Thursday, 10 April 2014

A possible insurrection in 1807

Michael Dwyer had been involved in the 1798 rebellion and later made contact with Robert Emmet but was reluctant to commit his followers to march to Dublin unless the rebellion showed some initial success. The subsequent failure of Emmet’s rising in 1803 led to a period of repression and renewed attempts by the Government to wipe out Dwyer’s forces. In December 1803 Dwyer finally capitulated on terms that would allow him safe passage to America but the government reneged on the agreement holding him in Kilmainham Jail until August 1805, when they transported him to NSW as an unsentenced exile.

Dwyer arrived in Sydney on 14 February 1806 in the Tellicherry and was given free settler status.[1] He arrived with his wife and two eldest children. He was given a grant of 100 acres of land on Cabramatta Creek in Sydney adjacent to grants to his comrades Hugh ‘Vesty’ Byrne, John Mernagh, Arthur Devlin and Martin Burke. Michael Dwyer was quoted as saying that all Irish would be free in this new country. This statement had been used against him and he and several others in the group were arrested in February 1807 and imprisoned.[2] Bligh reported to William Windham, on 19 March, 1807

No arms have been found, or any positive overt act committed, our information leading only to declared plans which were to be put into execution by the Irish convicts, headed by O’Dwyer and some of the Irish state prisoners, as they are here called.

It appears that, in order to avoid detection, they determined to rest their success on seizing the arms of the loyal inhabitants ; and to effect this, the Irish servants of the inhabitants were on a certain time fixed to massacre their respective masters, and the principal persons of the colony, and then to possess themselves of their arms.

Of this determination, I continued to have proofs more or less, when I determined on seizing the persons represented as the ring-leaders, and effected my purpose. O’Dwyer I have put on board the Porpoise. Byrn (sic), Burke, and some others are in jail for trial, and will be brought forward as soon as our evidences are all arranged and prepared.[3]

On 11 May 1807 Dwyer was charged with conspiring to mount an Irish insurrection against British rule. An Irish convict stated in court that Michael Dwyer had plans to march on Parramatta. Dwyer did not deny that he had said that all Irish will be free but he did deny the charges of organising an Irish insurrection in Sydney. On 18 May 1807, Dwyer was found not guilty of the charges of organising an Irish insurrection in Sydney. Bligh informed Windham of his actions on 31 October 1807

...they have since been tried, and the fact, in my opinion, proved, yet they were acquitted - except two, who were sentenced to corporeal (sic) punishment. The whole being prisoners for life I immediately divided the gang and sent two of each to the settlements of Norfolk Island, the Derwent, and Port Dalrymple, and kept two here. The two men who informed of this conspiracy gave their evidence so steadily as to induce me to give them free pardons, and they remain here without any apprehension of being molested by the disaffected Irishmen.[4]

The Sydney Gazette reported

Michael O’Dwyer, Hugh Byrne, Martin Burke, John Merner (sic), Thomas McCann, Arthur Devlyn (sic), and Walter Clare, were put to the bar ..., for contriving and intending to disturb the peace of this colony, by instigating many persons to revolt from their allegiance, and to rise in open rebellion, with them to overthrow His Majesty’s Government therein, as well upon the 27th day of August last as at other subsequent periods, prior to the prisoners being taken into custody.

The evidence on the part of the Crown was clear and connected. It appeared upon the most respectable testimony, that the conduct of many of that description of prisoners, who had been exiled for treasonable and seditious practices, had been untoward and highly disrespectful to their masters, at and about the above stated period, and that,, from this sudden change of conduct, in addition to the various informations that were communicated by persons whose veracity was to be depended upon, no other inference was deductible than that the projected insurrection was on the very point of bursting forth, and that the devoted victims to delusion and artiface were confident of a successful issue.

The prisoners were allowed every assistance requisite for their defence; which after some exculpatory argument, concluded with a point blank denial of the charge.

