Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Death or Liberty; And a ship to take me home.

The Castle Hill Rebellion of 1804 was a rebellion by convicts against colonial authority in the Castle Hill area of the British colony of New South Wales. The rebellion culminated in a battle fought between convicts and the Colonial forces of Australia on 5 March 1804 at Rouse Hill, dubbed the Battle of Vinegar Hill after the Battle of Vinegar Hill of 1798 in Ireland. It was the first and only major convict uprising in Australian history.

On 4 March 1804, 233 convicts led by Phillip Cunningham (a veteran of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, as well as mutiny on the convict transport ship Anne) escaped from a farm intent on capturing ships to sail to Ireland. In response, martial law was quickly declared in New South Wales. The mostly Irish rebels, having gathered reinforcements, were hunted by the colonial forces until they were sequestered on 5 March 1804 on a hillock nicknamed Vinegar Hill. 

A Major Johnston with Trooper Anlezark came  to parley, calling down the leaders Cunningham and Johnston from the hill. Demanding their surrender, he received the response from Cunningham 'Death or Liberty' and by some report added 'and a ship to take us home'. With the NSW Corps and Active Defence now formed up behind him Major Johnston and the trooper produced pistols and shepherded the two leaders back to unfriendly lines. Quartermaster Sergeant Thomas Laycock, on being given the order to engage, directed fifteen minutes of musket fire, then charged. The now leaderless rebels first tried to fire back, but then broke and ran.


During the short battle fifteen rebels had fallen, Major Johnston preventing more killings by threatening his troops with his pistol. Several convicts were captured and others killed in the pursuit which went up to Windsor all day until 9pm, with new arrivals of soldiers from Sydney joining in the search for rebels. Large parties of 50 and 70 who lost their way in the night turned themselves in under the Amnesty.

 Nine of the rebel leaders were executed and hundreds were punished before martial law was finally revoked on 12 March 1804.

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