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.

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.