Thursday, 20 March 2014

The Castle Hill Rising: Transportation

Most rebels were fiercely republican after having seen the successful creation of the United States and the changes caused by the French Revolution. Republican notions such as natural rights and a popularly elected upper house were a major threat to those whose power rested on established monarchical and oligarchic institutions. Political dissidents were seen and handled as a threat to British society. Audrey Oldfield suggests

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. [1]

The British Government preferred deporting or exiling political prisoners to Botany Bay rather than risk creating martyrs if they were executed, something that was largely confined to leaders.[2] 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.

Prison hulk c1810

The first Irish political prisoners were not the United Irishmen who arrived in NSW on the Minerva and the Friendship in January 1800.[3] Whitaker argues that about 400 of the several thousand United Irishmen sentenced to transportation actually reached NSW; a total 58 less than A.G.L. Shaw’s figure but 75 more than George Rudé’s.[4] However, of the 519 male prisoners disembarked in NSW from four ships between 1793 and 1797, between 200 and 300 convicts were probably Defenders. Defenders made up at least half of all Irish political prisoners who arrived in New South Wales before to 1806. The 233 men landed in Port Jackson from the Boddingtons[5] and Sugar Cane[6] had all been sentenced in or before 1793, predating the merger with the United Irishmen.  The many Defenders among the 286 male convicts transported on the Marquis Cornwallis[7] and Britannia[8] in 1796-1797 were technically United Irishmen.[9] There is every indication that they would have been described as United Irishmen but for the confusion of the Irish authorities about republican terminology and changing patterns of association. Although the transported Defenders did not participate in the Rebellion of 1798, there is little else to distinguish them from the later United Irishmen. Discussion of Irish political prisoners in NSW that does not include ‘United Irish Defenders’ in their calculations of Irish numerical strength provides a partial view of seditious affairs in the colony.  There is no reason to assume that the political prisoners of the Marquis Cornwallis and Britannia would have been regarded as anything but comrades by rebels arriving on the Minerva and Friendship in 1800.  Close ideological ties are also likely to have existed between them and the unaligned Defenders of the Boddingtons and Sugar Cane.

Convicts en route for Australia

The precise number of Defenders and United Irishmen transported to New South Wales prior to 1800 is a problematic issue that available sources cannot resolve.  While it seems that there were very few political prisoners on the Queen of 1791, an unknown number were put on board the Boddingtons and Sugar Cane in 1793. As 60-70 men on the Boddingtons were convicted in counties where violent Defender inspired disturbances had occurred it can be assumed, following A.G.L. Shaw’s rule of thumb, that many of them were members of that organisation.[10] The Sugar Cane, conversely, carried fewer prisoners from these districts and a higher proportion of Dubliners, an area not greatly agitated by Defenderism at that time.[11] Information concerning the Britannia and Marquis Cornwallis is more conclusive and Rudé agreed with Shaw’s identification of ‘about’ 100 Defenders on these Ships.[12] However, a close comparison of disturbed districts with prisoner trial places could yield a figure not much less than the total male complement of 163 men on the Marquis Cornwallis.[13] Sufficient numbers of Defenders were sentenced in 1793 to fill several transports though relatively few of these men arrived in NSW.  Of the 25 Louth Defenders sentenced to transportation at Dundalk assizes in March 1793, only four were embarked. Similarly, only two of the twelve sentenced at the Cork city and county assizes in March 1794 actually arrived.

In 1795 the Marquis Cornwallis had a reputation as a ‘political’ ship; contemporary accounts stated it left Cork on 9 August with ‘seventy...Defenders’ on board.[14] The Britannia also embarked substantial numbers of Defender/United Irish convicts who could have amounted to the entire male complement given the turmoil in which that year’s assizes had taken place.   A county breakdown of the most likely Defender prisoners on board the Britannia gives a figure of 145 men that included some criminals and omitted political prisoners from less disturbed counties. 60 of the 107 non-Dubliners received life sentences, a marked increase on the 40% rate on the non-political Queen, may indicate a high incidence of seditious crimes.  Britannia was also the first ship to leave Ireland after the passage of the draconian Insurrection Act in 1796 that may explain a Dublin press report of August 1796 stating ‘fifty convicts...[were] shipped from the North Wall for Botany Bay’ of whom ‘three quarters’, roughly 38, were Defenders. As the Britannia landed only 39 male convicts from Dublin city and county in Port Jackson in May 1797 it would appear it had been designated a ‘political’ ship.