The Court was then cleared; and after a minute revision of the evidence, reopened; when Thomas McCann and William Morris were found guilty, and the others were acquitted. - The prisoners were taken from the bar, and ordered to be brought up to receive their sentence the following day....Thomas McCann and William Morris were again brought forward, and addressed by the JUDGE ADVOCATE; who remarked to them, notwithstanding the malignancy of the crime they were convicted of upon testimony clear and incontrovertible, yet the penalty incurred did not extend to the lives of the delinquents; but the security of society from such foul, sanguinary, and abominable devices, rendered necessary the most exemplary punishment: The Court did therefore adjudge and sentence them to receive one thousand lashes each; the Court recommended further, that as delinquents of the most dangerous principles and character, be removed by the most speedy conveyance to some remote place, where the baneful influence of their detestible principles might not be disseminated among other ignorant & incredulous persons.

In pursuance of their sentence, the prisoners having received a part of their corporal punishment, have been sent away to different settlements, where the remainder will be inflicted....The odious project which has thus been happily laid open, has been in agitation for upward of a twelvemonth; the secret informations received by Government rendered vigilance necessary, and every precaution that had been adopted was immediately succeeded by a change of measures among the principal agents in the work of intended massacre - and had their plots succeeded to their wish, dreadful indeed had been the fate of all, whom reason, loyalty, and humanity must inspire with sentiments of abhorrence and disgust at their intended plan of operation.[5]

Bligh regarded the Irish and many other nationalities with contempt and disregarded the first trial acquittal of Michael Dwyer. Dwyer was stripped of his free settler status and transported to Norfolk Island and later to VDL. On 27 May, 1807, Bligh sent O’Dwyer and Morris to Norfolk Island with instructions to the Commandant, Captain Piper

Michael O’Dwyer and William Morris, two convicts for life, being found to be persons necessary to be removed from this settlement, you are hereby required and directed to receive the two said men, and victual them accordingly, taking care that they are not suffered to quit Norfolk Island unless by authority from under my hand. And the said William Morris, having received five hundred and twenty-five lashes, pursuant to his sentence of one thousand, you are hereby required to direct the remaining part of four hundred and seventy-five lashes to be inflicted according to the warrant sent herein by the Judge-Advocate.[6]

After Governor Bligh was deposed in the Rum Rebellion in 1808, the acting Governor of NSW, George Johnston who was present at Dwyer’s acquittal in the first trial ordered that he should be freed. Michael Dwyer later became Chief of Police in 1813 at Liverpool, NSW but was dismissed in October 1820 for drunken conduct and mislaying important documents. In December 1822, he was sued for aggrandising his farm with Ann Stroud’s. This spurred Daniel Cooper to demand restitution of some £2,000 invested in Dwyer’s popular Harrow Inn. Bankrupted, Dwyer was forced to sell off most of his assets but this did not save him from several weeks’ imprisonment in the Sydney debtors’ prison in May 1825. Here he evidently contracted dysentery from which he died in August 1825.


[1] See, O’Donnell, Ruan, ‘Dwyer, Michael (1772?-1825)’, ADB, supplementary Vol. p. 110 and Lawlor, Chris, In search of Michael Dwyer, (Chris Lawlor), 2003.

[2] O’Dwyer, B.W., ‘Michael Dwyer and the 1807 plan of insurrection’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 69, (1983), pp. 73-82 remains the only account of the supposed insurrection.

[3] Bligh to W. Windham, 19 March 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 259-260.

[4] Bligh to Windham, 31 October 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 363.

[5] Sydney Gazette, 7 June 1807.

[6] Bligh to Windham, 31 October 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 354.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi,
An interesting blog
I don't think it's correct that Michael Dwyer's two eldest children accompanied him to NSW. Two of his four children born in Ireland finally arrived in 1828, after his death a couple of years earlier.

Dwyer, Byrne and Devlin. who were all first cousins, were eventually reunited with their wives and children, each of their wives having been pregnant when the men were convicted and sentenced.

Ann Devlin who was their cousin and had served Emmet as well as accompanying Dwyer's wife, Mary, on various missions, survived her prison experience but died in extreme poverty in Ireland.