One difficulty that I have faced as a regional historian specialising in the broader new state New England, the Tablelands and surrounding river valleys, is the absence of regional historical syntheses that allow us to fit our family, local and regional stories into a context.
Everything is dominated by national or state stories or by very broad thematic studies that have only limited relevance to our own stories.
This absence has forced me to develop my own syntheses to provide a framework for my research. In past columns I have talked about Aboriginal New England to 1788. Over the next few columns I want to talk about our colonial history, starting with the penal period. Think of it as a primer into which you can fit your own research!
The first fleet arrived in 1788. In 1801, 13 years later, a first attempt was made to establish a penal colony at the mouth of the Hunter. The attractions were the presence of coal, timber and the large shell middens that might provide lime for building. This first attempt failed.
In 1804 a second successful attempt was made.
On 4 March 1804, 233 Irish convicts launched a rebellion against British authority. The following day a force consisting of a mixture of military personnel and armed civilians defeated the rebels in a pitched battle at Castle Hill near Sydney.
This battle is sometimes called the second battle of Vinegar Hill named after an earlier uprising in Ireland for some of the prisoners who participated in the NSW uprising had been exiled as a consequence of their participation in the Irish uprising.
Fifteen convicts were killed, nine were later executed, while 23 formed the core of a new penal colony established at Coal River, now Newcastle. There were no casualties on the British side.
From the beginning, the new penal colony was seen as a place of secondary punishment that would also reduce the chances of the convicts escaping. This proved to be a forlorn hope. The fleshpots of Port Jackson were just too close.
In the end, three penal colonies were established in northern New South Wales each initially intended as a place of secondary punishment:
The reference to Moreton Bay may surprise, but Moreton Bay, now Queensland, was part of northern NSW until Queensland gained self-government in 1859.
These three penal stations formed part of an integrated network of penal stations that would include Port Jackson, Van Diemen's Land and Norfolk Island.
There was a constant flow of convicts between the different penal colonies, while each had to be serviced by shipping bringing in supplies while exporting local production. This laid the base for the coastal shipping network that form such an important part of New England's history.
Of the three northern colonies, Port Macquarie would have the greatest impact on New England's history. I will turn to its story in my next column.
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