Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Castle Hill Rising: some conclusions

Unlike the Eureka rebellion at Ballarat, Victoria in 1854, Australian historians have been slow to recognise the 1804 convict revolt as a legitimate expression of political resistance. Established in 1788, the fledgling British colony of NSW was small and isolated, but with a significant component of political rebels among its convict population. As a result, NSW had a strong undercurrent of republicanism and a persistent anti-authoritarianism to British rule. According to Patrick O’Farrell, the Irish were led to rebel by semi-mystical impulses, ‘frustrations, sickness of heart, and impulses of affront: in a word pride.’[1] Lynette Ramsay Silver also implies that the rebels were merely homesick romantics. More recently historians Ann-Maree Whitaker and Ruan O’Donnell have recognised the political imperatives that shaped rebellion.

With the exception of Joseph Holt’s Memoirs, edited and published in 1838 twelve years after his death and decidedly critical of seditious activities, the accounts of the planned or actual Irish rebellions in the first decade of the nineteenth century were written by those who sympathised with or supported the actions of the authorities. The rebels themselves have little or no voice and where it is evident it is generally mediated through the voice of the authorities in despatches, reports and accounts. Reliance on ‘official’ sources poses particular problems especially since official attitudes towards Irish ‘politicals’ from the early 1790s was broadly negative. This can be seen David Collins’ comments on fractious character of Irish convicts in 1798 and 1799 and of the need to take firm action against them

The Irish prisoners who had arrived in the last ships from that country had about this period become so turbulent and refractory, and so dissatisfied with their situation, that, without the most rigid and severe punishment, it was impossible to derive from them any labour whatever.[2]

A numerous body of the Irish convicts, many of whom had but lately arrived, insisted that ‘their times were out’, and could not be persuaded that they were mistaken by any remonstrance or argument. They grew noisy and insolent, and even made use of threats; upon which a few of the most forward and daring were secured, and instantly punished; after which they were ordered to go back to their work. They had also taken up the idea that Ireland had shaken off its connection with England, and they were no longer to be considered as convicts under the British government. This was a most pernicious idea to be entertained by such a lawless set of people, and requiring the strong arm of government to eradicate it.[3]

More problematic was the political ideas circulating among Irish convicts in early 1798 especially their belief in their ultimate liberation through French intervention. To the authorities, isolated in NSW, this posed a major threat.

A report prevailed at this time among the labouring people, particularly the Irish, who were always foremost in every mischief and discontent, that an old woman had prophesied the arrival of several French frigates, or large ships of war, who were, after destroying the settlement, to liberate and take off the whole of the convicts. The rapidity with which this ridiculous tale was circulated is incredible. The effect was such as might be expected. One refractory fellow, while working...at Toongabbie, threw down his hoe, advancing before the rest, and gave three cheers for liberty. This for a while seemed well received; but, a magistrate fortunately being at hand, the business was put to an end, by securing the advocate for liberty, tying him up in the field, and giving him a severe flogging.[4]

Colonial paranoia increased once evidence of planned rebellion became evident after 1800 but how real was the threat from Irish convicts?  The Defenders and United Irishmen transported between 1795 and 1806 provided leadership to those convicts, many Irish but including English transportees, who were prepared to take direct action to overthrow the colonial authorities. Although it was the Irish convicts who were a particular concern to Hunter, King and Bligh, it is important not to over-exaggerate their significance while under-estimating the involvement of convicts of other nationalities. In addition, the Irish convict leadership had considerable experience in planning and implementing rebellious activities. This explains why successive governors sent leaders or presumed leaders, whether there was concrete evidence of sedition or not, to the more isolated penal settlements on Norfolk Island and VDL. This had the effect of disrupting any planning for insurrection. Finally, hatred of the British in Ireland was transposed to NSW and this meant that Irish leaders had a willing supply of convicts who were prepared to support their actions. That support came from non-Irish convicts is a reflection of the punitive and arbitrary nature of convict life. Where they were concentrated in one area, as on the Castle Hill farm, Ireland’s cause helped bind these men together.

However, there were major problems for those seeking rebellion. First, keeping planning secret was a major difficulty and only the Castle Hill revolt in 1804 saw planning converted into action. Convicts were always willing to ‘split upon each other’ and this allowed the authorities to intervene before matters spiralled out of control. Secondly, the objectives of rebellion such as the rallying cry of ‘Death or Liberty’ or demands for a ship to go home were idealistic and unrealistic. Although these may have been the aims of rebel leaders, there is little evidence that they were widely held by the rank-and-file, many of whom claimed that they had been forced into rebellion.[5] Thirdly, as in Ireland during the 1798 rebellion, when faced with even inferior military force, the rebels could not translate numerical strength into military victory. Finally, the hoped for French aid was illusory as it was never part of French strategy and, during the critical period from1801 to 1804 war in Europe had been suspended.

It was the British government that was constantly afraid of convict rebellion and disorder though this did not stop it sending political prisoners to NSW despite the concerns of successive governors. For the authorities, a colony composed largely of convicts was inevitably turbulent and rebellious, something reflected in Hunter’s and King’s despatches. In his reports on NSW and VDL, Bigge considered that the best security against rebellion was the higher standard of living that convicts generally enjoyed in NSW than in Britain and the opportunities and rewards open to those with industry and skill. Some convicts ‘bolted’ but only a few rebelled.


[1] Ibid, O’Farrell, Patrick, The Irish in Australia, p. 38.

[2] Ibid, Collins, David, An account of the English colony in New South Wales, Vol. 2, p. 54.

[3] Ibid, Collins, David, An account of the English colony in New South Wales, Vol. 2, pp. 102-103.

[4] Ibid, Collins, David, An account of the English colony in New South Wales, Vol. 2, p. 77.

[5] The major source for the attitudes of ordinary rebels comes from after the rebellion had failed. Faced with possible hanging, it is hardly surprising that many claimed they had been coerced into rebelling. This was evident in other rebellions, for instance, after Newport in 1839 many of those arrested claimed coercion as a defence.

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