9 – Unless they were Irish
“In 1803 we sailed out to sea
Out from the sweet town of Derry
For Australia bound if we didn’t all drown
And the marks of our fetters we carried
In our rusty iron chains we cried for our weans
Our good women we left in sorrow
As the mainsails unfurled, our curses we hurled
On the English, and thoughts of tomorrow”
“Back Home In Derry”, Bobby Sands
It should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone with any knowledge whatsoever of Irish history that the Irishmen and women sent to Australia were treated horrendous when they arrived. From Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland in the 1640s – in which an estimated 40% of the population of Ireland were killed – until the time of the First Fleet, discrimination had been a fact of life for people in Ireland.
Britain had instituted a series of laws that denied basic rights to Catholics, who made up over 80% of the Irish population. In 1788, when the First Fleet landed, Catholics could not hold any public office, sit in Parliament, vote, teach or join the army, while property laws were designed to make inheritance as difficult as possible. The penal laws, as they were known, were not just designed to affect Catholics: they also targetted Protestant dissidents, most of whom lived in the North and practised Presbyterianism, a form of the religion imported from Scotland and ill-disposed towards the Anglican English.
Somewhere in the region of 10,000 Irish had already been transported as convicts to the Americas, as well as thousands more as indentured servants and over the course of penal transportation to Australia, some 40,000 would be sent. While their ranks included the same petty criminals that made up the British convicts, it is thought that around a fifth were political prisoners who had risen against the British.
1798 provided the major catalyst. It was in this year that a group known as the United Irishmen – inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution and including both Protestants and Catholics – took up arms against the British. Their rising failed, and many of the leaders found themselves on ships to Botany Bay. The colonial authorities treated them horrendously. They were subject to brutality well beyond what other convicts would endure, marked out by their Catholicism – as hated by British in Australia as in the homeland – and their previous actions against the Crown. The New South Wales authorities had asked that Irish not be sent, as they feared their potential for rebellion could threaten the new colony, but arrive they did.
For their own part, the new arrivals were not in a mood to take the punishment lying down. There was an uprising of Irish convicts at Castle Hill, north of Sydney, in 1804, lead by many of those who had fought in 1798. It was planned that the 600 or so prisoners could overwhelm the English and then set a course for the Hawkesbury River, in order to meet up with another 1000 that were put to work there, before marching on Sydney and challenging the colonial government directly. They stole weaponry and mustered a force, but were eventually defeated. Later, 13 were executed and scores more whipped for their part in the rebellion.
There would be no more large-scale uprisings, but the discrimination against the Irish continued. Many of those who would become bushrangers – including Ned Kelly, the most famous bushranger of all – were of Irish descent, often driven to their actions by the prejudices of the British colonial authorities.
The bushrangers, of course, were the Australian equivalents of the outlaws, the escapees from the continent-sized prison. HMP Australia was not as impenetrable as it had been thought to be: plenty escaped – read on to hear their stories.