‘Death or liberty, and a ship to take us home…’

Most Australians are familiar with the events which took place at the Eureka Stockade in 1854 near Ballarat in Victoria. This episode has well and truly become part of Australia’s cultural, political and social history and folklore. Fewer people know of the events which occurred 50 years earlier on the outskirts of the fledgling colony of Port Jackson [Sydney] in March 1804; events which are known both as the Castle Hill Rebellion or the Battle of Vinegar Hill.

Castle Hill was a predominantly Irish affair, drawing its personnel, inspiration and slogan from Irish events and political prisoners transported to ‘Botany Bay’ as a result of uprisings in Ireland in the 1790s including the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798-1803.

The United Irishmen, formed in 1791 in Belfast united Catholics and Protestants in a campaign for an independent and republican Ireland. Armed rebellion broke out in 1798 partly in the hope that post-revolutionary France would come to Ireland’s aid [but when it did, it was too little, too late]. A key turning point in the defeat of the United Irishmen uprising was the Battle of Vinegar Hill in Co Wexford* on 21 June 1798 in which the rebels were defeated. Seen by many as a turning point in the campaign, the struggle continued until at least 1803 and had an echo in Australia the following year.

It has been estimated that between 325 and 500 United Irishmen, Catholics and Protestants alike, were transported to Australia in the wake of the defeat of the uprising, joining 160 Catholic ‘Defenders’ from earlier troubles already in the penal colony. The United Irishmen were sent to Sydney on six ships, and attempted mutinies by the convicts broke out on more than one of these. Amongst these ships was the Anne, whose prisoners included a United Irishman named Phillip Cunningham who was later to lead the Castle Hill Rebellion. With the by now familiar cry ‘Death or Liberty’, the Anne’s prisoners attempted to seize control of the ship but failed. One ringleader was shot, others hanged and a number flogged, including Cunningham, who on arrival at Port Jackson was sent to the infamous Norfolk Island penal colony.

The influx of so many seasoned Irish rebels was a problem for the authorities in Port Jackson. Convict management policies usually called for the dispersal of convicts to individual farms, but in the early 1800s the colony was struggling to feed itself. Accordingly, the Governor established a number of government farms in an effort to grow more food and to reduce the colony’s reliance on imported food supplies from England. One of these was at Castle Hill on the north-west fringe of Sydney where the agricultural skills of the Irish were in demand. Phillip Cunningham was a stonemason, a valued skill in the colony, and he had been transferred to Castle Hill from Norfolk Island to become an overseer of government stonemasons. Altogether, there were 474 convicts at the Castle Hill farm in March 1804 when the rebellion broke out.

As with so many other rebellions, it was betrayed at the last minute and messages to other centres to join the rising were not sent. Nevertheless, on the night of 4th March 1804, 200 convict rebels broke out of Castle Hill and seized weapons estimated by some to be no less than one-third of the colony’s total available armoury at the time. This was a serious challenge to the colonial authorities. The rebels assembled under Cunningham at Constitution Hill near Toongabbie with the intention of marching on Parramatta and then onto Sydney but word of the rising did not reach supporters in other settlements. Cunningham therefore turned back towards Windsor with troops from the NSW Corps and local militia in pursuit.

Invited under a flag of truce to parley with the Government forces led by Major George Johnson#, Cunningham and his deputy agreed to talks. Asked what they wanted, Cunningham allegedly replied, ‘Death or liberty, and a ship to take us home [to Ireland]’.  Johnson was only buying time, however, and the negotiations were just a ruse. When the Government troops arrived, Cunningham and his second-in-command were seized. Cunningham was wounded and hanged the next day.

In the brief battle that followed, the leaderless rebels were quickly defeated and fled. Between 15 and 20 rebels were killed in the brief encounter. Although its exact location was not known for many years, the battle took place near Rouse Hill at Windsor but became known as the Battle of Vinegar Hill [despite no such place name existing locally] echoing the County Wexford battle.

Battle of Vinegar Hill, artist unknown. National Library of Australia

Battle of Vinegar Hill, artist unknown. National Library of Australia

The English authorities responded to the uprising in their usual way. In addition to Cunningham, eight other rebel leaders were hanged; their bodies left hanging in chains in various places around Sydney for weeks to deter others. Others were flogged and further transported to even more severe penal colonies on Norfolk Island or Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania)  and elsewhere.

Today Castle Hill is a Sydney suburb dominated by a giant shopping mall, Castle Towers. Inside the mall, in the atrium surrounding the central escalators, shoppers can read in engraved lettering a brief description of the rebellion. More information can be found on posters in the corridor leading to the toilets! More fittingly, a permanent memorial to the battle at nearby Rouse Hill has been established at a site in the Castlebrook Lawn Cemetery which is now generally agreed to have been near the place at which the Australian Battle of Vinegar Hill occurred. The memorial was dedicated in 1988 by former Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam.

Keith Harvey
Keith is the editor of the industrial relations journal, The Debate, published by the
Australian Institute of Employment Rights.

Historical footnotes:

*According to some sources, the password used by the miners at Eureka was ‘Vinegar Hill’.

# Major George Johnson, who suppressed the 1804 uprising was to become a rebel himself, taking a prominent part in the 1808 Rum Rebellion, arresting Governor Bligh. He was tried for this offence in England, but unlike Phillip Cunningham, did not pay for this with his life, returning to farm in NSW.

Sources/further reading:

Tony Moore: Death or Liberty; Rebels and radicals transported to Australia, 1788-1868, Pier 9, 2010, Chapter 2.

Andrew Moore: Phil Cunningham: A Forgotten Irish-Australian Rebel

Cameron Riley: The 1804 Australian Rebellion and Battle of Vinegar Hill. November 2003.

Anne-Maree Whitaker: Castle Hill convict rebellion 1804