Death or Liberty!
Treasures Gallery Talk
Talks / Lecture
Dr Guy Hansen, Director of Exhibitions, explores the significance of a watercolour sketch that shows the clash between 200 rebel convicts and a contingent of infantry near present-day Rouse Hill on 5 March 1804.
A Treasures Gallery Access Program, supported by National Library Patrons
*Speakers: Kathryn Favelle (K), Guy Hansen (G)
K: Good evening, welcome to the National Library and thank you all for coming on this lovely spring evening. For those of you who haven’t met me before my name’s Kathryn Favelle and I look after the Library’s Community Outreach Programs.
As we begin this afternoon I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land that this Library is built on and that we live on and I thank their elders past and present for caring for the land that we’re now privileged to call home. I’d also like to acknowledge the National Library donors and patrons who help support our public programs and in particular tonight’s Treasures Access Program.
Tonight the Library’s Director of Exhibitions, Dr Guy Hansen, is going to reveal his research into a watercolour sketch by an unknown artist which depicts Australia’s first convict uprising in 1804. If you’re like me you might have heard of it very, very briefly in – perhaps in Year 8 history, it was called the Castle Hill Rebellion or sometimes the Battle for Vinegar Hill and the event is a landmark in the early history of the colony of New South Wales.
The only contemporary image of this battle is the sketch that we hold in the National Library and you can see it there, I think. Have I got that right? Good, off to a good start. So it’s perhaps not surprising that this rare sketch has been in demand for several exhibitions over the years. Since coming into the Library’s collection it’s been on loan for exhibitions at the State Library of New South Wales and the Art Gallery of New South Wales and we’ve also displayed it in our own exhibitions in Deja Vous in 1989 and in World Upside Down in 2000. Now it’s on display in the Treasures Gallery and tonight Guy’s going to tell us a bit more about the significance of this rare piece of Australian history. Welcome, Guy.
G: Thank you very much, Kathryn. Just as you were talking it occurred to me there’s another place where you may have heard of the Castle Hill Rebellion, for those of you who are old enough, there was that television series, I think – don’t know if it’s late ‘70s or early – ‘round that period, John English was the star and it was called ’77 Six Ribbons and I think there was a period where you – Against the Wing and Six Ribbons was the song. Well I'm off to a good start. No but you can remember at some point there’s lots of sort of faux Irish convicts running around shouting death and liberty carrying burning faggots so that’s most probably the first time I came across the idea of the Castle Hill Rebellion. I won’t say I’ve been interested ever since but it certainly is part of the popular historical consciousness in Australia.
I do have to apologise, it’s not on display in Treasures Gallery right at the moment but it has been on display and I’m – the reason it’s not on display is ‘cause I’ve asked for it be taken off because I want to use it in an exhibition in the near future which I’ll tell you about during the talk.
Okay. So thank you for your introduction, Kathryn. Today I’m going to talk about this sketch which is one of the great treasures of the National Library. As you’ve said it’s been displayed many times and it’s been reproduced in many history books. It depicts the events of the 5th of March 1804 when Major George Johnston and you can see him mounted on his horse there, led a contingent of infantry in a short skirmish with over 200 rebels near present day Rouse Hill. Fifteen convicts were killed and their leaders hanged. Sometimes known as the Battle for Vinegar Hill or the Castle Hill Rebellion this event is a landmark in the early history of the colony of New South Wales. This sketch is the only contemporaneous image of this battle.
While the sketch is well known surprisingly little is known about the artist who drew it or why it was done. Tonight I’m going to take some tentative steps in trying to understand the significance of this object.
The battle or skirmish which is depicted in this sketch comes at a very interesting time in the history of New South Wales. This is only 16 years after the arrival of the first fleet at Port Jackson. The primary purpose of the colony at this time is as a convict settlement. Approximately half the population of the colony are convicts and in some areas such as Castle Hill, Parramatta and Toongabbie the proportion is much, much higher so there’s an overwhelming majority of convicts in these areas.
These numbers speak to the fundamental problem faced by the colonial government at this time. How do you control a large population of convicts in what was in effect an open prison? This problem exercised the minds of all the early Governors.
Another factor which played on their minds, of the military and colonial administrators was the possibility of what they saw as the contagion of Irish rebellion reaching the colony. So just to remind you, there’d been a major rebellion in Ireland in 1798. It was during this rebellion that the first battle of Vinegar Hill was fought on the 21st of June 1798 when over 13,000 British soldiers launched an attack of an unknown number of Irish rebels, maybe 20 or 30,000 on Vinegar Hill outside [Ennerscofi] 5:26 in County Wexford. This was the largest camp and headquarters of the Wexford United Irish Rebels, marked a turning point in that rebellion as it was the last attempt by the rebels to hold and defend ground against the British military and they lost the battle.
In 1803 – oh I should just explain that this is an image drawn some 40 years later by George Cruikshank of the Battle of Vinegar Hill.
