My Youngest Son Came Home Today

Chris Williams

Viewing the re-enactment of the 1804 ‘Vinegar Hill’ “battle” at Rouse Hill from the top tier of one of the two stands provided to the public on Sunday 7 March this year, I was appalled by the pathetic scene it depicted.

But my sense of pathos was directed more towards future generations of young Australian males than the memory of those who have failed in past battles.

The origin of the name of the battle, “Vinegar Hill”, arises from a link made between this attempt at freedom by mostly Irish convicts held in a British colonial prison west of Sydney in 1804 and a rebellion against British control of Ireland at Vinegar Hill in Wexford County, Ireland, just six years earlier in 1798.2

The aim of the re-enactment was “an authentic interpretation of the historical events on an authentic scale of the numbers of original participants”. In colonial Australia, the core of the rebellion comprised “a band of Irish convicts [who] had broken out of the Castle Hill Barracks … with the intention of joining other rebel convicts and marching firstly on Parramatta and then on to Sydney to seize ships in the harbour and make their way to Ireland and Freedom”.3

Having heard stories over the years of the routing that the Sydney ‘revolutionaries’ received, my sympathies at the beginning of the dramatic re-enactment were with the escapees whom I expected would be putting up a valiant fight. Yet what I witnessed was a bunch of mostly deserters running away from their fallen mates.

The slogan which is said to epitomise the rallying cry of the Rouse Hill rebels, “Death or Liberty!”, clearly overlooks a third option which must have been prominent in the minds of those taking part, namely, abandonment of the cause through desertion – that is, if the statistics on which the re-enactment was based are correct. The re-enactment website gives two figures for the number of rebels involved in the fight: “15 … deaths on the field and over three hundred captured”; and: “The rebels numbering 233”, with a note that not all the rebels were convicts. The Government side is put at over 80, perhaps little more than 30 of who were armed with single-loading firearms. Clearly the rebels had the numbers on their side if they had chosen to rush the soldiers, who needed to stop and re-load after every firing.

Before proceeding to discuss what seems to me to be my obvious observation of desertion – yet one which I fear may provoke outraged response – perhaps it is necessary for me to offer my credentials for stimulating what I hope might become a debatable case for the de-mythologising of Australian male chauvinism/militarism.

I am a woman and I have never been required to show my physical prowess through the taking of life. Rather I have suffered physical agony in giving life, through childbirth. I concede therefore that I might not understand the need to glorify war in order to dupe society’s youngest and strongest about the mortal dangers involved in war, whether for defence or aggression (and these two definitions are so easily confused by the defenders of nations, particularly in the midst of the Iraqi war). Although I might demand equal rights for women I have never advocated these extend to death on the battlefield. So many young men must go off to fight filled with bravado, living out a fantasy of adventure and glory, without much thought given to the later cold actuality of the effects of adrenalin juices acting on their hearts and the compelling understanding (too late) that they are far away from where anyone who loves them can save them from death or acts of atrocity.

I am a biographer, not an historian, although the two disciplines are helpmates in trying to uncover secrets of the past. In 1996 I produced a book titled Fathers & Sons, which I hoped might throw some light on the emotional bond that many Australian men feel for their fathers, particularly in cases where their mutual love is not openly demonstrated.4

I am a pacifist, yet again I have never been required to act out that belief in the face of vicious physical aggression (except in the case of a blade held to my face by a ‘road rage’ stranger in Sydney on the day the U.S. invaded Iraq). But I have been impressed by the serenity exhibited by Buddhist monks protected by their deep meditation as fighting went on all around them.

I am a descendant of Irish, English and possibly other races. My mother was an O’Keefe, and proud of her patriarchal antecedent, an Irish school teacher, Michael O’Keefe, who taught at the first Catholic school at Richmond in Tasmania – while his wife is never mentioned in the telling of our family stories. On my father’s side my progenitors date from the First Fleet. There’s even some talk of Oliver Cromwell playing a bit part in the family history, which is difficult to reconcile with the staunchly anti-authoritarian mood of my family culture. And rumours that Australian aboriginal blood runs in the family’s veins abound, remaining unsubstantiated by documentary evidence.

