two Irishmen receiving five hundred lashes from the cat is particularly horrific;
The place they flogged them their arms pulled around a large tree and their breasts squeezed against the trunk so the men had no power to cringe ... There was two floggers, Richard Rice and John Johnson the Hangman from Sydney. Rice was left-handed man and Johnson was right-handed, so they stood at each side, and I never saw two threchers in a barn move their strokes more handier than those two man-killers did. ...
I [Holt] was to the leeward of the floggers ... I was two perches from them. The flesh and skin blew in my face as it shook off the cats. Fitzgerald received his 300 lashes. Doctor Mason - I will never forget him - he used to go feel his pulse, and he smiled, and said: "This man will tire you before he will fail - Go on." ... During this time [Fitzgerald] was getting his punishment he never gave so much as a word - only one, and that was saying, "Don't strike me on the neck, flog me fair."
When he was let loose, two of the constables went and took hold of him by the arms to keep him in the cart. I was standing by. [H]e said to them, "Let me go." He struck both of them with his elbows in the pit of the stomach and knocked them both down, and then stepped in the cart. I heard Dr. Mason say that man had enough strength to bear 200 more.
Next was tied up Paddy Galvin, a young boy about 20 years of age. He was ordered to get 300 lashes. He got one hundred on the back, and you could see his backbone between his shoulder blades. Then the Doctor ordered him to get another hundred on on his bottom. He got it, and then his haunches were in such a jelly that the Doctor ordered him to be flogged on the calves of his legs. He got one hundred there and as much as a whimper he never gave. They asked him if he would tell where the pikes were hid. He said he did not know, and would not tell. "You may as well hang me now," he said, "for you never will get any music from me so." They put him in the cart and sent him to the Hospital.
Several more informants came forward, including one who named the still gaoled Bryan Furey as a pike maker. From the increasing information the New South Wales Corps was able to round up the ringleaders. These included William Silk, Micheal Quintan, Maurice Wood, John Burke and Thomas Brannon. They were punished with a thousand lashes and then in an effort to isolate them from the general convict population, they were sentenced to hard labour on the hulk Supply which was wallowing in Sydney Harbour. The remainder of the rebels that were rounded up were given either five hundred or two hundred lashes.
More Rebellion and Insurrection Uncovered
1801 brought the transport ship Ann to Sydney which had sixty-nine United Irishmen out of one hundred and seventy eight convicts on-board. Governor King was disturbed as the rebel leaders from the previous rebellions had been uncovered and sent to remote parts of the colony. The arrival of the Ann promised another group of United Irishmen leaders that would cause problems in the convict population. That the Ann had survived a convict mutiny enroute with the mutineers crying "Death or Liberty" only reinforced King's view.
There was a positive to the year of 1801 for the Governor. The Ann had brought the news that Britain and Ireland had united in Union. King hoped that the Irish convicts would feel empathy with Great Britain now and accept their fate in Australia. This was a forlorn hope. The Irish political prisoners had been fighting against English rule for several years. They also wanted to go home and the main opponent in their way to getting home was the British Authorities in Sydney and Parramatta.
Within the next year four more rebellion plots were uncovered. All were foiled by informants in the convict population. Two of the plots involved escaping by ship, either by seizing a ship or seeking passage on a French ship. The Governor maintained such a fear of the convicts escaping by sea such that even in 1804 with word of a possible convict uprising, several American ships were sent out of Sydney Harbour on the orders of Governor King. It was suspected by King that the American ships would be sympathetic to the rebelling Irish convicts.
In 1803 there were still outstanding issues for the Irish convicts. The paperwork which described the term the prisoners were to remain exiled in New South Wales still had not arrived from England. Until the idents arrived all Irish prisoners were stuck in the penal colony. There continued to be escape attempts by convicts both English and Irish. Inevitably the escapees would raid nearby farms for liquor and firearms.
The Initial Success Of The 1804 Rebellion
The colony at Sydney was not self-sufficient in food and was dependent upon food being brought in from England. In an effort to remove this dependency Governor King expanded the Government farm at Castle Hill. By 1804 there were 474 convicts on the farm. This was a significant concentration of convicts. Governor King had relented the previous year by allowing the Roman Catholic clergyman Father James Dixon to preach mass to the Irish. This gave the Irish rebel leaders a sanctioned place to get together and discuss plans.
