The Castle Hill Rebellion, a rebellion by convicts against the colonial forces of Australia in the Castle Hill area of the British colony of New South Wales, takes place on March 4, 1804. The rebellion culminates at Rouse Hill, dubbed the Second Battle of Vinegar Hill after the first Battle of Vinegar Hill which had taken place in 1798 in Ireland. It is the first and only major convict uprising in Australian history suppressed under martial law.
On March 4, according to the official accounts, 233 convicts led by Philip Cunningham, a veteran of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 as well as the mutiny on the convict transport ship Anne, escapes from a prison farm intent on “capturing ships to sail to Ireland,” In response, martial law is quickly declared in the Colony of New South Wales. The mostly Irish rebels, having gathered reinforcements, are hunted by the colonial forces until they are sequestered on March 5 on a hillock nicknamed Vinegar Hill. Under a flag of truce, Cunningham is arrested and troops charge and the rebellion is crushed by a raid.
According to the official records of the day, around 230 are eventually brought in over next few days. Of the convicts directly engaged in the battle, 15 are killed and nine, including the ringleaders Cunningham and William Johnston, are executed, with two subjected to gibbeting. Two men, John Burke and Bryan McCormack, are reprieved and detained at the Governor’s pleasure, seven are whipped with 200 or 500 lashes then allotted to the Coal River chain gang, while 23 others are sent to the Newcastle coal mines. Another 34 prisoners are placed in irons until they can be “disposed of.” It is not known whether some, or all of them, are sent to the Coal River. Of the remaining rebels, some are put on good behaviour orders against a trip to Norfolk Island, while the majority are pardoned and allowed to return to their places of employment as having been coerced into the uprising.
Cunningham, badly wounded but still alive, is court martialled under the martial law and hanged at the Commissariat Store at Windsor, which he had bragged he would burn down. Initially, military officers are intent on hanging a token number of those captured having convened a military court at the Whipping Green but this is quickly stopped by Governor Gidley King fearful of the repercussions.
Martial law is eventually lifted on March 10, 1804, but this does not end the insurgency. Irish plots continue to develop, keeping the Government and its informers vigilant, with military call out rehearsals continuing over the next three years. Governor King remains convinced that the real inspirers of revolt had kept out of sight. He had some suspects sent to Norfolk Island as a preventive measure.