Friday, August 15, 2014

Australian Irish Convict Revolt (1804)

Australian Irish Convict Revolt (1804)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Irish convicts vs. British colonial
authorities in Australia



MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The convicts, feeling
unjustly imprisoned, rebelled, seeking to escape the
penal colony.

OUTCOME: The rebellion was suppressed and its leader
publicly executed.

266 convicts; 56 colonial troops

CASUALTIES: Convicts, 15 killed in combat, 8 executed;
colonial troops, none


The history of the British penal colonization of New South
Wales begins in 1788, when the first 730 convicts arrived
at Botany Bay and settled at Port Jackson. Although there
are different opinions as to what use the British had for the
continent down under, the employment of penal colonies
as a source of cheap labor in farming and development
was certainly one of them, occupying a prominent place in
Britain’s colonial policy in the late 18th and early 19th
centuries. Sydney Cove became the penal colonies’ operations
center for the British, and around it flourished
smaller farming penal colonies.
In 1803, Lieutenant Colonel David Collins (served as
Tasmanian governor, 1804–10) arrived in Port Phillip
(near present-day Melbourne) from England with 308
prisoners. Because of the adverse conditions at Port
Phillip, Collins petitioned the king for permission to relocate
to Van Dieman’s Land, the present-day island of Tasmania.
Once granted, a penal colony was developed in
Sullivan’s Cove, the modern Hobart Town, Tasmania. The
penal colony of Sullivan’s Cove was made up of Irish criminals
and political prisoners, many of whom had never
been tried. Such injustices led to an uprising on March 4,
The Australian Irish Convict Revolt began at a penal
farm outside Sydney called Castle Hill. Some 266 Irish
convicts broke out, ransacked a nearby settlement, and,
armed with farm tools and guns, rallied around their
leader, Philip Cunningham (d. 1804). Cunningham had
developed a plan to escape New South Wales by taking the
town of Parramatta. That evening the British declared
martial law and detached Brevet Major George Johnston
and Lieutenant Colonel William Paterson with their
troops to Parramatta. By the morning of March 5 they
arrived, having marched 20 miles overnight. There ensued
an unsuccessful round of negotiations, followed by gunshots.
The revolt was quelled easily enough: 15 convicts
were killed in the fighting and Cunningham was detained.
On March 6 the Irish rebel leader was hanged along
with seven others. Nine convicts were transported to
Newcastle after being flogged, and all Catholic worship
was suspended in the colony. British authority had been
fully restored in the region.

Further reading: Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: The
Epic of Australia’s Founding (New York: Random House,
1986); A. G. L. Shaw, Convicts and Colonies: A Study of Penal
Transportation from Great Britain and Ireland to Australia
and Other Parts of the British Empire (Melbourne, Australia:
Melbourne University Press, 1977).

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