By 1804 most of the Irish leaders of the previous attempts at rebellion had been imprisoned and sent off to outlying areas of the colony such as Norfolk Island. Dispersal had worked well for the Colony Authorities but with each new rebellion plan, new Irish leaders rose amongst the convicts more knowledgeable on what not to do next time.
The leaders of the 4th of March 1804 rebellion were Phillip Cunningham and William Johnston. Cunningham was a veteran of the 1798 conflict in Ireland and the mutiny of the convict transport ship Ann. From from his experiences in Ireland and New South Wales he understood that secrecy and a non-traceable trail of communication were the most needed aspect of a successful rebellion.
Cunningham's rigour in secrecy was so successful that it wasn't until the day before the rebellion that the New South Wales Corps knew there was a rebellion planned. On the evening of March 3rd one of the Irish convict overseers turned informant. On Sunday March 4th, the day of the rebellion, two more informants came forward and this time named names. John Griffen was one of the informants and had been relaying a message to the pike-maker Bryan Furey that the rebellion was on for Sunday night. Since Furey did not get the message the areas of Sydney, Parramatta and Windsor did not rebel. Castle Hill was the only district that raised in rebellion.
Despite this intelligence, the authorities in Parramatta and Sydney did not act and on the evening of March 4th, 1804, John Cavenah set fire to his hut in Castle Hill at 9.00 pm. This was the signal for the rebellion to begin. With Cunningham leading, 200 rebels broke into the Government Farm's buildings, taking firearms, ammunition and other weapons.
Initially there was pandemonium as buildings were ransacked to cries of "Death or Liberty". Two English convicts dragged the Hills District flogger, Robert Duggan from under his bed. The English convict George Harrington beat the flogger unconscious. A constable was saved from a musket ball in the face when the musket of John Brannon misfired. Another constable was saved in similar circumstances when Jonathon Place's musket also misfired.
Cunningham gathered the rebels and dressed them down for the lack of disciplined behaviour. The rebels then went from farm to farm on their way to Constitution Hill at Parramatta gathering firearms, supplies and drinking any liqour they found. The looting of farms gave the rebels over 180 swords, muskets and pistols. In 1804 this was close to one third of the colony's entire armoury.
The Rebel March To Constitution Hill
Within an hour of Cavenah firing his hut word had got to Parramatta of the rebellion and by 11.00 pm Governor King in Sydney was aware of the situation. The air in Parramatta and Sydney were soon full of drums and gun shots as the military and militia were called to duty. In Parramatta Samuel Marsden evacuated the town by boat with his and John MacArthur's family. Marsden was an obvious target as his tyranny and penchant for flogging had earnt the enmity of a good number of convicts.
In Sydney Major George Johnston rounded up a New South Wales Corps contingent of twenty-nine soldiers and forced marched them through the night to Parramatta. Governor King immediately set off for Parramatta where one of his first actions was to declare martial law. From the Sydney Gazette;
I do therefore proclaim the Districts of Parramatta, Castle Hill, Toongabbie, Prospect, Seven and Baulkham Hills, Hawkesbury and Nepean to be in a STATE of REBELLION; and to establish Martial Law throughout those Districts.
Cunningham's plan involved torching the MacArthur property of "Elizabeth Farm" in order to draw the Parramatta garrison out of the town. Once this was done the rebels in Parramatta would rise up and set fire to the town as a signal. The Castle Hill rebels would gather at Constitution Hill and then raid the barracks for more arms and ammunition. From there the rebels would march to Windsor and join up with the rebels in the Hawkesbury before marching on Sydney.
At dawn on the 5th of March rebels were still straggling in to Constitution Hill. Phillip Cunningham and William Johnston were busy drilling the rebels on the hill while they were waiting for the signal from the uprising rebels in Parramatta. The signal never came. Cunningham's messages to the Parramatta and Windsor rebels had never gotten through. Cunningham decided rather than to face the garrison head on, that the rebels would head down the Hawkesbury Road [the current Old Windsor Road and Windsor Road] to Windsor to meet up with the rebels from the Hawkesbury.