Oh before I go on in 1803 another attempt was made to throw off the yoke of British rule when Robert Emmet led a revolt in Dublin. Again the revolt was crushed and the leaders executed.
Some of the convicts who were being transported to New South Wales at this time participated in these uprisings and were sympathetic with Irish republicanism. It is through this lens that some of Australia’s most well-known historians have seen the events of 1804. Manning Clark for example writes of the Castle Hill Rebellion, as symptomatic of the clash between the Protestant ascendency and Irish Catholicism. In classic Clarkesq turn of phrase he described the clash in dramatic moral terms, evil stalked the land and New South Wales added its drips to the never-ending tears of humanity.
Historians don’t write like that anymore. In his words the events or the suppression of the Castle Hill Rebellion led to, and I quote again, permanent bitterness, hatred and anger between those two views of the world which were to divide European civilisation in Australia so long as its members were interested in questions of the nature and meaning of life.
Like Clark Robert Hughes also sees the significance of the revolt as reflecting deep roots of sectarianism of Australia. In the Fatal Shore Hughes argues that the military had efficiently put down the rebellion but they’d also helped create a memory that would feed Irish identity for the next century, that is, a sense of community – that is the sense of a community, and I quote Hughes, divided between the English Protestant haves and the Irish Catholic have nots.
Now tonight I’m not going to go through the full details of the battle but if you’re interested this is the book to read by Lynette Silver. Of course I’d also recommend you go and visit Rouse Hill in Sydney which is a beautiful historical property and very interesting to walk around there. It’s no longer called Vinegar Hill. When it was – at a certain point its name changed to Rouse Hill.
So let’s talk about the sketch itself. Very little is known about the provenance of this sketch and why it was created. I want to talk through some of the ways we can understand this image. What I'm going to do today is argue that this image was intended to be read as a cartoon rather than a painting, that is, it was produced to provide a commentary on the major political events of the time for circulation amongst colonists. This cartoon captures a moment where fears of Irish uprising in the colony were at their peak. It depicts the efficient response of the colonial military authorities in crushing the rebellion and casts judgement on the main actors in the incident.
Why am I making this argument? The reason is that one of my main research interests is the history of cartooning in Australia. At the moment I’m writing a book on Australian cartooning which will accompany an exhibition which will open here at the Library in March 2019. As part of this project I’ve set out to find the earliest extant cartoon in Australia. The history of Australian cartooning is one of those topics which you might think has already been done to death. Turns out however that this is not the case. Very little work has been done on cartooning history over the last 50 years. In 1967 Peter Coleman and Les Tanner wrote Cartoons of Australian History and in 1976 Jonathan King produced the book The Other Side of a Coin, also about Australian cartooning history.
In 1970 Vane Lindesay wrote this book, The Inked-In Image, which again looked at cartooning history. All of these works tended to show cartoons as illustration events with very little interpretation, without really giving you a good idea about the history of cartooning.
The one monograph which has attempted to do much more detailed analysis of cartooning is Margaret Mahood’s book, The Loaded Lion, Australian Political Caricature, 1788 to 1901 which was published in 1973. Mahood who had trained as a print artist was able to bring a practitioner’s insight into the challenges faced by artists in the 19th century.
The writing which has been done on cartooning has produced a dominant narrative that I think we’re all pretty familiar with. It begins in the middle of the 19th century with the Melbourne Punch, tends to move through to what’s called the first golden age of cartooning which is often centred on The Bulletin and then a second golden age which is often – involves the discussion of Smith’s Weekly.
More recent work sometimes also talks about the satire boom of the 1960s and the emergence of cartoonists as major political commentators. To summarise then there’s surprisingly little historical writing about Australian cartooning. Cartooning it seems has been hiding in clear sight. There are occasional journal articles but there’s been no new synthesis of information about Australian graphic art for a long time. The reasons for this are the ephemeral and commercial nature of cartooning. For art historians cartoonists do not qualify close attention as they’re not considered fine art. For historians with their strong focus on text-based sources cartoonings are usually included in their books after the argument is formed so they’re not really taking them seriously. They become – they’re just illustrations rather than evidence of the past.
In terms of the project that I'm doing for the Library you can imagine that choosing a small selection of cartoons to represent over 200 years of visual culture is a daunting task. The publishing manager at the Library has advised me that I should limit my selection to 100 cartoons as this is the ideal number of the age of the listicle. If you’re not familiar with this term it refers to the ubiquitous articles you find on the internet which list the best books or films of whatever the topic is.
Now while my training as a historian rails against using such an arbitrary number as 100 I also welcome the constraints of being forced to make a decision. This means that each cartoon I select needs to be there for a very good reason, each image needs to be significant both in terms of what it portrays and what it is. This brings me back to my topic today, our 1804 watercolour. Should this make the list of 100 cartoons and is it the first extant cartoon still existing in Australia?
