Ireland’s Wars: The Australian Vinegar Hill

Before we close on 1798 and its aftermath, it behoves to take a look at an unlikely and, on this side of the world, little know military action that it inspired, tens of thousands of miles away from Ireland.

The dreaded penalty of “transportation”, liberally handed out by British courts for a wide variety of offences in the 18th and 19th centuries, has woven itself into Irish poetry, song and art. Petty thieves and ardent revolutionaries could all find themselves thrown into the cramped hold of a ship bound for the new colonies in Australia, there to serve out a set sentence as a convict – generally around seven years – after which they could either settle as free men and women in their new home or attempt the long journey back. For a time in the 18th century America was the main port of call for such prisoners, but the success of the revolution there has the authorities looking for other places.

Australia was first “discovered” by western explorers in 1606, but it was not until Captain James Cook’s expedition in 1770 that the British Empire first took major notice of the large, and mostly unclaimed, landmass. Taking special interest in the south-eastern coast, it was eventually determined to found a colony there, to provide a base against French activities in that portion of the globe, and a new destination for unwanted convicts, who would be used as labour for the new settlement. In 1788, the so-called “First Fleet” landed in Botany Bay, the site of the future city of Sydney, but the actual settlement was founded on Norfolk Island and further up the coast. One spot was Parramatta – today a suburb of Sydney – that had productive soil badly needed for the colonies survival.

The task of making the farms and cultivating the soil fell to the convict labourers, overseen by British military forces. There were many Irish among them, and many more arrived after 1798, when shiploads of convicted rebels were sent there as a punishment for their supposed treason, many of them never to return.

Convict life was harsh: under armed guard, men worked in the baking heat to try and grow enough food to keep the colony viable, dealing with both the lash of their masters and the odd attacks of the natives. Escape was possible, but there was nowhere to go in the large and mostly unexplored Australian wilderness. In such circumstances, and with such a large number of politicised convicts, the possibility of insurrection was high, something many early British governors and magistrates recognised.

In 1804, the governor of the colony of New South Wales was Philip Gidley King, a Navy man, who is credited with much of the “civilising” that turned the settlement from a ramshackle operation to the progenitor of modern day Sydney. He founded “Government Farm” in the hills outside of Parramatta in 1801, referred to afterward as “Castle Hill”. The farm was worked primarily by Irish Catholics sent to Australia since the 1798 uprising, prominent among them Philip Cunningham, who may have been involved in a failed mutiny on board the Anne, the ship that brought him to Australia, along with others.

Cunningham soon hatched plans for the convicts to rise up. There were hundreds of like-minded would-be rebels in Parramatta, and thousands more in the surrounding area: with the right coordination and initiative, sheer weight of numbers would have been enough to account for the local administration, well-armed but miniscule.

What exactly Cunningham and his followers would have done after seizing control of the colony – after the taking of Parramatta and nearby Sydney were accomplished anyway – is not known for sure. Decidedly anti-Irish accounts of the incident claim that the rebels sought a means to cross over the Australian Blue Mountains and make their way to China, ignorant of the fact that Australia was an island. Others have suggested that Cunningham aimed to seize harbours and the ships therein, for immediate passage back to Ireland, though there is little indication that his group would have had the requisite number of trained seamen capable of such a task.

More likely is that he hoped to establish a republican government in the area, and to seek the help of nearby French outposts in the Pacific: not all that different from the grand old dream that the United Irishmen had held for their own country. Such a plan would require bold steps and immense bravery, but it is quite likely that many of the Castle Hill convicts would rather have risked death in pursuit of such a cause than carry on meekly with their wretched existence, whatever about Governor King’s efforts to make a place for their class in the colony.

Cunningham’s initial plan was simple, made in consultation with other United Irishmen in other parts of the colony. He would rally the Castle Hill rebels and seize Government Farm, and then use the burning of buildings as a signal to other nearby farms and settlements to repeat the process. Having gathered enough men and with arms captured from the farms and local garrisons, the rebel army would march first on Parramatta, and then Sydney. Taking both would essentially take the whole colony: what would come after, would come after.