The Australian Battle of Vinegar Hill
Major Johnston's group of twenty nine New South Wales Corps soldiers and fifty members of the "Active Defence" militia  pursued the rebels through Toongabbie and Sugar Loaf Hill until the soldiers were only a few miles away from the rebels. Major Johnston sent Father Dixon to the rebels in an effort to have Dixon convince the rebels to surrender. Mainly Johnston wanted Father Dixon to slow the rebels down so his foot soldiers could make up the few miles difference.
When Father Dixon failed to halt the rebels, Major Johnston and Trooper Anlezark rode to the rebels to have them take the Governors offer of clemency. After Major Johnston challenged the rebel leaders to come forward, Phillip Cunningham and William Johnston separated from the two hundred and thirty three rebels and spoke with the Major. It was agreed that Major Johnston would bring back Father Dixon to talk with them again.
This delay had given enough time for the New South Wales Corps soldiers and Militia to catch up to the rebels. When Major Johnston and Trooper Anlezark returned with Father Dixon they knew that their troops were not far behind and acted accordingly. Once again Phillip Cunningham and William Johnston walked out to meet them while the rebels formed ranks behind them. Lynette Ramsey Silver writes of the final confrontation between the rebel leaders and Major Johnston;
Finally, when the major asked them [the rebel leaders] what they really wanted, Cunningham replied 'Death or Liberty' adding (according to one account) the very practical request 'and a ship to take us home'.
With these words Major Johnston held a pistol to William Johnston's head and ordered him to move toward the soldiers and militia which had appeared over the rise. Anlezark did the same with Cunningham. Lynette Ramsey Silver writes of the start of the battle;
Major Johnston without any other preliminaries, ordered his men to charge and open fire. Over fifty armed civilians, a mounted trooper, and 29 military men (26 of whom were capable of firing 780 prepared rounds of ammunition in 10 to 15 minutes), were pitted against 233 rebels. The odds were technically with the rebels, but it was Enniscorthy's Vinegar Hill all over again. With machine like precision and the economy of movement that comes with practice and military training, the red-coated soldiers formed ranks and for 15 minutes carried out their duty precisely as ordered. Leaderless, caught completely unawares and totally unprepared, the rebels weakly returned the fire before fleeing in all directions.
The rebels were not as well armed nor as well trained as the New South Wales Corps soldiers. After the battle several prisoners were murdered by the soldiers and militia. Major Johnston rescued the lives of several rebels by threatening his troops with his pistol. In the distraction of all the firing William Johnston escaped his captor's attention and fled into the bush.
Cunningham was not so lucky and was struck by the sword of the burly Quartermaster Thomas Laycock. Cunningham fell to the ground unmoving. He was assumed dead and left behind as the soldiers rounded up the rebels. Amazingly Cunningham survived the blow and was picked up by soldiers the next day. In the official reports that followed the battle neither Major Johnston's actions or Laycock's were mentioned. During the short battle fifteen rebels had fallen.
The Aftermath; Hangings and Floggings
Governor Kings retribution for the rebellion was swift as he believed that the leaders had caused the others to follow. King believed that punishing the leaders heavily and quickly would pacify the convicts who had followed the rebel leaders. There were a considerable number of English convicts involved as well as free men like Charles Hill. King's decision meant that most of the rebels were let off. This was most likely a pragmatic decision as the captured rebels were still needed to work the Government Farm.
Phillip Cunningham was quickly hung from the staircase of the public store at Windsor on the 6th of March. The rest of the leaders were brought before a judicial panel. William Johnston who had surrendered to the authorities plead guilty. John Neale admitted he was in the rebel group. Jonathon Place denied all charges and the rest claimed they had been forced to participate in the rebellion. William Johnston and Samuel Humes as leaders in the rebellion were ordered hung in a public place and then for their bodies to be hung in chains. Lynette Ramsey Silver writes;
There are very old legends about the two 'hanging trees' at Toongabbie. .. one on Toongabbie Hill and the other by Johnston's Bridge. It is probable that the body of Samuel Humes was hanged on one of these two trees. The Johnston's Bridge site is favoured, as it was by the main road to the Hawkesbury and right in the centre of the Government Ground. ....