Let’s have a closer look at this sketch. So it’s a watercolour, it’s 312mm high and 413mm long so it’s not that big. The inscription on the bottom reads Major Johnson with Quartermaster Laycock and 25 privates of New South Wales Corps defeats 260 armed rebels, 5th of March 1804.
A close examination of the sketch reveals that it was done on laid paper, the term for handmade paper of the 18th century. And there’s the watermark, W Elgar, 1796. I don’t know if you can see that there but by using some interesting photography techniques we’re able to really get a clear idea of what’s on the back of the paper and what the watermark is so we’re able to confirm the watermark. This was really good for us ‘cause if for example the watermark was much later then the sketch wouldn’t have been contemporaneous so establishing the watermark and the type of paper was quite a breakthrough because it meant that it most probably was done about the time of the rebellion actually occurring.
This is the back side of this sketch and again the photography really helps us understand. You can see a number of fold lines running across the sketch, actually the next slide I think brings it out even more clearly. We’ve drained the colour of the image so you – we can start to do this forensic examination of the sketch, and you begin to see that this sketch was most probably rolled up and then possibly with a ribbon tied around it and then most probably crushed. I can imagine somebody put a book on top of it and that caused the fold lines which then damaged the sketch quite badly and then at a later date, and we don’t who, somebody has done some pretty significant repair work on all of the fold lines. Unfortunately the repair work has gone right over the top of part of the inscription on the back of the sketch which we can no longer make out but the details up there which are very difficult – I’ve been able to work out some of it – they relate to some of the convicts who were executed after the battle.
So as I said all of these things are consistent with the sketch being produced very close to the 1804 date of the inscription. The fact that the item has survived until today suggests that it’s recognised by its owners as an object of high value. There is however, and this is – which is really frustrating, there’s no artist’s name on the sketch.
So having looked at the object very closely the next place that a curator turns to is to look at its provenance, what can this tell us about this sketch? So in this case the sketch has come to the Library from this man, Rex Nan Kivell, so as some of you I think would be familiar with RNK, responsible for one of the foundation collections of the Library. He was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1898. He worked as a bookbinder before enlisting in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in 1916 and after the war he stayed in England and developed an interest in collection material relating to the Pacific and Australasia.
In the early 1920s Nan Kivell started to make a living as an art dealer and in 1925 he joined the Redfern Gallery in London eventually becoming its managing director. And over his life he built this amazing collection of Australiana much of which very luckily came to the National Library of Australia. And it’s amongst this collection that we find the Castle Hill sketch.
Unfortunately in the papers of Nan Kivell we haven’t yet found evidence of where he got this sketch and from whom so the provenance is just not there. It might turn up in the papers at some stage but thus far we haven’t – I don’t know if Nat’s here but I’m hoping he’ll find it at some time for me and can tell me exactly why Rex bought this particular cartoon. He clearly recognised its significance but where he got it from it would have been really useful to know but at this point we don’t know.
So let’s now turn to what the picture depicts. The image does not show the battle scene at a single moment but rather provides a narrative of the main events both before, during and after the conflict. To understand what you're looking at you need to cross-reference the drawing with the published accounts of the battle. The main sources for reconstructing these events are the Sydney Gazette and personal and official correspondence. Much of this material is reproduced in the historical records of New South Wales. In some ways the sketch should be read more like a comic strip or storyboard rather than a single picture. It collapses a number of moments into one drawing. You can read the story in a clockwise direction so I’ll slowly take you through the story.
It starts just below the tree line, a figure can be seen calling on the convicts to surrender. By cross-referencing with published records it’s clear that this is meant to be Father Dixon, a Catholic priest who had been brought to the site to negotiate with the rebels. The speech streamer has Dixon declaring lay down your arms, my deluded countrymen. At this point I have the challenge of trying to understand this drawing in the way it was intended in 1804 rather than the way we might respond to it today.
I think it’s likely that the artist is reminding the viewer that the rebels were given an opportunity to surrender prior to the soldiers opening fire. After the outbreak of the rebellion Governor King’s proclamation declaring martial law included an amnesty for rebels if they surrendered in 24 hours. In written accounts Major Johnson is also described as repeatedly asking the rebels to surrender. Also the artist is making a reference to the fact that the majority of rebels were Irish Catholics hence the reason for bringing a Catholic priest to parley with them.
From the perspective of the colonial authorities the rebellion was seen as an outbreak of Irish political ambition so all those things are coming together in this little part of the sketch. We’ll move on to the next moment in the story.
In the centre of the sketch is a key moment just prior to the skirmish. The figures on foot carrying swords are the two rebel leaders, William Johnson and Philip Cunningham, both Irish republicans. On horseback are Major Johnson and Trooper Analzark. After Cunningham had refused to surrender by saying death or liberty Johnson replies you scoundrel, I’ll liberate you. He then produces his pistol and forces Cunningham towards military lines. Simultaneously the trooper catches William Johnson with the order, croppy, lay down. Johnson replies we’re all ruined.
