Castle Hill Rebellion
The Castle Hill Rebellion By permission of the National Library, Canberra
On Sunday night, March 4, about 250 convicts (some of whom were Englishmen of unknown religion) overpowered the recently depleted guards at the Government farm at Castle Hill (west of Parramatta) and were joined in plundering and acquiring arms by other convicts who left private farms to which they had been assigned in the area.
Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran – in his History of the Catholic Church in Australia – regarded the rebellion as apopular uprising and, by juxtaposition, implied it was a revolt against violent religious persecution.
In fact, it was neither motivated by religion, nor was it a popular revolt.
It was less than a year since Governor King had granted the Catholics of the colony the first act of toleration of their religion.
And the majority of convicts in the colony took no part in the revolt.
Irrefutable evidence of the non-religious character of the revolt was the repeated rejection by the rebels of entreaties by Fr James Dixon, who – either voluntarily or by orders from Governor King – accompanied Major George Johnston on the pursuit and encounter with the rebels, for them to surrender.
The Castle Hill convicts’ revolt, fuelled by news received in January 1803 of the commencement of Robert Emmet’s rebellion in Ireland backed by French Revolution forces (but not of its failure), was a local enactment of the age-old struggle by the oppressed Irish against the British occupiers of their country.
Led by two educated convicts - Philip Cunningham and William Johnston, former captains in the United Irishmen forces in Ireland (the main body opposed to the British) – the majority of the convict rebels were uneducated or poorly educated and susceptible to the rhetoric of the leaders.
Cunningham was determined to escape, having already made two abortive attempts for which he was flogged.
The slogan for the revolt was ‘Liberty or Death’.
Those words echoed the calls to action by Irish insurrectionists in Ireland and most recently those of the mobs in the French Revolution of 1789.
The password of the Castle Hill conspirators was ‘St Peter’, the connotation of which was political rather than religious.
Had it been St Patrick, the name of the patron saint of Ireland, whose story every Irishman knew, religion would have played a part.
Instead, St Peter, if known to them, was seen as a martyr in the struggle against official oppression of liberty, conscience and freedom.
The declared objective of the leaders of the Castle Hill rebellion was to overthrow the military government in the colony and to either commandeer or be welcomed aboard ships then in Port Jackson and escape to Ireland to rejoin the struggle against the British.
‘The Irish Fear’ – suspicion of rebellious and revolutionary intentions of the large Irish convict element in NSW after the failed 1798 Rebellion in Ireland – resulted in repeated severe, to the point of savage, reprisals by the authorities in 1800 upon those suspected of implication in the suspected revolt.
From establishment of the colony in 1788 until April 1803, no religious services other than those of the Established Church of England, were permitted by British and local authorities.
It was only 11 months since Governor King had conditionally pardoned the convict priest
Fr Dixon and allowed him to ‘exercise his clerical functions as a Roman Catholic priest’.
While it must be acknowledged that Governor King, seeing Fr Dixon as a mild mannered person and a likely influence for pacifying the Irish convicts, acted on the advice and sanction of the then Home Secretary, Lord Hobart, and granted the Catholics the first act of toleration and emancipation purely as a politically motivated act, it is evident that many of the Catholic convicts appreciated that act and would have no part in the insurrection.
No sooner had the Castle Hill rebellion been quashed than Governor King revoked Fr Dixon’s permission to officiate as a priest and cancelled the salary he had granted him.
The rebels were routed and fled ‘the scene of battle’ on Vinegar Hill on the Hawkesbury Road.
Summary justice was inflicted on those held to be ringleaders.
Cunningham, William Johnston and eight others were hanged.
Johnston’s body was left hanging in chains on the ‘fatal tree’ at Castle Hill to rot, as a warning against revolt.
While no precise official figures are available, it was said that 20 or 22 men died and 50 or 60 were captured. Many were flogged and some were sent to labour in the coal mines at the penal settlement of Newcastle.
Cardinal Moran’s statement in his History that “... thirty men were sentenced to be flogged in the presence of the priest (Fr Dixon), who was obliged after the flogging to put his hand on the bleeding back of each of the sufferers. His courage and strength held out for the first eight who received the lashes.
He then swooned away and had to be carried off from the brutal scene of suffering” had no documented substantiation.
It was repeated by Anglican Minister Harold Perkins in his book The Convict Priests. What had evidential support was the report that in 1800, following the trial of suspected plotters of an insurrection by Irish convicts, the other convict priest, Fr James Harold, was forced to place his hands on the ‘tree’ or triangle to which those being flogged were tied.
Nothing was gained by those who took part in the Castle Hill Rebellion. What did result, was the setting back of the Catholic cause in the colony for another 16 years before the British Government appointed Frs Conolly and Therry as official Catholic chaplains to the colony (in 1820).
For a detailed narrative of the Rebellion, see Anne-Maree Whittaker’s Unfinished Revolution (Sydney, 1994) Chapter 5, pp 90 to 119.