.... The body of Johnston was hanged in a small hollow on the road to Prospect where the road climbs from Parramatta and then descends, shortly after leaving the township.
There were nine executed including the three above. Charles Hill and Jonathon Place were hung at Parramatta, John Neale and George Harrington were hung at Castle Hill while John Brannan and Timothy Hogan were hung in Sydney. Many of the remaining leaders were flogged with either five hundred or two hundred lashes and then sent to the new colony at Coal River [Newcastle]. Father Dixon for his perceived part in the rebellion was made to put his hands on the raw and bloodied backs of the rebels flogged at Sydney as a grizzly reminder.
Gaoling and Exile
Finally the "United Irishman" Joseph Holt and "The Scottish Martyr" Maurice Margarot were arrested on suspicion of involvement. Holt had successfully skirted the issue of his involvement in each insurrection and rebellion to this point. He had managed to survive without being exiled to Norfolk Island but this time his luck was to run out. Holt was ultimately held partly culpable for the rebellion. It is still not known if he was involved in the rebellion, Silver wrote on Holt's involvement;
Holt was kept in gaol before being packed off to Norfolk Island on 19 April, on the instructions of the magistrates who decided that, although there was insufficient evidence to convict him of treason before a criminal court, 'the tranquility of the colony' required such a measure. On the balance of probabilities it seems that the slippery Joseph Holt had once again escaped the attentions of the executioner.
Margarot also joined Holt in exile at Norfolk Island. Other suspected seditionists in the Sydney colony that were not openly involved in the rebellion were also sent to Norfolk Island without proof of their involvement.
Reasons For Convict Rebellion
Unlike the Eureka Stockade which achieved a Chartist agenda, or the "Blood on the Wattle" stand-off in 1932 against increasing Federal oversight, there was no claim made by the rebels of 1804 to a higher order of liberty. The words, "Death or Liberty" popularised by the firebrand orator, Patrick Henry in 1775 were heard several times during the rebellion. But the rebels made no greater claim to liberty.
There was undoubted tyranny in the New South Wales colony. There was also discrimination from the Georgian view of the criminal underclass and Irish underclass. This was especially true in the manner in which the New South Wales Governors dealt with the Irish leaders. Robert Hughes writes on the view of the Irish by the New South Wales authorities;
The Irish, on arriving in Australia, were treated as a special class. As bearers of Jacobin contagion, as ideologically and physically dangerous traitors, they were oppressed with special vigilance and unusually hard punishments. They formed Australia's first white minority. From the outset, the Irish in Australia saw themselves as a doubly colonized people.
At the Magistrate level, Samuel Marsden's zeal for the lash was often used with little respect for English common law. The New South Wales Corps practiced a brand of cronyism. Monopolising the rum trade and consolidating a great deal of land and stock wealth with their officers. Robert Hughes writes on the New South Wales Corps attitude to convicts;
Their [New South Wales Corps] junta mentality fostered two assumptions. The first was that none of them ... believed that naval governors were ever on their side. The second was that the convicts were there to be used, not reformed. Both caused a rapid hardening of attitudes against convicts, the lumpenproletariat of New South Wales. The New South Wales Corps stiffly resisted any effort to criticize, or even inspect, its treatment of convicts.
While the New South Wales Corps, Marsden and the Governor were targets of the rebellion they weren't the ultimate focus of the rebellion. This lack of focus makes the rebellion appear as a knee-jerk reaction to the convicts being exiled half a planet away from their home and under the tough and rough conditions of the penal colony. A situation where their incorrigibleness was uniformly assumed and their lack of dignity guaranteed by their treatment.
Many of the convicts wanted a ship home, away from this harsh, hot, alien land with its odd plants and animals. Away from their convict life and the immediate Colonial authorities. The Irish in particular attempted many escapes with the hope of catching or stealing a ship to the green and cold Ireland. Lynette Ramsey Silver concludes that a ship home was the main focus of the rebellion.