Now there’s a few interesting things here. First of course is the use of the term death or liberty which of course is a term which goes back to the American revolution and was used at a number of nationalist struggles so we’re getting the politics of the events and also the use of the term croppy as a term for Irish rebels as well. So the artist is having a conversation with the viewer, the viewer knows what’s going on, the artist knows what’s going on and all that language and all that drawing’s coming together.
In some historical accounts of the battle this moment is portrayed as a moment of English treachery. Lynette Ramsay Silver, the book which I showed you before, sees this as a classic case of English duplicity. She argues that Johnson had detained the leaders under a flag of truce. I'm not convinced by this. I don’t think Johnson in any way saw the rebels as equivalent to him and deserving sort of honourable treatment. He saw them as criminals and could – he sort of telling a half-truth in order to capture them was perfectly reasonable. If they had surrendered I think he would have actually not massacred them but taken them back and then some of them would have been executed but it’s sort of like I think their parley was genuine but once they didn’t agree to it, all bets were off. But Silver is very sympathetic with the Irish republican argument at this point. At the time of course the colonial administrators thought that the Major had done a very good job.
Let’s move to the next – so how you see this is perhaps determined by how you see the Irish rebels. So the next moment in this story. I’ll just make sure I’ve got the right page. So at this point in the narrative the rebels are now leaderless. Johnson’s very cleverly removed their leaders. On returning to the line Major Johnson has ordered his men to open fire and right here you can see Quartermaster Laycock cleaving Cunningham’s neck with his sword, leaving him for dead. So as they return to the lines Master Laycock who by all accounts was quite an aggressive and large man just decided to knock Cunningham down. Cunningham can be seen saying – Laycock can be seen shouting thou rebel dog and Cunningham can be seen saying oh Jesus.
This moment is not mentioned in – sorry, this moment – we know this happened because it’s in some private letters which describe the events but it’s not in the Sydney Gazette or any of the public sources and that’s very interesting ‘cause that means – I think it’s quite likely that somebody who was at the battle and was aware of this commissioned the work and asked for this detail to be included in the work.
Again at this point the sketch reads very differently for a modern audience. Most viewers do not realise that Cunningham appears twice in the sketch so we saw him earlier in the parley and now we’re seeing him again being chopped. Also you can view this as an act of violent suppression. But again going back to if you were sort of a pro-government reader back in 1804 you’d most probably think that Cunningham was getting exactly what he deserved so I think that’s really interesting, how we view this depends where we are in time and what our sympathies are.
Okay. So we come towards the end of the story. On the far left-hand side of the sketch you can see the final outcome of the battle. Some days after William Johnson and another leader, Samuel Hume, who were two of the key leaders were executed following a short trial. Their bodies were then hung in chains outside of Parramatta in two different locations, two roads coming into Parramatta and their bodies were just left to rot. This was clearly to set an example for other convicts, they could see the crows pecking on the carcasses.
Cunningham who survived the blow he received from Quartermaster Laycock was executed on the day of the battle. The sketch does not show Cunningham’s execution, preferring to emphasise the moment that he was felled by Laycock. So it’s really interesting, the choices that the artist is making about what he’s going to show and what he doesn’t, and chooses to show, this is what happens to you if you rebel. And he’s already shown what’s happened to Cunningham ‘cause he’s had him sort of being felled by the sword.
Okay. The final sequence of the battle can be seen as the troops open fire in an orderly fashion, the rebels are slaughtered and then dispersed. Fifteen convicts died on the field and their bodies were just left to rot on the field. The rest of the convicts ran away into the bush and then over the coming days the military quite efficiently – and various other forces mopped up and just arrested them and they slowly came back in and some of them surrendered and there were – I think altogether 10 convicts were hung as a result. So it did go on for a little while but this was really – it was all over very quickly. It wasn’t really a battle, it was really very much a skirmish and the disciplined soldiers were able to overcome the convicts very quickly even though they were significantly outnumbered.
So how – there’s one other thing which I point out too, is you can see in the background there, there’s a group of civilians standing behind the soldiers. They’re effectively volunteers who when the order was to go out and pursue the convicts, they actually joined up as well and they were providing support so there was a small group of volunteers backing up the military as well.
So how can we understand this illustration? So far as I’ve told you before I’ve not been able to find any evidence of who the artist was or why it was commissioned. I think however we can make some informed guesses about why this work was done. Firstly we know that many in the colony would have been familiar with the Georgian craze for satirical prints and drawing so here’s a famous illustration of a print shop in London where people would of course queue up to buy the new satirical print or new commentary on what was going on.
While the capacity did not exist in the colony at this early stage for the production of prints for sale there were artists who could produce works on commission. My evidence for this is another well-known image from the early colonial period. This is another anonymous drawing which survives in the collections of the State Library of New South Wales. It depicts the moment of Governor Bligh being arrested on the 26th of January 1808. He can be seen being dragged from under a bed. Interestingly Johnson, who by this stage had become a colonel, was in command of the troops who arrested Bligh and he would actually be court-martialled for this.
