Birth of the Australian Empire?

By Amy Middleton 7 November 2013
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1804’s Castle Hill Rebellion was the first Australian convict uprising, a violent and chaotic attempt to overthrow the colonial authorities.

If I asked a ghost-whisperer, I would expect Australia to be among the highest rating countries on the haunted scale.

Think about it. Our nation’s history lends itself to modern-day spirit sightings. The oft cautionary tales of the Dreamtime, our nation’s earliest cultural etchings, warn us to respect spirits and celestial forces, lest we bring misfortune upon ourselves, our families and our world.

The last couple of centuries paint us a history of bloody battles and genocide, begun with an influx of long-faced and displaced criminals; prisons, hangings and bushrangers.

(Picture courtesy of Getty Images)

Convicts en route to Botany Bay (Source: Getty Images)

Indeed, we’ve had more than our share of national success, flourishing times; the lucky country, and all. But forgive me for fantasising that behind these sunny scenes lurks a motley crew of ghostly bandits, waiting for a dark night to prowl our consciences and stir up suppressed memories of hardships and horror.

Today is the anniversary of the Castle Hill Rebellion, 4 March 1804 — understood to be the first Australian convict uprising, a violent and chaotic attempt by Irish prisoners to overthrow the colonial authorities.

The story goes like this: Philip Cunningham, a convict well versed in minor uprising, led around 500 convicts to a secret and well-planned rebellion. Once darkness fell, a hut was set alight to signify that the rising had begun. Despite some convicts selling information to the guards in exchange for alcohol, authorities weren’t privy to the plan in time to stop the swift looting of their armaments.

Officers of the British Empire were hunted down by the crazed prisoners. Amidst the drunken chaos, plans were drawn up, and after just a couple of days, Philip Cunningham was appointed King of the newfound Australian Empire, the name given to the imagined independence of the convicts. The aim was to meet up with a band of convicts from the Hawkesbury River, but the plan did not eventuate. When the cries of “Liberty or death!” could no longer be heard, the dissidents faced their fate.

Cunningham, the King, along with eight of his subjects, was executed without trial. Scores of others were sentenced; some received 200 lashes, many were exiled to join the Coal River chain gang, which operated at modern-day Newcastle.

The history lesson paints a gruesome picture — especially when compared to the site of the Castle Hill rebellion today: a stretch of Sydney suburban parkland, surrounded by generous residential properties, leafy schools and family-owned shops. There is no reason to assume Castle Hill is anything but safe for Aussie families, in 2010.

But when the lights come up over the dark grass of Castle Hill tonight — a site once alive with bloody turmoil and civil unrest among criminals — it may be too eerily quiet to ignore its screaming past.