‘Death or Liberty’: Australia’s Battle of Vinegar Hill at 220

Battle of Vinegar Hill

First published at Hintadupfing.

220 years ago, on March 5, 1804, several hundred armed rebels — mostly escaped Irish political prisoners, veterans of Vinegar Hill and the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798 — clashed with British armed forces near Castle Hill in western Sydney. They lost, but while their rebellion was short-lived, it was far from the impromptu uprising many suggest. Rather, it was just the latest, and largest, manifestation of an ongoing Irish republican struggle in the fledgling colony. 

In terms of scale, the “battle” of Castle Hill was truthfully little more than a skirmish in the bush in western Sydney. Only a handful of rebels were killed, the rest fled, and their leaders were easily captured by crown forces under a false flag of truce. The rebel forces were poorly organised and divided, while — due to betrayal — hundreds more who would otherwise have joined them did not. Even so, the rebellion shook the colony to its core — a reaction that can only be understood in the context of the years immediately preceding it, both in Sydney, and in Ireland.

A vulnerable penal colony

By 1800, Sydney Town was a young settlement of barely 12 years, with only 2500 European inhabitants — 43 percent of them convicts. Further inland, Toongabbie and Parramatta had a combined population of under 1500, and perhaps another 1100 — mostly free settlers — could be found in the Hawkesbury. The colony was dotted with several small garrisons, but the military presence was confined largely to Sydney Town.

The economic viability of the settlement was also still uncertain, particularly after huge floods in 1799. This instability was to continue for several years, with ships sent to seek emergency food supplies from India as late as 1813. While hindsight can give rise to a misleading sense of inevitability, this vulnerability would have been palpable at the time, not least to hundreds of Irish political prisoners — convinced republicans and veterans of a large-scale armed rebellion against the British only months before.

The first ships carrying around 400 of these Irish political prisoners arrived at the start of 1800, sent as exiles-without-trial to the New South Wales colony in the aftermath of the failed United Irishmen rebellion of 1798. While some were senior members of the United Irishmen, arrested before the rebellion had begun, others had seen action in Waterford, Wexford, the Midlands, and the north. It would soon become apparent that the long journey to Australia had failed to break their spirits.

Sedition and conspiracy

As early as February 1800, records tell of a seditious meeting among the Irish being broken up in Sydney, while another plot was reported in May. In September, another conspiracy among the Irish prisoners was uncovered, with plans to take the Sydney barracks and overthrow the Governor, and for the rebels to then live on the settlers’ farms until they heard back from a message they would send to France. More disturbances were reported in October, with suspected ringleaders shipped off to Norfolk Island to defuse their plotting — unsuccessfully. In December, a rebellion on Norfolk Island was apparently averted only by the pre-emptive execution of two of its leaders.

Such accounts make the colony seem a hotbed of rebel activity, but it is difficult to know how much was true, and how much was British paranoia. One witness testified to the notorious “Flogging Reverend”, Samuel Marsden, in 1800 that she became convinced the Irish were planning “something that was improper” after seeing them “talking very earnestly in Irish”. A sectarian bigot, Marsden was already predisposed to distrust the Irish, describing them as "the most wild, ignorant and savage race that were ever favoured with the light of civilisation", while considering Irish convicts even worse, “depraved beyond all conception”.

Bigotry and sectarianism

Yet while the evidence of conspiracy and unrest may have been often flimsy, the British fear and distrust of the Irish was real enough, reflecting both ingrained ethnic prejudices and genuine political insecurities in aftermath of the events of 1798. Governor John Hunter — replaced by Governor Philip Gidley King in late 1800 — repeatedly complained to London that the Irish prisoners were “turbulent” and “diabolical” and called for the number of Irish transportees to be drastically reduced in the interest of colonial security. 

Another consequence of the 1800 Irish scare was the establishment, on September 7, of an official civilian paramilitary movement: the Loyal Associations of Sydney and Parramatta, each with a captain, three sergeants, two drummers and three corporals, 36 privates in the Sydney group, and 29 in Parramatta. These loyalist paramilitaries were suspended by Governor King in August 1801, but recalled on December 9, 1803, when news arrived that France and England were at war. They marked the beginning of a conservative, protestant “law and order” tradition that was to continue well into the twentieth century, built on profound distrust of, and discrimination against, the Irish Catholic community in Australia.

Echoes of Emmett’s rebellion 

Further ships soon arrived from Ireland — the Anne, which reached Sydney in 1801 after surviving a mutiny by the prisoners onboard, and the Atlas I, Atlas II, and Hercules in 1802. Each carried more veterans of 1798, along with the latest updates of the state of unrest in the Irish countryside. Perhaps in response to news that the rebellion had finally been defeated, reported Irish agitation in the colony lessened, so much so that the British allowed the colony’s first Catholic priest to (briefly) perform his ministry. As late as March 1, 1804, Governor King wrote to London that the Irish in Sydney were now behaving themselves.