Richard Neville at the State Library of New South Wales has done some detailed research on this item and believes that the work was commissioned by Sergeant Major Whittle. Neville argues that the drawing was put on public display after Bligh’s arrest as part of the celebrations in Sydney. Many of course were very pleased that Bligh had been arrested.
Neville was able to do this, and the reason he was able to work this out was because Johnson was later court-martialled. There was extensive evidence which is recorded and survives today, you can see the transcripts of the court martial and inside those transcripts there’s evidence – there’s discussion of this illustration and that it was likely to have been commissioned by Sergeant Whittle. So we’re very lucky, by some sort of weird accident because of the court martial there’s some evidence that helps us work out how this illustration came into existence.
Unfortunately we do not have records like this for the Castle Hill sketch but I think we can assume the same type of thing has happened. Following the suppression of the rebellion of the residents of – following the suppression of the rebellion the residents of Paramatta and Sydney would have celebrated. The story of the battle would have been retold many times. The sketch would have been commissioned and displayed prominently, possibly in the house of one of the officers in charge. And this is where it would have been really interesting to find out where the sketch had come from so for example if it was a descendent of the Major then that would have helped us understand how the sketch was produced.
Now this brings me back to the idea of the cartoon. I think that if you view this work in this way the sketch operates very much like a cartoon, it summarises and combines a number of events and personalities to tell a story. It’s not necessarily funny like many cartoons today are not funny but it provides a commentary on the major political events of the colony.
So in conclusion I do think that this image is best understood as a cartoon rather than as an artwork and I do think that it’s likely that it was commissioned by one of the English officers or possibly volunteers who were present. I think it provides a narrative of the events which endorses the authority of the colonial administrators. It is in a sense propaganda. I think it was likely that it was displayed in celebrations soon after the rebellion had been put down.
Finally I think this is a very good example of what you can get from cartoons if you analyse them closely. I think we should treat them as evidence rather than illustrations, that you know historians are often guilty of just dropping in the illustration after they’d crafted it and all the historians who’ve used this sketch have usually done that, they haven’t stopped and had a really close look at it ‘cause there’s a lot there to unpack if you take the time.
To come back to the other question, I will be putting it in my top 100 and I think it is the first cartoon in Australia. Thank you.
K: Thanks, Guy, and you just stole my first question for you. Will it make the top 100? I think events like this are so fascinating because you never know where you’re going to end up. If you’d asked me if I was going to be humming Six Ribbons through the course of the evening I would have been very surprised and a little potted history was a great side path to go on as well.
We have time for some questions. We are recording tonight’s event so if you would like to ask a question could I ask you to wait for Brooke to bring you a microphone so we can capture your question? And we’ve got the gentleman in the front row.
A: Firstly thank you very much, extremely interesting interpretation. I wonder if you would like to comment on the fact that all of the text in the language ribbons in the – is all in English whereas one of the principal fears of the powers that were at the time was that all those guys falling over and running away on the right-hand side, many of them, most of them, the vast majority of them didn’t speak English, they spoke Gaelic.
K: Yes and of course that’s another piece of evidence to suggest that this is written from the winner’s perspective, this is a winner’s cartoon and – I mean in terms of the composition there’s work being done on who were the convicts there and it is actually a mixture, they’re not all Irish, they’re not all republicans, there’s actually – and of course the United Irish movement was one which had Protestants and - as well as Catholics so there’s actually a mixture of people there and some people were forced to be there and some people were being opportunistic and just were drunk and decided to go along so it’s quite a mixed crowd and that perhaps reflects the way that they didn’t form a very efficient fighting force.
And if you read the story of the rebellion it’s really a matter of a number of mishaps. They rise up in Castle Hill and overpower their supervisors very quickly and then after that it all goes to pot, they don’t move quickly, they don’t move on Paramatta, they just stop and stand outside of Parramatta for a while and then they wander off in another direction and another group heads up to the Hawkesbury and it’s all very confused. And it’s always sad to read about rebellions because you can just see it falling to pieces even before it begins. But yes, I think the fact that it’s an English – again reflects that it’s a winner’s cartoon.
A: Thank you for the talk, very much appreciated. I have two points, one, the cartoon ahead of us, I notice that on both sides there are people with the blue uniform on. So are they all attached to a particular group?
G: No well the blue is not actually a uniform, that’s just their clothes. The soldiers are in red. There’s one soldier, the trooper, the one mounted trooper next to Major, he’s a soldier. You’ve got the rum corps effectively down the back there and then of course all the New South Wales corps and then the people behind in blue coats, they’re just civilians, they’re not actually soldiers.
A: And the others are rebels?
G: That’s a mixed group of convicts and some – and also some pardoned convicts as well. There were some citizens on that side as well.
