Australia’s only serious convict uprising occured in Sydney in March 1804 at the Battle of Vinegar Hill. The battle site, though oft contested by historians, is generally accepted to be near Rouse Hill at the junction of Windsor Road and Schofields Road. But this only marks the end of the story, much precedes it.
By 1804, a growing popoulation of convict workers were employed around Sydney on Government and private estates, in road gangs, labour gangs, as domestic servants or in other employment. One of these establishments was the Government Farm at Castle Hill where around 480 convicts were working producing food for the fledgling colony. Amongst these convicts were a number of Irish rebels, convicts transported for their role in rebellion and uprisings in Ireland in the later 1790s, most notably a rellion and battle called Vinegar Hill in 1798.
There had been a number of small scale attempts at uprisings by the convicts in NSW since they had first arrived in 1788. Attempted mutinies at sea or organised rebellions on land. Almost all had been discovered before they had even begun, usually betrayed by someone on the inside keen on cutting a better deal for themselves at the expense of the others. Those implicated were brutally dealt with, either executed or flogged into submission. In 1804 lessons of the past had been well learnt. The two leaders of the rebellion, Philip Cunningham and William Johnston, veterans of previous campaigns including 1798, kept the plan secret as they organised themselves.
And what was the plan?
A simple plan: to rise up, overthrow the colonial authorities through the seizure of the settlements of Parramatta, Windsor and Sydney and then escape the colony on ships to freedom. To do this a simultaneous attack would be co-ordinated by the convicts at Castle Hill farm, those at Parramatta and those at the Hawkesbury (Windsor), who would then all come together and march on Sydney. If it went right nearly a third of the colonial population would rise up.
Of course it didn’t go right, although things started well enough. On the night of 4 March about 8pm, a convict living in a hut near the government farm set his cottage on fire as the signal. Seeing this, the rebels at Castle HIll stormed the guards overpowering them, and to the cries of Liberty or Death set off into the country towards Parramatta. Sadly for them, one of the groups got lost in the forest (hard to imagine but most of the land around Sydney was still thick forest) and worse, the messages to the rebels in Parramatta and Windsor had never made it. Faced with the possibility of meeting the Parramatta garrison with only 200 poorly armed men, Cunningham turned the group towards Windsor, making their way up the Windsor Road (easy with no cars on it). But things were beginning to unravel.
Soldiers had been gathering in Sydney under the command of Major George Johnston and were now marching at double time towards Parramatta and the rebels. On the morning of 5 March, close to Rouse Hill, Johnston caught up to the rebels’ party. As his soldiers were still some time away, he devised a stalling tactic: he called the two leaders forth to negotiate terms and promised to return with the Catholic priest Father James Dixonfor them to talk to. Although suspicious, the rebels agreed. As promised Major Johnston returned with Father Dixon as well as his soldiers. The leaders were again enticed forward, but this time as they called for Liberty or Death, the soldiers stepped forward from the trees and attempted to oblige them, by firing. A brief return fire was heard before the rebels broke and ran leaving 15 dead behind. Over the next few days the stragglers were hunted down by the soldiers. Cunningham who had been wounded on the field, was taken direct to Windsor and hung from the steps of the storehouse there. Johnston was tried and hung in a giblet to rot on the road to Parramatta for four months as a warning. Seven others were hung in Sydney, Parramatta and Windsor, and nine were publicly flogged receiving between100-500 lashes. Father Dixon was reputedly made to put his hand on the bloody backs of each for his suspected sympathies. And the rest were chained up and sent north to mine the coal out of the cliffs at Coal Harbour, later to be renamed Newcastle.
A memorial remains near Rouse Hill that probably marks the spot of Australia’s only convict uprising, now largely forgotten.