Transportation ship

The intriguing and ill-discipline of the exiled Defenders that concerned Governor Hunter and frightened Governor King was very apparent during the voyages of the four ships with Defender convicts.[15]  One man was summarily executed for mutiny on the Sugar Cane and some details of a plot on the Boddingtons reached the colony.[16] While mutiny and escape were common topics of conversation among all convicts, the Defender/United Irishmen of the Britannia and Marquis Cornwallis planned uprisings that resulted in the deaths of about 26 men and two official enquiries in Port Jackson.[17] The rebellious conduct of the convicts on the Britannia and Marquis Cornwallis before and after arrival in NSW seems to have prejudiced the colonial administration against later shipments of prisoners who had taken part in the 1798 rebellion.  That two mutinies of a similar nature had been suppressed on successive voyages must have struck Hunter as the probable consequence of transporting Defenders and United Irishmen en masse.  The serious problems also occurred on the Anne, Hercules, Atlas I and Minerva in 1800-1802 but not the criminal Queen and Rolla highlighted the political factor. The Minerva contained amongst the Irish rebels, Joseph Holt[18] and James Harold. 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. Many of the United Irishmen on the Minerva were sent off to Norfolk Island in an attempt to disperse them. There was considerable opposition to such transports by Hunter and his successor Governor King but neither had any real control over the numbers or type of prisoners embarked for NSW.[19] The Governors were also remarkably ill-informed as to the character of Irish prisoners as documents setting down their names and crimes and sentences generally only arrived years after the ships if at all.[20] This created an atmosphere of paranoia in the colony that was accentuated by the United Irish plots of 1800 and the Castle Hill uprising in March 1804.[21]

Discussion of rank and file Defenders in the Australian context has hitherto centred on a series of oft quoted comments made by Governor Hunter in 1796 regarding ‘those turbulent and worthless characters called Irish Defenders’ who had boldly ‘threatened resistance to all orders’.[22] As no such opinions were expressed by Hunter’s predecessor in relation to the Defenders sent out in 1793 it would appear that his blanket hostility resulted from the ability of the Britannia and Marquis Cornwallis convicts to destabilise the colony and his knowledge of their plotting on the voyages from Ireland. To the Governor’s intense annoyance, the Defenders who arrived in 1796-1797 not only disaffected otherwise peaceable English convicts but escaped both frequently and in large numbers.  Hunter complained they had ‘completely ruined... [those] formerly received from England’ and threatened ‘that order so highly essential to our well being’.[23]  One of the more serious and disruptive breakouts involved a twenty strong ‘gang of...Defenders’ who were so obstinate when apprehended that Hunter had two executed.[24] Hunter’s exasperation with the ‘Defenders’ moved him to suggest that they should not be sent to NSW but rather to ‘Africa, or some other place as fit for them’.[25]


[1] Ibid, Oldfield, Audrey, The Great Republic of the Southern Seas: Republicans in Nineteenth-Century Australia, p. 212.

[2] Retribution for the rebel leaders in 1798 was swift and largely uncompromising. Bagenal Harvey, Cornelius Grogan, Mathew Keogh, and Anthony Perry, all Wexford commanders and all Protestants were executed; their heads were cut off and stuck on spikes outside the courthouse in Wexford town. Father John Murphy, the hero of Oulart and Enniscorthy was captured in Tullow, County Carlow. He was stripped, flogged, hanged and beheaded: his corpse was burned in a barrel. With an eye for detail, the local Yeomanry spiked his head on a building directly opposite the local Catholic church. By the end of the rebellion between 10,000 and 25,000 rebels including a high proportion of non-combatants had been killed, most summarily.

[3] The discussion of Defenders draws heavily on O’Donnell, Ruán, ‘Desperate and Diabolical’: Defenders and United Irishmen in early NSW’, unpublished paper.