A: The next question, let’s refer to the cartoon with Bligh. Do you believe that that cartoon reflects the real situation at the time?
G: No, I think this is another propaganda cartoon and if you go back to Georgian satire people like Gillray were guns for hire, they actually could be paid and Gillray’s quite famous ‘cause he would do cartoons for the Tories and do cartoons for the Whigs and he actually would shift sides depending on who was paying him and so he could be commissioned. And so when you think about cartooning in this period, Georgian satire, it’s not the same of course as cartooning now but it – they were propaganda pieces usually making a very pointed point which pleased a segment of the audience so yes, it’s not a direct parallel with modern cartooning but you’ve got to think –
A: <inaudible> 34:23.
G: Well in terms of – no, no and I think that the cartoon is designed to humiliate Bligh and there was a rumour started that Bligh had hidden under his bed. In the court martial of Major Johnson there’s a lot of evidence about whether Bligh did this and some soldiers said that he did and I think Bligh denied it but it’s sort of – I think he was hiding from the soldiers, he did hide in a room so they couldn’t find him which was a reasonable enough thing to do but of course it became – in order to undermine his position as Governor it was very useful to come out and say he wasn’t an honourable man, he hid underneath a servant’s bed and it was part of a process of humiliating Bligh and making it impossible for him to continue to be Governor.
A: Using the word that you’ve just used in terms of humiliation and looking at this illustration I feel that again this is an attempt at humiliation in terms of the ordered files of the soldiers as compared to the disparate rabble of the convicts. So again it probably is a very astute attempt I would suggest at humiliating the possibility of anybody actually challenging authority in the new colony.
G: I think you’re 100% right, I think it shows disorganisation and fuiltiy on one side and discipline and organisation on the other side which is – it is propaganda.
A: I’m interested in the artwork and I'm trying to work out what it says underneath but you referred to it alternatively as a watercolour or a sketch.
G: Well it is a watercolour and – well it’s a sketch watercolour in a sense but it’s quite finished, it’s not a rough sketch and it is actually – I find it very interesting ‘cause I think the artist has rendered the gum trees quite well and this part of Sydney had large stands of gum trees and that’s why the convicts were there, they were there to clear the forest so it is actually interesting how it’s – I’ve discussed it with some of the preservation staff as to whether they thought technically the artist was very good and they thought not that good but there are elements that I think of attempt to engage with the Australian landscape which I find very interesting ‘cause sometimes Europeans at this stage couldn’t quite see the Australian landscape and if you’ve been out to western Sydney – you could imagine the big gum trees quite easily if you go out to Rouse Hill and have a look around.
A: I was just interested because sketch usually implies pencil work and quick work and getting it down quickly whereas a watercolour you might work on it a lot longer. Having said that there is a really strong composition in that from you know the horizontal lines and the way it works across with the unity of it so I just think the second one you showed of Bligh is much more sophisticated in its rendition and more painterly whereas that first one has elements of it drawing in it that are more sketchy and probably that’s why you refer to it as a sketch, it’s done more quickly.
G: To be honest I call it a sketch because in the paper I want to slowly take you on a journey and get you to the point that you say it’s a cartoon but I don’t want to start saying it’s a cartoon so it’s sort of – I use sketch and I used the word image as well, I’m using my thesaurus to try and get my way through the paper. I wasn’t using it in a technical sense.
A: In a technical sense.
G: Yeah. No but I agree with you, it’s interesting to look at it and think how finished a work is it? And of course there was a limited number of people who could do these sorts of works. There’s not that many people in Sydney at this time so –
A: And a sketch, you wouldn’t necessarily do it on watercolour paper, rag paper’s expensive –
G: Yes, actually that –
A: - just grab a bit of paper –
G: Well and it’s high quality paper, that’s one of the things that we’ve determined and it’s from 1796 so it’s paper which has come a long way and it’s been kept so that all indicates that it’s an important moment that the paper is being used in this way.
A: But what does it say underneath it?
G: Didn’t – I read that out, I can read it out again. It’s – sorry, I’ll just find it. Just have to get my glasses back on. So it just records the events of the day. I’ve got my papers all out of order. Here we go, Major Johnson with Quartermaster Laycock so Major Johnson has the – oh go back to the sketch – Major Johnson is on the horse with the larger hat and Quartermaster Laycock is back with the sword. So Major Johnson and Quartermaster Laycock and 25 privates of the New South Wales Corps defeats 266 armed rebels on the 5th of March 1804. And there’s a military historian in Sydney who’s an expert on this period and who is very much interested in re-enactments, a guy called Stephen Gaps and he has looked very closely at the uniforms and he said they’re absolutely spot on in terms of the shape and the accoutrements that the soldiers have which is another piece of evidence to suggest that this was done very close. ‘Cause if you did it 20 years later or something which – it would be possible, those sorts of details would start to drop out. There’s a lot in this which suggests the person may have even been there or was told exactly what to do by somebody who was.