Carol Carruthers, Curator of the Hawkesbury Museum has an alternative view. The Irish leaders did not see English authority as legitimate in Ireland and were not prepared to recognize its legitimacy in Australia either. To the Irish Defenders and the United Irishmen, all English authority was illegitimate, unjust and their natural state was to resist it. The actions of the Irish political prisoners between 1800 and 1804 are consistent with this world view.
Ongoing Debate Over The Location Of Vinegar Hill
Vinegar Hill was not a formal location in 1804. The battle between the rebels and the soldiers became commonly known as the "Battle of Vinegar Hill" after the Irish battle in 1798. Common usage of the name Vinegar Hill began to appear in the 1810's and 1830's in the Rouse Hill area. But there is no formal Vinegar Hill on a map.
The road the rebels and soldiers travelled in 1804 was the Hawkesbury Road. This is the modern day four lane highway from Seven Hills roundabout, down Old Windsor Road and along Windsor Road. There have been competing thoughts for the location of Vinegar Hill. Originally it was thought to be Rouse Hill but Australian Historian George Mackanass challenged this in the 1950's. Marking the location of Vinegar Hill as the crossroads between Windsor Road and Schofields Road. In the 1980's several other local historians came to the same conclusion as did the NSW Commissioner for the Department of Planning and the Environment in 1982.
Lynette Ramsay Silver points to the letter of Major Johnston which talks of his troops turning at the 'Government Stock Fence' to the second hill from Half Way Pond. By her reckoning the Government Stock Fence is where Old Windsor Road and Windsor Road meet today and Old Ponds Creek is known today as Second Ponds Creek. To Silver the location of the battle is approximately at the crossroads of Schofields Road and Windsor Road. Silver writes;
The area occupied by Castlebrook Lawn Cemetery satisfies the criteria in every respect.
In 1988 a sculpture commemorating the battle was dedicated at Castlebrook Lawn Cemetery by former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.
The Clash Between The Convict Past and Popular Australian History
Australia's convict past was referred to in the nineteenth century as "The Stain" and something to be forgotten or danced around in polite conversation. This leads to a polarizing view of recent Australian history of either complete loyalty or the stamp of rebellion. Those that want to forget point to the crown, "mother england" and Australia's loyalty to Britain in World War One and Two. Those that want to include the convicts and rebellion in Australia's popular history are tagged with the "confused Irish social view" or in other words, the stain.
It is also hard for modern Australians to identify with the Irish rebels or the Colonial authorities. Neither groups evokes any sort of Australian-ness as a modern Australian would define it. The modern Australian popular image is of the power of the bush, epitomized in the bronzed Aussie. Ireland is a place half a world away and the authorities in Australia were far too zealous with the cat 'o nine tails for modern Australians to have any empathy with such brutality.
The fact remains that Australian history has a great deal of open resistance to authority, from the Aboriginal Wars when indigenous Australians fought to keep their land, to the 1804 Rebellion, to the Eureka Stockade and the 1932 face off between NSW and the Commonwealth. These historical events are an integral part of Australian history and deserve not be forgotten or brushed-off because they are unfashionable or might make Australia look bad or disloyal. Fortunately this attitude exists less and less as the Australian nation becomes more comfortable with its self-image.
The sending of Irish political prisoners changed the New South Wales colony. Previously the Governor and authorities only had to watch over ruffians rather than hardened Irishmen that did not see English authority as legitimate no matter which continent it was claimed or wielded.
The Irish and other convicts conspired to be free of the brutal tedium of convict life and the harshness of convict discipline. Freedom from the alien continent they had been exiled to and the downtrodden life they suffered at the hands of the Colonial authorities. Their goals included escape from convict labour, the over throwing of the Colonial Authorities in Sydney, Parramatta and Windsor. Finally their goals included escape from the New South Wales penal colony by ship.
The 1804 Rebellion is often called by Australian historians an Irish rebellion or "Australia's Irish rebellion". This is misleading as the group of rebels on Vinegar Hill included convicts and free men of many nationalities. Of the leaders hanged, several were English convicts. It is true however that the Irish convicts were punished more heavily for the rebellion than the English convicts.