The spark for a new rebellion was already being kindled, however, after the whaling ship the Ferret arrived in Sydney in January 1804, bringing newspapers dating from August 1803. These bore tidings of Robert Emmet’s new United Irish rising near Dublin — but not of its demise, which followed closely in the weeks that followed. Not to be dampened by news of later events, word of Emmet’s uprising spread through the colony like wildfire, and six weeks later — whether by coincidence or not, on Emmet’s birthday – that spark became a flame.

‘Death or Liberty…’

Literally, as it turns out. Instructions spread on March 4 that the rebellion would begin at nightfall, and the official signal was when one of the leaders, John Cavenah, set fire to his hut at Castle Hill Government Farm at 8 o’clock. That night, some 200-300, mostly Irish, prisoners escaped from the prison farm, led by Philip Cunningham — a key architect of the rebellion. A Kerry-man, Cunningham was a veteran of the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion and of its aftermath, where he had been captured and tried in Clonmel while rebuilding the United Irishmen in Tipperary. He had also been involved in the mutiny on board the Anne during its journey to Australia.

The signal fire was not seen by his comrades at Green Hills (today's Windsor) on the Hawkesbury River, but Cunningham proceeded with his plan regardless, taking weapons, ammunition, and food from the Castle Hill Government Farm, and recruiting local supporters. The rebels — their numbers soon swelling to over 685 — adopted the slogan “Death or Liberty” as their rallying call, planning to join hundreds more from the Hawkesbury area, to rally at Constitution Hill, and to march on Parramatta and then Sydney’s Port Jackson itself. There they would establish Irish rule and send those who wished it back to Ireland to reignite the 1803 rebellion.

Damned betrayal

After looting the government farm, the rebel group divided into smaller parties, going from farm to farm on their way towards Constitution Hill, collecting further supplies and recruits. Their actions were informed by intelligence gathered the previous year, when 12 escaped prisoners sought out friends and sympathisers in the surrounding districts. Even so, many lost their way during the night and failed to reach the rendezvous point — including a group of 70 under the command of Samuel Humes. These losses were worsened when plans to join with hundreds of prisoners in the Hawkesbury region went awry after John Griffen, the courier taking their mobilisation orders, betrayed the uprising and surrendered to authorities that night.

Another small group of rebels attempted to enter Parramatta to set a building alight as a signal for local rebels and those in Sydney to join the rebellion, but two defectors again ruined the plan. Captain Edward Abbott commenced defensive measures in Parramatta and sent a message to Governor King in Sydney. King, alerted to the rebellion late during the evening of March 4, declared martial law, although when news of the uprising reached the small colony, a great panic set in, with some officials — including Samuel Marsden — fleeing the area by boat. Major George Johnston of the New South Wales Corps (himself later to play a key role in the Rum Rebellion coup d’état of 1808) quickly gathered a force of British troops and a large civilian militia — including the Sydney Loyal Association — to pursue the rebels.

New Ireland

With the element of surprise lost and plans to mobilise rebels in the Hawkesbury, Parramatta and Sydney having failed, the uprising was confined to the area west of Parramatta. Cunningham, lacking any sign that Parramatta had been taken, and without the expected reinforcements, was forced to withdraw the rebel group to Toongabbie to re-assess strategy, gather new forces, and perhaps find his lost comrades. In the process, he also collected a significant number of arms, by this point possessing of perhaps a third of the colony’s entire armaments, but the rebel forces continued to dwindle in number. Those that remained are reported to have proclaimed the area around Constitution Hill "New Ireland”.

Meanwhile, Major Johnston’s much smaller crown forces endured a forced march through the night, coming to within only a few kilometres of the remaining rebels, now reduced to approximately 233, on the morning of March 5. Outnumbered and tired, Johnston decided to employ delaying tactics, riding on ahead of his men along with a trooper, Thomas Anlezark, and the colony’s sole Catholic priest, Father Dixon — himself an Irishman exiled to Australia following 1798 — to demand the rebels surrender, and to otherwise parley with them while his troops advanced to a more favourable position. 

‘… and a ship to take us home!’

Sending first the trooper Anlezark, and then Father Dixon, to demand (unsuccessfully) that the rebels down arms and accept an amnesty, Major Johnston himself finally rode up to meet them. Cunningham’s response, however, remained emphatic: “Death or Liberty”. It is sometimes claimed that he also said, “and a ship to take us home”, although that addition is first recorded some while later. During this exchange, the government troops and the loyalist militia finally appeared, lining up behind Major Johnston. Seizing his opportunity, Johnston — still under a flag of truce — took Cunningham and another rebel leader captive at gunpoint. 

Quickly retreating with the captured Cunningham, Johnston ordered crown forces to fire on the rebels. After fifteen minutes of gunfire, followed by a charge, between 15 and 20 rebels were killed, the others scattering into the bush in disarray. An unknown number — certainly more than a dozen — were killed in the pursuits that followed into the night and the following days. Governor King then announced leniency for those who surrendered before March 10, leading many of those who got lost on the night of March 4 to give themselves up, while the large group commanded by Samuel Humes was captured by the Parramatta Loyal Association militia at Castle Hill.


The extent of British alarm over the Castle Hill rebellion can be measured by the scale of repression that followed. While some have estimated that 39 rebels died in, or as a result of, the Castle Hill uprising, the precise numbers will never be known. Around 230 people were arrested in the days following the rebellion, of whom nine were executed. Eight of these received a court-martial, while a wounded Cunningham was hanged without trial on the steps of the Government Store at Windsor, which he had claimed he would burn down. Interestingly, of those executed, four were Protestant, and two were English. 

Two prisoners — including Humes — were hung from the gibbet, while two others, Bryan McCormack and John Burke, were reprieved and detained. Seven were whipped with between 200 or 500 lashes and sent to the Coal River chain gang at Newcastle, and a further 23 others were sent to the Newcastle coal mines. Another 34 prisoners were placed in irons until they could be "disposed of”, but their fate remains unclear. Of the approximately 150 rebels that remained, many were sent to Norfolk Island on good behaviour bonds, but the majority were pardoned and allowed to return to their previous lives, it being adjudged that they had been coerced into rebellion.

The International Society of United Irishmen?

Martial law ended on 10 March 1804, but the Irish insurgency in Sydney — both real and imagined — continued. Two Frenchmen who had come to the colony to cultivate vines were expelled on suspicion. More realistic plots continued to develop, with authorities on the constant alert over the following three years. For his part, Governor King was convinced that the true leaders of the 1804 rebellion had remained out of sight, and were continuing to plot the colony’s demise. As a result, he sent numerous suspects to Norfolk Island as a preventative measure. 

Whether King was correct will likely never be known — the identity of the rebellion's co-conspirators in Parramatta, Sydney and the Hawkesbury are lost to history. It is true, however, that the rising was neither as spontaneous nor isolated as most Australian historiography would have us believe. Indeed, there are unverified claims that at least two Irish prisoners who arrived in February 1800 on board the Friendship were corresponding with the United Irish leadership around Emmet to establish a secret branch of an “International Society of United Irishmen” in Sydney to act there under direction from Ireland. 

Loyalist paranoia about Irish republicanism was further fed by the arrival in February 1806 of another group of Irish political rebels on board the Tellicherry. They included the last hard core of United Irishmen, and were led by none other than Michael Dwyer, the “Wicklow Chief”, who had only surrendered in December 1803 on condition of voluntary exile to the United States of America. Perfidious Albion, of course, had other ideas, sending Dwyer, Hugh Byrne, Martin Burke, Arthur Devlin, John Mernagh, and a dozen of their comrades to Botany Bay. Perhaps regrettably, the loyalist fears of renewed rebellion were misplaced.

Australia’s Vinegar Hills

Known as Australia’s “Battle of Vinegar Hill” due to its links with the Irish events of 1798, and that famous battle in particular, the 1804 Castle Hill rebellion is now commemorated at the Vinegar Hill Memorial, Castlebrook Memorial Gardens, in Rouse Hill. A monument was unveiled by former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1988, carrying the names of several contemporary politicians and councillors, but with none of the rebels. This rather blinkered oversight was remedied on the bicentenary of the rebellion in 2004 with a new plaque. 

The Castle Hill rebellion was also the opening sally in a longer struggle for democracy in Australia in which Irish republicans have played a key part. The anti-authoritarian streak, and the lived experience of many Irish in Australia, found its expression in the widespread popular support for the Kelly Gang in northeast Victoria, in the better expressions of Australia's trade union movement, in the struggle against conscription during World War I, and in the fight for Aboriginal rights. In 1920, 100,000 people marched in Melbourne's annual Saint Patrick's Day Parade to demonstrate their support for Irish independence.

Perhaps the most iconic such expression, however, took place fifty years after Castle Hill at the Eureka Stockade rebellion on the Ballarat goldfields in Victoria. It, too, was defeated in blood, but the popular support it enjoyed saw one of its key demands realised: a Legislative Assembly in the Victorian colony. The Eureka rebels — migrants from every corner of the Earth — were inspired by the same ideals of liberty, justice, and freedom as the heroes of '98 and '04. Led by Peter Lawlor, the brother of Young Irelander James Fintan Lawlor, they raised a standard of liberty while using the password “Vinegar Hill”.