A: Just speaking about dress why is it that the two leaders of the rebellion, Cunningham and Johnson, why are they dressed so well? They’re convicts.
G: Well I think the people who wore convict uniforms were usually in secondary punishment and they had been sent you know to Norfolk Island or other places. I don’t want to suggest exactly where because the history of which places were for secondary punishment changes throughout the colony but they would have basically been wearing clothes and of course some convicts were in a position of being able to receive – had additional resources. I don’t know exactly why the artist has presented them in this way but I don’t think we should assume that all convicts would be with the symbol of government property, the broad arrow.
A: <inaudible> 41:23.
G: Yeah. But why the artist has put such good clothes on them I don’t know ‘cause they do look well dressed. That’s another question for me to find out.
A: I’ve just got a question about where this actually happened. I’ve been looking at this picture for a long time because I had an ancestor who was a convict at that time and most of the reports that I’ve read, they suggest that they really don’t know where it happened and I was wondering if you had any better information than that?
G: No, I don’t. There’s a whole chapter in this book, there’s an appendix which just spends time discussing where the battle occurred. I think some of the better informed people argue that it happened at Rouse Hill near where the Rouse Hill historic property is and there’s a school house there and they think it was – there’s a group who I think argue there. There is actually a memorial which is elsewhere and I think people suggest that the memorial’s in the wrong place but they don’t know and they think that the convicts who were slain were buried close to the site and they don’t know where the burial ground is so there’s a lot of mystery about this particular event, yeah.
A: Guy, thank you for that.
G: No problems.
A: Fascinating. I just wondered whether there’s any thought in thinking they might be by the same people, the two cartoons and whether the State Library of New South Wales had subjected their cartoon to a level of analysis looking at the paper etc for example?
G: Yeah. No, I haven’t pursued that. I’ve been meaning to give Richard Neville a ring and have a chat to him about this but I haven’t actually done that yet. I actually think that the style of the work is very different, though, I don’t think it is the same artist. I actually find the figures – I understand what you’re saying about this being a more finished work but I find the figures very wooden in this drawing whereas I actually think there is a bit of personality in these figures which I like so yeah, I think it’s unlikely but I would definitely like to talk to – I’d like to run this theory of mine past Richard Neville and see what he thinks ‘cause I have borrowed his work extensively, it’s most probably polite of me to have a chat to him about it.
A: Guy, similarly it strikes me that the artist has a certain style so searching for similar styled work may run down the name of the artist for you.
G: And I have been talking to some other historians of this period and there is a potential that by going through the records we could start to make some well informed guesses about who the artist might have been and that’s a sort of ongoing research project which I hope to continue and maybe be able to shed some more light on by the time the exhibition opens in March 2019. But it’s a bit of a needle in the haystack-type search but it is something I am looking at.
A: My question’s a similar vein, just that style of artwork for want of a better word with the you know nicely written title must appear quite commonly in colonial artwork. Are there other examples say in that early New South Wales time, say up to 1820, are there other similar drawings at all?
G: There are illustrations and drawings and prints and – not quite like this, though. They’re certainly sort of illustrations of indigenous people and also flora and fauna and curiosities and things like that at Mitchell Library and we have some of those but nothing quite like this. And I think it is actually quite an unusual piece like that and when I first encountered it here I really was thinking there’s not anything quite like this. So as you go a little bit later you start to see things which are very much like Georgian satirical prints and I think this actually follows the conventions of a Georgian satirical print sort of done by an amateur. Obviously when you look at a Gillray and I had a Cruikshank up there earlier in the talk which is – actually isn’t a satirical print, it’s reproduced from a book. Where was it? It was right at the beginning, wasn’t it? Shouldn't have gone back that far but you can sort of see that there’s conventions which exist at this time for depictions of battles and things like that and there’s – I went through and looked at other depictions of Irish rebellions and revolts and other things which occurred and you do see this very staged setting with an inscription, that happens quite a lot particularly with the British material you look at.
A: Sorry, I thought you struck me in relation to the manner of dress of the two people who were the focus of attention of the officers and there is a commonality in terms of the Catholics are depicted as a ragtag bunch, righty-oh, but a lot of their leaders were Protestants and their leaders would have been depicted in a much more formal type of address and perhaps as a result they would have been denoted as dressed much, much better than the rabble of the Catholic mob that they would have been leading perhaps.
G: Yeah, I think that’s a good point and that was the thing about the United Irish, there was significant group of Protestants involved in that period.
A: Thank you very much, it’s very interesting. As you can detect from my accent I’m not that familiar with Australian history but I’m obviously very familiar with Vinegar Hill having visited the site of the 1798 –
G: The real Vinegar Hill?