The 1804 Rebellion and Vinegar Hill battle in western Sydney is relatively unknown in Australia. As are the other Australian rebellions such as the Aboriginal Wars, the Rum Rebellion, the Eureka Stockade, and NSW facing off with the Commonwealth in 1932. There is a definite unwillingness in Australian popular history to revisit the moments when Australians stood for their freedom and said, "no more".
This neglect of Australian history over the last two centuries has led to the actual location of Vinegar Hill being largely lost to memory. Several historians have attempted to reconstruct the location where the rebels met the soldiers and militia and there is some agreement that the location is Castlebrook Cemetery. However there is no universal agreement on this location.
As this rebellion occurred in Sydney's western suburbs the locations are easily sought out. To travel the path of the rebels and soldiers only a quick trip down Old Windsor Road to Windsor Road and past the new Ettamogah pub is needed. There you can decide for yourself, from the road and the land, where the two forces stood 90 yards apart and fired their muskets.
1. There is debate on when humans came to the Australian continent. Archaeological diggings in the Blue Mountains suggest that the Daruk people may have been there as long ago as 100,000 years. Other sites in Tasmania suggest that there has been human habitation on the island since the Ice Ages.
2. The Aboriginal people of Sydney were the Iora whose territory ran from Pittwater to Botany Bay. The Daruk people occupied the territory from the northern mouth of the Hawkesbury River down through Windsor and up into the Blue Mountains. The Aboriginal people south of Botany Bay were the Tarawal.
3. Britain prior to the American War of Independence had shipped convicts to the colonies in North America. By 1776 the southern colonies were moving to slave labour rather than convict labour. Slave labour was more plentiful and cheaper for the plantation owners.
4. A hulk was a rotting, mast-less old man-o'-war or troop transport that was anchored in a port or harbour. Since they were plentiful in southern English ports and were afloat they were pressed into use as a temporary residence for convicts that had been chosen for transportation. Since between 1776 and 1788 those convicts that were to be transported had nowhere to be transported to, the hulks grew in number and population, to the point where they were health hazards for the port towns.
5. Between 1788 and 1868 there were 825 shiploads of convicts sent to Australia resulting in approximately 148,000 convicts being transported to Australia. The final shipload of convicts to New South Wales was in 1840. The final shipload to Van Diemans Land was in 1853 and the final shipload to Western Australia was in 1868.
6. The list of political prisoners sent to Australia is a who's who of nineteenth century political groups. The political prisoners were not limited to the Irish. They encompassed dissenters from Scotland, England, Wales, Canada and South Africa. These included;
Irish political prisoner groups shipped included the Defenders in 1794 and the United Irishmen in 1800. Ireland political groups transported to Australia between 1815 and 1840 included the Caravets, Carders, Whiteboys, Rightboys, Hearts of Steel and Ribbon Men.
The Scottish political groups sent to Australia included the Scottish Martyrs in 1794 and the Radical Weavers in 1820.
The English political groups sent to Australia included the Luddites in 1812, the East Anglian food rioters in 1816, those in the Pentrich Rising of 1817, the Cato Street Conspirators in 1820, the Yorkshire Radical Weavers in 1821, the Bristol Rioters in 1831, the Welsh rioters in 1835, Swing rioters and machine breakers in 1830, the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834 and numerous Chartists between 1839 and 1848.
South Africa deported many blacks between 1828 and 1834 that were not political prisoners but had transgressed the racist South African laws.
Canada had two uprisings between 1837 and 1838 both republican in nature. These occurred in Quebec and Ontario against the colonial administration. One hundred and fifty three Canadian and American dissidents were sent to Australia. The U.S. Government protested the exiling of the U.S. Citizens but were unsuccessful in stopping them being sent to Van Diemens Land.