Cunningham’s plan, put into effect on the evening of March 4th, 1804, went awry almost as soon as it had started. Government Farm was seized by the suddenly revolting convicts, who were too much numerically for its small number of defenders, with its allocations of firearms and powder taken. But the fires set to alert the surrounding area to rise failed: they either didn’t see it, or lost their nerve and refused to budge. Cunningham was forced to march around the area, seizing smaller farms and their supplies, in a desperate effort to enlarge his army before the colony’s counter-response.

The population of New South Wales- probably no more than 5’000 people at the time – were duly alarmed by the news from Castle Hill. What regulars and civilian militia existed duly marched from Sydney to Parramatta, while a flood of civilians went the other way, a scene that presumably was not unlike that witnessed in Wexford in the early days of the 1798 fighting. Governor King declared martial law, and prepared to try and repulse the long-feared uprising.

As was often the case in 1798, mass of men counted very little in the face of superior firepower. Despite large numerical superiority, the effort to attack Parramatta failed with 30 dead rebels accounted for by the British forces. The attack was broken off when it was realised how well defended the town was. Cunningham was obliged to start moving his forces west, away from the British, in a desperate effort to hoover up more men and arms before the next engagement.

The exact location of what happened next has long been in dispute, but is commonly believed to have taken place at a rise called Rouse Hill, around 40 km’s west of modern day Sydney. After grabbing as many guns as he could, and allegedly impressing convicts who initially didn’t want to join him, Cunningham had moved his army there, which amounted to somewhere in the region of several hundred men, already down significantly from the 600 or more who had initially risen around Government Farm.

It was here, at a place dubbed “Vinegar Hill”, though whether it was a term of remembrance made by the Irish or one of mockery made by the British, I am not sure, that Cunningham was cornered, by a makeshift colonial unit under a Major George Johnston, later to become much more famous for his role in the 1808 Rum Rebellion. Johnston’s men, a mix of regulars and militia, numbered less than 60, but were well-armed and at least somewhat trained. They had marched overnight to cut Cunningham off, with Johnston resorting to diplomacy and the interjections of a local Catholic priests to delay the rebels’ moves.

Eventually things were forced to a fight. Some claim that Johnston used the offer of a false truce to capture Cunningham before the shooting started. Regardless, the actual “battle” lasted less than a half-hour, consisting of the British soldiers firing in well-drilled lines before a charge, upon which the Irish broke and fled. 15 of them had been killed, to no loss for the British side.

In the following days the routing Irish were mostly recaptured. Many faced severe punishment, with nine, including Cunningham, hung, with others getting hundreds of lashes or assignments to the dingy blackness of the nearby coal mines. But Governor King was inclined to be as merciful as could be: there was still a huge convict population in New South Wales that the colony depended upon, both for work on the farms and as future freemen, and they were all a very long way from reinforcements. The majority of the rebels were pardoned and sent back to their farms, excused on the grounds that had probably been swept up into the violence against their will.

The Castle Hill Convict Rebellion, or the “Second Battle of Vinegar Hill” as some dub it, was the only convict rebellion in Australian history put down by forces operating under martial law. In time, and despite some significant troubles – like the aforementioned Rum Rebellion four years later – the colony of New South Wales and the cities of Parramatta and Sydney would thrive, with a large population of native Irish and, eventually, those descended from them. Many United Irishmen, as we have already discussed, were among them, and many never took the opportunity to return back to their native land, instead choosing to make their fortune as best they could in the southern hemisphere.

Far across the sea, the land they left behind faced into a 19th century with a seemingly impregnable British hold, its administration still standing and its military forces among the very best on the planet, with a sizable Irish contingent. But, even despite this, more rebellions would come in time. Until then, we must take the time to look back on the 1798 Rebellion as a whole, as we have with previous conflicts, and offer a summation.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Australian Vinegar Hill

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: A Summary Of The 1798 Rebellion | Never Felt Better

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