A: The real Vinegar – I won’t say that – there are two reals, there’s another – the original Vinegar Hill. I’m just curious and I can’t see it from there, the British soldiers clearly are well armed. Were any of the rebels armed with firearms, with guns or were they all – pikes I think were traditional –
G: They had actually captured a large number of – when they overcame the overseers and the constables who were responsible for taking care of them they spent a night basically rampaging around the countryside around Parramatta and Castle Hill, Toongabbie and they raided all the farms and collected a large number of – they had some pikes and they also had a large number of muskets but they obviously didn’t really know how to use them. There were – some of the rebels did have military experience, some of them had participated in rebellions in Ireland but they had no time to form an effective fighting force and hence a very small group of well drilled New South Wales Corps were able to win the battle very quickly.
A: Thank you again. I just – again I’ll ask you whether you’d like to comment on something and that is you’ve characterised this as being more about those in charge, making sure that they had control over convicts and played down to some extent the political dimension of it if I could put it that way. I’m just wondering how you read in that context the comment from Thomas Anlezark who’s the mounted trooper who’s an English convict and I think still a convict at that time, I think he was pardoned after this but he is the one who uses one of the most insulting terms, the lay down, croppy dog or whatever –
G: Croppy boy, yeah.
A: Croppy boy, along with Johnson’s fairly nasty comment but would you like to comment on that clearly fairly strongly anti-Irish comment?
G: No, I – one of the things which strikes me is when he answers – what’s he say? I’ll give you something? I’ll give you liberty, I actually think that’s a joke and it’s a joke if you’re – yeah but if you're kind of like part of the colonial administration you know like not these bloody Irish again asking for liberty, I’ll give you bloody liberty you know it’s sort of –
A: It’s sarcasm.
G: Yes, that’s right, yeah but I think – and I think it’s interesting, some people actually interpret this cartoon as being anti-English and it’s not. Because they’re just reading it as an example of sort of English brutality but it’s really very much drawn from the perspective and rendered from the perspective of the people who won and I think they would have found it kind of almost amusing. And if you read – particularly when you read the descriptions of how the Bligh drawing was celebrated ‘cause you know they would basically light up the streets at night and celebrate and people would wander ‘round and visit houses and say isn’t it good that Bligh was put down? Well a similar thing would have occurred following – and of course the citizens of Parramatta were quite terrified that they might be overrun and so you could sort of imagine – and you’ve got to think back too with the sorts of things which did happen in Ireland when rebels you know – you know there were reprisals and massacres on both sides and so you could see there would be considerable relief and you could see the heightened expression with this. And I can really imagine this is on a sort of semi-easel in somebody’s house with candlelight and people coming in and sort of saying ah, isn’t it good that we did them over? And they’ve done a beautiful drawing of it to celebrate the event.
A: It was a similar situation with Johnson. When he perceived Pemulwuy, the Aboriginal soldier or –
A: Warrior. When he sort of tried to encourage Pemulwuy to surrender. When he did his head was removed so he wasn’t a very nice person –
G: No, he was a ruthless and efficient commander, yeah.
K: The lady with the final question for the evening, I think.
A: I was just wondering, and I may have missed it when you said it, did this sketch ever go to England?
G: Not that I know of, I don’t – it could have, it’s quite possible but I have no evidence of that.
A: So it wasn’t purchased by the person who donated it –
G: Well sorry, no, actually it must have gone to England ‘cause it ended up – I take that back. It obviously got to England but Nat’s here and he could possibly tell you that Rex would acquire things from all over the place and sometimes he records it and sometimes he doesn’t.
A: So we don’t know – well I suppose what was going through my head was whether this was done and sent to England as a commentary and it wasn’t for an Australian audience.
G: That is a possibility but the evidence I have from the Bligh case is that these sketches were used and there’s other evidence too I think in the – some of the correspondence with Governors there’s sort of like we must stop people drawing pictures, it’s you know it’s really – there’s other commentary about people drawing silly pictures and that and we should stop this and so there is evidence that people were doing this for their own amusement in Sydney but it obviously did make its way to England. I don’t know if you’ve got any ideas, Nat, how it may have ended up in RNK’s hands?
N: No. Well I think <inaudible> 53:17 the equivalent of car boot sales, markets, dealers, all sorts of places, buying stuff <inaudible>.
K: So I think we’ll all have to buy Guy’s book when it’s released in early 2019.
G: I hope I don’t have to do this much work on all of the hundred cartoons.
K: To see if some of the questions that you’ve asked tonight have been answered. Thank you for a wonderful evening, for your really excellent questions, you’ve helped to tease out even more that Guy has been discovering about this incredible little work. If you are interested in going on another research journey with us next Saturday, the 11th of November, the Blough map is returning to the Library, it actually goes into the Treasures Gallery next week and Dr Martin Woods and Libby Melzer from the Grimwade Centre are going to tell us all about the preservation journey that extraordinary map has been on so I hope you can join us for that too.
Please join me now though in thanking Guy and thanking yourselves for a wonderful evening of conversation.
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