7. Joseph Holt was born in Ireland in 1756 and became a tenant farmer. He joined the United Irishmen when the Fermanagh Militia burned his house down at the order of the landlord Thomas Hugo. Holt fought in the Wexford County rebellion before successfully leading a rebel guerrilla group in Wicklow County.Eventually Holt came to the conclusion that it was in his interests to surrender in order to get the best terms he could for himself and his wife. This led to exile in the colony of New South Wales. After the 1804 Rebellion in Castle Hill he was exiled again to Norfolk Island and then Tasmania. He returned to Sydney and was given a land grant in order to farm. Holt was granted a pardon in 1809 before returning to Ireland in 1812. He wrote a personnel account of the rebellions in Wicklow and New South Wales which has been published many times. This was edited into "Rebellion in Wicklow" in 1838. He died in 1826.
8. Samuel Marsden was born near Leeds in 1764. Initially Marsden joined the Methodist Church but later changed denomination and joined the Church of England. He was ordained in 1794 and travelled to New South Wales as the chaplain. He was to remain the colony's only chaplain until 1831. Samuel Marsden is best known in popular Australian history as the "flogging parson" for his manner in handing out sentences as the magistrate for the colony. In his later years he also travelled to New Zealand seven times in an effort to convert the Maori people to christianity. He died in 1838 at St Matthews Rectory.
9. John MacArthur was born in Devonshire in 1767. MacArthur as a lieutenant was sent to the New South Wales colony where he quickly established himself as the paymaster for the New South Wales Corps. When the US ship, the Hope came into Sydney Harbour demanding inflated prices for its badly needed goods and the warning it wouldn't sell anything until all its rum was purchased, MacArthur used regiment funds to buy it. From then on the "Rum Corps" monopolised the import trade. MacArthur established the massive 60,000 acre Camden Park based on the sheep and wool trade. MacArthur established the sheep industry in Australia including importing the Spanish Merino breed in 1796. MacArthur was the main benefactor of the "Rum Rebellion" in 1808. Governor William Bligh of "Mutiny on the Bounty" fame, gaoled MacArthur in an attempt to control the Rum Corps but the New South Wales Corps overthrew Bligh and MacArthur and the Rum Corps ran the colony as a military junta for several years until the arrival of Governor Lachlan Macquarie. It is commonly construed by modern historians that MacArthur's wife Elizabeth was the brains behind their successful farming business and operation. John MacArthur died in 1834.
10. In February of 1803 thirteen convicts escaped from a farm at Castle Hill and raided the farm of Verincourt de Flambe for liqour, silverware and firearms. Two of the convicts, Patrick Gannan and Francis Simpson went on to the farmhouse of James Bean and raped his seventeen year old daughter. Gannon and Simpson were captured two days later asleep in the bush.
11. Major George Johnston was born in 1764 in Scotland. He joined the Royal Marines at the age of 12 before being transferred to the New South Wales Corps in 1792. One of George Johnston's claim to fame is that he was the first person in the first fleet to set foot in Australia. The convict James Ruse disputes this claim as he carried Johnston to shore on his back as Johnston didn't want to get his boots wet. After putting down the 1804 rebellion Johnston received a grant of 2,000 acres from Governor King. In 1808 Johnston was the Rum Corps officer who arrested Governor William Bligh and took the rank of Lieutenant-Governor in the military junta run by John MacArthur. When he returned to England to plead his case in the mutiny he lost his rank and was saved from execution by the words of former Governor Hunter. He returned to New South Wales in 1813 and became a successful farmer. He died in 1823.
12. Sydney and Parramatta also raised militia to defend the towns from the rebels. Neither of these forces took part in the Battle of Vinegar Hill. The "Parramatta Loyalists" militia numbered thirty six and remained in Parramatta. The "Sydney Loyalists" did not march with Major Johnston and remained in Sydney during the rebellion.
13. The New South Wales Corps through control of the rum trade, control of imports and its officers cronyism accrued a large percentage of the colonies wealth. In 1799 the New South Wales Corps officers owned 32% of the cattle, 40% of the goats, 59% of the horses and 77% of the sheep.
- The Fatal Shore. The epic of Australia's Founding. Robert Hughes, 1986.
- The Battle Of Vinegar Hill. Australia's Irish Rebellion. Lynette Ramsay Silver, 2002.
- The Great Republic Of The Southern Seas. Republicans in Nineteenth Century Australia. Audrey Oldfield, 1999.