[4] Whitaker, Anne-Maree, Unfinished Revolution: United Irishmen in New South Wales, 1800-1810, (Crossing Press), 1994, p. 29, Rudé, George, ‘Early Irish Rebels in Australia’, Historical Studies, Vol. 16, (1974-1975), p. 23 and ibid, Shaw, A.G.L., Convicts & the Colonies, p. 170.

[5] Hall, Barbara, Of Infamous Character: The Convicts of the Boddingtons, Ireland to Botany Bay, 1793, (B. Hall), 2004.

[6] Hall, Barbara, A Nimble Fingered Tribe: The Convicts of the Sugar Cane, Ireland to Botany Bay, 1793, (B. Hall), 2002, 2nd ed., 2009.

[7] Hall, Barbara, A Desperate Set of Villains: The Convicts of the Marquis Cornwallis, Ireland to Botany Bay, 1796, (B. Hall), 2000, 2nd ed., 2003, 3rd ed., 2005.

[8] Hall, Barbara, Death or Liberty: The Convicts of the Britannia, Ireland to Botany Bay, 1797, (B. Hall), 2006.

[9] Boddingtons arrived 7 August 1793, Sugar Cane 17 September 1793, Marquis Cornwallis in February 1796 and Britannia on 27 May 1797.  See also, HRA, Series I, Vol. 1, pp. 446, 454 and Vol. 2, p. 31. 

[10] Ibid, Shaw, A.G.L., Convicts & the Colonies, p. 171.

[11] There were 53 county and city Dubliners on the Sugar Cane as opposed to 36 on the Boddingtons and 12 Corconians up from 3.  Only one convict on Sugar Cane came from Louth and Monaghan and none from Donegal.

[12] See, ibid, Shaw, A.G.L., Convicts & the Colonies, p. 171 and ibid, Rudé, George, ‘Early Irish Rebels in Australia’, p. 19.

[13] Over 200 men were sentenced to transportation in 1795 alone. 

[14] New Cork Evening Post, 10 August 1795.

[15] Ibid, Shaw, A.G.L., Convicts & the Colonies, p. 168.

[16] Ibid, Bateson, Charles, The Convict Ships, pp. 129-130.

[17] Hunter to Portland, 5 September 1796, HRA, Series I, Vol. 1, p. 653, HRNSW, Vol. 3, pp. 102-111.

[18] Joseph Holt was born in Ireland in 1756 and became a tenant farmer and as a trusted Protestant loyalist held some minor local positions. About 1797, he joined the United Irishmen in part because of a private feud with the landlord Thomas Hugo. In 1798, the Fermanagh Militia burned his house down on Hugo’s orders. Holt fought in the Wexford County rebellion before successfully leading a rebel guerrilla group in Wicklow County. Eventually he 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 without trial in the colony of NSW. After the 1804 Rebellion, he was exiled again to Norfolk Island and then VDL. 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 NSW: Croker, T.C., (ed.), Memoirs of Joseph Holt: general of the Irish rebels, in 1798, 2 Vols. (H. Colburn), 1838, Vol. 2 covers his life in Australia. He died in 1826. See also, Bolton, G.C., ‘Holt, Joseph (1756-1826)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 550-551.

[19] King to Portland, 21 May 1802, HRA, Series I, Vol. 3, p. 489.

[20] Portland to Hunter, 2 March 1797, HRA, Series I, Vol. 2, p. 9.  King to Castlereagh, 24 July 1798 and Hunter to Portland, 1 November 1798, HRA, Series I, Vol. 2, pp. 234-236.

[21] King came to regard virtually all Irish male prisoners sent to New South Wales after 1793 as dangerous as the ‘diabolical characters’ of the Anne: King to Portland, 28 September 1800, HRA, Series I, Vol. 2, p. 614.  See also King to Portland, 10 March 1801, HRA, Series I, Vol. 3, p. 9.

[22] Hunter to Portland, 12 November 1796, HRA, Series I, Vol. 1, p. 674.

[23] Hunter to Portland, 10 January 1798, HRA, Series I, Vol. 2, p. l18.

[24] Hunter to Portland, 15 February 1798, HRA, Series I, Vol. 2, p. 129, HRNSW, Vol. 3, pp. 359-360.

[25] Hunter to Portland, 12 November 1796, HRA, Series I, Vol. 1, p. 675.

No comments: