‘The most outrageous conduct’

Convict rebellions in colonial Australia

By Tom O'LINCOLN [email protected]

Australia’s unwilling pioneers were part of a great expansion of coerced labour that accompanied the growth of early capitalism. Slavery and the slave trade formed the greater part of this, but convict labour was also quite significant. Their destinations ranged from Siberia to Mauritius and included large sections of the British empire. New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, however, stand out, accounting for about 150 000 unwilling immigrants.

Often these people, like the Aborigines, had little time for the capitalist ethic, not only because of their captivity but also because they belonged to the British and Irish lower classes who were among the new system’s victims.

And for a long time, historians did portray the convicts as hapless people driven to crime by hunger and oppression. Then from the 1950s they often took a harder line. Manning Clark and Lloyd Robson said many transportees were professional criminals, and subsequent writers ranging from Humphrey McQueen to Robert Hughes have agreed. Now, however, some very detailed work has shown that the older historians were closer to the truth. One analysis of 19,711 convicts between 1817 and 1840 found that most were ordinary working people. Seventy percent of the Irish and fifty-nine percent of the British convicts were first offenders. Petty theft was the main offence. A detailed study specifically of female convicts has reached similar conclusions. (Nicholas and Shergold, "Convicts as Migrants": 47; Oxley, passim). They were, indeed, the victims of capitalist development.

In any case most convicts were only ‘criminals’ if we accept the sanctity of private property. From the standpoint of the British lower classes at the time, much of this property was not legitimate at all. They saw the enclosure movement that had seized their communal land and made it into private property for the rich as itself a great robbery. Neither could the discipline of wage labour or the wealth of rapacious entrepreneurs have any legitimacy in their eyes. The crimes against property which brought so many to Australia carried echoes of social protest.

The prisoners were overwhelmingly male. Taking all Australian colonies together the male/female ratio among convicts was 9.3 in 1828, and as late as 1841 it was still 7.1, only falling to 3.7 in 1851 at a time when the convict system itself was in decline. (Alford 15) This imbalance in itself undermined the institution of marriage

However the convicts weren’t enthusiastic about this institution in any case. It cost a lot of money to get married. They had little property to pass on to their heirs, and no good name to protect; moreover there was no guarantee a convict would remain in the same place as his or her spouse. Domestics had to remain single to keep their jobs -- yet about three-quarters of females transported had been domestics, and it was one of their major occupations in Australia as well. (see Patmore: 29) In 1806 Governor King reported that only a quarter of all adult females were married, mostly free women. Informal cohabitation, often on a long term basis, was more common.

Thus contemporary descriptions of convict women as ‘whores’ revealed less about the convicts’ morals than about economic and social conditions, and about the prejudices of the ‘respectable classes’ themselves, who might use the term for any woman living in a de facto relationship.

People who know they have little stake in any social institution are likely to be rebellious, and the records teem with references to unruly and defiant behaviour. Surgeon Bowes complained that even floggings didn’t cow the women prisoners of the First Fleet: ‘They were also whilst under punishment so very abusive that it was a necessity for gagging them.’ (Quoted in Pownall: 39) It is not that the prisoners were particularly anarchic because of their criminal backgrounds. The authorities lived in continual fear of rebellion on the transports, particularly in the late 1790s when mutinies in Nelson’s navy were widespread, including the sensational 1797 rebellion. (See Neale: 168)

Only a small minority of convicts were politically conscious. Some of these were skilled workers, who later found their way into the early craft unions. Others were either Irish or drawn from the British middle classes. In 1793 the barrister Thomas Muir and the clergyman Thomas Palmer, were transported for sedition, along with three leaders of Scottish corresponding societies. This occurred shortly after France’s revolutionary government declared war on Britain, when it ‘seemed a question which was the greater danger -- the French abroad or the pauperised mass at home’. (Fitzpatrick 1971: 56) Over the rest of the decade the authorities were to enact and enforce a series of repressive laws against political radicals and strikers, and some of those convicted found themselves aboard ships bound for the antipodes. After the Irish rebellion of 1798, hundreds of prisoners arrived in Sydney in 1801, raising the spectre of an Irish nationalist revolt in the colony. The authorities, haunted from the earliest days by ‘the nightmare vision of a convict republic’, were prepared to take harsh measures to forestall trouble. In 1806 the convict Joseph Smallsalts received 100 lashes because he liked the revolutionary views of Thomas Paine.

The small number of political convicts did not in itself preclude revolution, since rebellions are always led by minorities. However other factors helped forestall the ‘nightmare vision’.

Religion sometimes restrained the Irish. Because of hostility to the Roman church, the authorities very seldom allowed Catholic priests to hold mass before 1820, but after that they relented, knowing that the priests would counsel submission to the system. However even among the Irish, probably only a minority heeded such counsel. Other clergy had very little effect. A chaplain named Hasell preached at Castle Hill on the very day of a famous rebellion; he might have saved his breath. A lot of non-Catholic convicts were hostile to religion because, from the ‘flogging parson’ Samuel Marsden onwards, they were part of a repressive apparatus, often serving as magistrates and ordering the lash. As the popular demagogue J.D. Lang joked, in some countries the clergy might ‘take the fleece’ but New South Wales was the only place they were ‘openly authorised ... to take the hide also, or to flay their flock alive.’ (Quoted in Buckley and Wheelwright: 58).

Hopes for eventual release encouraged submission in others. A third factor, obviously, was the severe repression faced especially by male convicts, who were often chained, closely guarded, and threatened with the lash. Even so, none of these factors prevented rebellion, in fact rebellion was reasonably common. The problem was that it was always fragmented, poorly organised, and collapsed easily, typically through betrayal from within. This had much to do with to the uneven and changeable circumstances of convict life:

‘clerks and tradesmen might get to work at their usual jobs, though they might also be set to labouring; labourers might be set to quarrying stone ... or following a flock of five hundred sheep around in the bush. Women would not be sent to heavy outdoor labour, but might indiscriminately find themselves doing housework in central Sydney or deep in the bush. The personal relations in which this work was done varied unpredictably in both public and private sectors ... A single convict’s career ... might lead through all these types of situations in a few years.’ (Connel and Irving: 45)

Middle class radicals were effectively bought off. The small number of ‘gentlemen’ convicts received preferential treatment, comfortable jobs and early tickets-of-leave. Many of the political prisoners transported after the 1798 Irish Rebellion, the 1838 Canadian Rebellion and the upheavals of the Chartist movement were not really ideological rebels to begin with, while others seem to have tired of strife by the time they reached Australia. Resistance therefore came largely from the inexperienced, beginning with ‘the classic response of forced labour, the slow-down’:

‘Early dispatches show governors almost foaming at the mouth over the difficulty of getting the convicts to raise crops. Slow-down is the meaning of the ‘neglect of duty’ charges that crop up so often in the punishment books. It is the situation behind respectable settlers’ endless complaints about the laziness of the convicts.’ (Connell and Irving: 47)

Such tactics won substantial informal concessions, first limitations on the hours of work, then the right to work for pay part of the time. In addition, convicts found ways to corrupt their overseers and cheat the system: during King’s governorship the convict clerks in the government stores turned to forgery on a considerable scale. These accomplishments do suggest a degree of solidarity among sections of the convicts, which made more violent forms of resistance possible from time to time although the solidarity was always very fragile: actual convict rebellions were betrayed with monotonous regularity.

One form of violent rebellion was bushranging, which in its most developed form involved gangs of up to twenty escapees raiding towns. Bushrangers were the natural consequence of a system that assigned convicts to forced labour in remote locations across a sparsely occupied countryside. They first became rampant in Van Dieman’s Land, where hunting rather than farming became for a time the basis of the economy. For survival the colony had to give guns to convicts and send them out to hunt kangaroos. Initially they had to return to Hobart or Port Dalrymple to sell the meat and get more ammunition. But once settlement proceeded beyond the initial beachheads and settlers became dispersed, the hunters had multiple sources of supply and could operate as outlaws. Settlers had an interest in protecting them and trading with them, and often they had the sympathy of emancipists and assigned servants. They were colourful figures with ‘long ratty hair, thick beards, roughly sewn garments and moccasins of kangaroo hide, a pistol stuck in a rope belt, a stolen musket, a polecat’s stench’. (Hughes: 227)

By 1814 they were such a headache that Macquarie offered an amnesty to those bushrangers who turned themselves in by 1 December 1814. This foolhardy proclamation seemed to suggest that all crimes except murder could be committed with impunity until that date; it provoked a carnival of robbery and mayhem. Few surrendered when the time came and there was panic in Hobart, prompting Lieutenant Governor Davey to declare martial law and hang as many brigands as he could catch. But the problem did not go away; on the contrary two famous bushrangers emerged in turn.

Michael Howe already had a gang of 28 together by 1814. Howe, who portrayed himself as a latter day Dick Turpin, had excellent intelligence about troop movements from small farmers and convicts. His downfall, however, came in 1817 after he abandoned his black ‘wife’ when she was hit by a trooper’s bullet. The woman, Black Mary, helped the troopers track him. Before they eventually found and shot him, Howe negotiated with the authorities and named certain respectable landowners as receivers of stolen goods.

Dozens of others were still on the loose, not surprising given 53 percent of the population were convicts under sentence. In 1821 Macquarie and his new Lieutenant, Sorrell, again tried a wave of repression. Macquarie ventured the hope that what he, in a revealing phrase, termed the ‘Bush-Ranging System’ was in decline. (Quoted in Hughes: 231) But the greatest Tasmanian bandit of them all was about to make his mark. Matthew Brady and thirteen other convicts escaped from Macquarie Harbour in 1824. When George Arthur offered a reward for his capture, Brady responded with his own notice expressing ‘concern that such a person as Sir George Arthur is at large. Twenty gallons rum will be given to any person that can deliver his person to me.’ (Hughes: 232)

Arthur’s methodical police methods, rewards and spies eventually wore down the Brady gang, and Brady himself was captured in 1826. It now became clear to what extent the bushrangers symbolised popular hostility to the rulers. Dozens of petitions arrived at Government seeking clemency. ‘His cell was filled every day with visitors bringing baskets of flowers, fan letters, fruit and fresh-baked cakes. If his fate had been decided by vote, he would have gone free...’ (Hughes: 234) Van Dieman’s Land being a police state, Brady was hanged; and while bushranging continued into the 1840s, it faded away with the growing intensity of settlement and the power of Arthur’s state machine.

In NSW bushranging blossomed after the 1819 Bigge inquiry. The British government charged John Thomas Bigge with a wide-ranging enquiry into the development of NSW. His recommendations led to both a crackdown in convict discipline and the opening up of wider areas of settlement. Most of the brigands came from road-building chain gangs. Few were capable of mounting a serious revolt, but Ralph Entwhistle managed it at Bathurst in 1829. Entwhistle had suffered a flogging and lost his ticket-of-leave for going swimming in the Macquarie River. Infuriated, he raised a band of armed men, which was joined by another contingent after a similar rebellion in the Hunter Valley. Wearing a hat festooned with green ribbons in emulation of the Irish Ribbonmen, Entwhistle led his men to victory over government troops in two battles before surrendering to superior forces.

The Female Factory in Parramatta was a frequent centre of revolt. Its inmates were divided into three classes. The first was women returned from assignment without complaint and eligible for re-assignment; the second for those pregnant or nursing, or moved up from the third class on probation; the third was a criminal division. ‘The factory operated as a prison, a maternity home, a marriage bureau, an employment exchange and a hostel or refuge for women in transit between jobs. All its inmates, however, were strictly speaking prisoners...’ What a comment on the common status of all females of the lower classes! (B Smith: 53) Originally intended for 300 occupants, by 1830 the factory seldom contained fewer than 500 adults and 100 or so children.

There were never enough places to assign female convicts, so a larger proportion of females than males remained in government employment, primarily in wool manufacture. In addition, women returned to the factory over and over because of mistreatment during assignment, or were returned there as vagrants because they couldn’t find respectable employment. Some committed offences in order to get back to the factory. Females, unlike males, were chosen for assignment individually by settlers, and were likely to be selected on the basis of physical appearance rather than their skills or previous work history.

Apart from the male settlers’ sexual intentions, this fact also highlights the low value placed on female convict labour. The women convicts were seen as immoral and troublesome, and as hampered by children; penal authorities regarded their work as a cost saving rather than a source of income for the crown. Yet the Parramatta factory did extract profits from their labour. Between 1838 and 1842 the records showed a return well over £5000, and this was probably an underestimate. (Alford: 164)

Exploitation provoked resistance: the go-slow was common here too. When Governor Gipps visited in 1838 he found the third class women idle because they had no handles for their hammers – they simply broke the handles as soon as they were provided. But the factory was also famous for its riots. In 1827 the authorities stopped the inmates’ ration of bread and sugar, provoking 100 women to break out and march to Parramatta for provisions. In 1831 a crowd of several hundred broke out, seizing a particularly hated overseer and shaving her head, while threatening to go to Sydney and shave the head of ‘the Governor and his mob’ as well. One of their leaders suggested they demolish the press of the Monitor newspaper to punish its editor, who had portrayed the female convicts as ‘the worst and vilest of their sex’. Soldiers were called in to round the women up on both occasions. The troops turned out again in 1832 to quell ‘extremely unruly’ behaviour.

These prisoners bitterly resented having their hair cropped, and staged yet another riot in 1833 on a day set for hair-cutting. This time the Reverend Samuel Marsden himself appeared to confront them. He later lamented:

‘The women had collected large heaps of stones and as soon as we entered the 3rd Class they threw a shower of stones as fast as they possibly could and at the whole of us ... It will never do to show them any clemency ... I have no doubt but all the officers who saw their riotous conduct will be convinced of the necessity of keeping them under the hand of power.’ (All quotes from B Smith: 54-55)

Yet keeping them under the ‘hand of power’ was seldom easy. 1836 saw further explosions, and in 1852 a visiting writer recorded stories of another riot over the hair-cutting issue, which apparently achieved a relaxation of the ‘depilatory laws’:

‘… it is not many years ago that the Amazonian inmates, amounting to seven or eight hundred, and headed by a ferocious giantess ... rose upon the guards and turnkeys, and made a desperate attempt to escape by burning the building. The officer commanding ... sent a subaltern with a hundred men, half of them armed only with sticks...They laughed at the cane carrying soldiers, refuting their argumentum baculinum by a furious charge upon the gates, in which one man was knocked over by a brickbat ...’ (Daniels and Murnane: 19)

Similar events shook the Female Factory at Launceston in 1841. A prisoner asked to be released from solitary confinement on grounds of illness, and when the Surgeon refused, a group of inmates seized and held the Sub Matron while releasing the prisoner. Eighty-five women barricaded themselves in a section of the Factory. They beat off police attacks by arming themselves with parts of their spinning wheels, bricks, knifes and bottles. After the authorities refused to make concessions, they ‘became very outrageous, breaking the Furniture and windows and attempting to burn the Building’. When the ringleaders were eventually brought to trial they continued to ‘exhibit the most outrageous Conducts abusing and threatening the Magistrates to their face.’ (Daniels and Murnane: 20)

It was male convicts who staged the biggest revolts, at Castle Hill near Sydney in 1804 and on Norfolk Island in 1834. Conditions on Norfolk Island were so horrible that rebellion was inevitable from time to time. Unfortunately it was also futile; the 1834 uprising involving hundreds of convicts ended after seven hours, and was followed by sadistic reprisals. These events hold few political lessons.

The Castle Hill revolt is a different story. After careful planning, a group of convicts at this agricultural settlement five miles north of Parramatta overpowered their overseers. The Irishman Philip Cunningham was the ‘moving spirit in the whole affair’ (Connell 1965: 27) Cunningham had plans for co-ordinated risings in other settlements, and his followers divided into parties to spread the rebellion. They were able to swell their numbers from 200 to perhaps 350, but could not muster enough forces to take Parramatta.

Cunningham’s plans called for fires to be set both outside Parramatta (a diversion to draw the garrison out of the town) and inside (a signal to seize the town), but for unknown reasons his confederates in Parramatta failed to light the fires. The rebel forces then headed for the traditionally rebellous Hawkesbury river area hoping to raise additional support there. However government troops caught up with them along the way. Their leaders used a ruse to capture Cunningham and then routed the rest of the rebels. There was a further rebellion at Risdon in Van Dieman’s Land, where sections of the New South Wales Corps stirred up local convicts after hearing exaggerated rumours of events at Castle Hill.

The extent of government alarm over the Castle Hill rising can be gauged by the subsequent repression. Not only were the ringleaders hanged, some of them in chains, but others received between 200 and 500 lashes. Two Frenchmen who had come out to cultivate vines were expelled from the colony on suspicion, and three men of republican or reform politics were later dispersed among the outer settlements. The tiny ruling class of the colony feared the spectre of convict revolt, which it vaguely associated with the French revolution and Irish nationalism. For these reasons and because most of those punished as ringleaders were Irish, the revolt is often seen as an antipodean echo of the Irish struggle.

Its true there was some Australian echo of the Irish rebellions. Hundreds of the Irish convicts had been transported for involvement in revolts or agrarian disturbances, and they were later joined but hundreds of United Irishmen after 1798. However the rulers’ fears reflected also their own ethnic prejudices. In the crude class structures of the time, the categories Irish/Catholic/Convict/Lower-class/Rebel blended easily together, while sectarianism impelled bigots like Samuel Marsden to call the Irish "the most wild, ignorant and savage race that were ever favoured with the light of civilisation". The Irish convicts were therefore the worst of all, "their minds depraved beyond all conception." (Whitaker: 36) These years set the tone for well over a century of sectarian division in Australia.

Thus it’s likely that after Castle Hill, the authorities singled out Irishmen for punishment because of their own preconceptions. Even so, of ten men executed four were Protestants and two were English. One contemporary account said that the ‘English were as much involved in the business as the Irish’, and the revolt was curiously devoid of that iconic Irish weapon, the pike. (Connell 1965: 33, Whitaker: 103). The convict revolts were primarily a form of class struggle.

There were episodes where escaped convicts and even emancipists made common cause with the blacks. In the late 1790s, emancipist John Wilson was adopted into a tribe on the Hawkesbury River, where he was later joined by another ex-convict, William Knight. The two were believed to be assisting the Aborigines in fighting against the white forces, and they weren’t the only ones to do so. The African convict-turned-bushranger Black Caesar sought at times to ally himself with the Aborigines, and by ‘the late 1790s at least seven or eight other convict runaways were operating in the bush. By November 1801 two of them, William Knight and Thomas Thrush, were believed to have allied themselves with the resistance fighter Pemulwuy.’ (Kociumbas: 57) There were also stories of Aborigines cooperating with white bushrangers.

These experiences show that race was not an insuperable barrier. However some interpretations of them are mistaken. Suggestions that white absconders were leading black fighters are probably racist myths, based on the idea that Aborigines were incapable of resistance on their own. It is also somewhat contrived to seek in these events some embryonic strategic alliance between Aborigines and convicts (as suggested, for example, by Grassby and Hill.) Most convicts found themselves in situations where the blacks, along with the natural environment they inhabited, appeared threatening, and the cycle of violence between white and black began early enough to make this perception self-fulfilling. Moreover the white authorities acted to entrench the pattern by rewarding blacks for returning convicts to custody. Such factors were enough to preclude more than very occasional collaboration between blacks and oppressed whites in the early colonial period.


Alford, Katrina, Production or Reproduction, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1984.

Buckley, Ken and Ted Wheelwright (1988), No Paradise for Workers: Capitalism and the Common People in Australia 1788-1914, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Connell, R.W. ‘The Convict Rebellion of 1804’, Melbourne Historical Journal, Vol 5, 1965.

Connell, R.W. and T.H. Irving, Class Structure in Australian History, Documents, Narrative and Argument, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne 1980.

Daniels, Kay and Mary Murnane, Uphill All the Way, A Documentary History of Women in Australia, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia 1980.

Fitzpatrick, Brian, British Imperialism and Australia 1973-1833, An Economic History of Australia, Sydney University Press 1971.

Grassby, Al and Marji Jill, Six Australian Battlefields, The Black Resistance of Invasion and the White Struggle Against Colonial Oppression, Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1988.

Hughes, Robert, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, Collins Harvill, London 1987.

Kociumbas, Jan, The Oxford History of Australia, Vol 2, 1770-1860, Oxford University Press, Melbourne 1991.

Neale, Jonathan, The Cutlass and the Lash: Mutiny and Discipline in Nelson’s Navy, Pluto Press, London 1985.

Nicholas, Stephen, and Shergold, Peter, ‘Convicts as Workers’, in Nicholas

Oxley, Deborah, Convict Maids: The Forced Migration of Women to Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1996.

Patmore, Greg, Australian Labour History, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne 1991.

Pownall, Eve, Australian Pioneer Women, Currey O’Neil, Melbourne 1981.

Smith, Babette, A Cargo of Women: Susannah Watson and the Convicts of the Princess Royal, NSW University Press, Sydney 1988.

Whitaker, Anne-Marie, Unfinished Revolution: United Irishmen in New South Wales 1800-1810, Crossing Press, Sydney, 1994.

Back to opening page