In other words, like so many Australians, I am the product of mixed race, ideology and class, forging an identity minute by minute out of the conflicting forces of memory that form and inform my responses to life.

May I point out that I think it is commendable that there is now public acknowledgement that it is a fact that many Australians are descended from the first, white, forced immigrants to this penal island; that they’re the children of outcasts from England, a mighty colonial imperialist society. That one’s descendents were thieves or murderers has become a reputable qualification these days, made fashionable since the research activities prompted by the 1970 bicentenary and again in 1988, perhaps now to the point of almost unquestioning reverence.

Perhaps these days we go too far in idealising criminality rather than the commonality of the dire human condition of labouring that established white society in Australia. If the 1804 re-enactment was an attempt to popularise an example of history written from below (perhaps in order to challenge versions of history which have for centuries been written by victors), as a moral lesson I believe that it failed miserably.

I’m left wondering how we, the little people, descendents of those “criminal” rebels or others in similar dire circumstances, can feel proud of what occurred on that sloping hill. From what I saw, the rebels can claim no high moral ground, even though the Government forces seem to have used a shameful tactic of using a truce as a trick to take rebel leaders prisoner. I was surprised that official speakers at the seminar on the day of remembrance seemed satisfied, if not happy, with the portrayal of rebels in the dramatisation.

It might be argued that there are some cultural values which are not unique to Australia but have come to be revered here as typical of the Australian personality and are worth promoting (egalitarianism, solidarity in social causes, compassion for the underdog). If these are worth fighting for, they’re worth holding out for and winning. I would have to say that from my view of the 1804 re-enactment field, the scene did not promote these values, far from it. Rather it portrayed a picture of boastfulness, lack of attention to strategy and, finally, individual selfishness on the part of the rebels. Indeed the ‘British’ redcoats displayed the discipline and stout hearts needed to win the day, a bitter vision for any republican to witness. While acknowledging that the soldiers were involved in a despicable action of imprisonment of fellows (even though they may have been reinforced by rhetoric about the chaos of civil unrest), they were prepared to die at arms.

Winning should not be a shameful act in itself, nor should losing be intrinsically worthy of praise. I have lived a lifetime in Australia hearing about ‘glorious defeat’, and its romanticism has become more tarnished at every stage. Acts of bravery in the face of military slaughter might have been worth revering at Gallipoli or the Eureka Stockade, but Australia’s aggressive role in Korea, Vietnam and more recently in the Middle East is long overdue for a thorough-going review.

I had not realised the part that Irish melancholy played in the formation of this Australian male mythology of failure until I visited Vinegar Hill in Wexford on the east coast of ‘Eire’ a few years ago. The revelation struck me with force as I learned this was a hallowed place for those men killed in a failed attempt at armed rebellion, and because of the impact of Irish values on Australian culture, also a significant source for the Australian legend of heroic failure.

Since the memory of my Irish epiphany had faded, I went to Rouse Hill ill-prepared, thinking that the re-enactment would stir me to feel compassion for the victims of cruel circumstances. I did feel compassion for all those men and women whose lives were caught up in a dire set of colonial conditions living as prisoners in a harsh country remote from their homes. As I watched I could contemplate the fate of these particular men who were killed on a hill that is now a general memorial to the transience of life and the omnipotence of death, albeit before life is revived in another form.

But what a sight to see 2004 observers cheering on actors in the 1804 drama who begin to scuttle away from the fight just minutes into the fray! Is this level of desertion evident in all battles, I wonder? It’s a sobering thought in the midst of belligerent ballyhoo, then and now.

Unless the message from this dramatisation is that there’s no point in talking up war unless you’re prepared to stay and be killed, or win against the odds, I fear for the smart-bomb-and-chemical-fodder of Australia’s next general war. If it comes, I hope my newborn grandson’s adult life will be spared by the intervention of reason and compassion, in descriptions of the brutal facts of war rather than romantic mythologising which is so much in the thrall of the deal-making of armament manufacturers made rich through collusion with war-mongering politicians.

Glorious defeat? What use is that in the fight for compassion towards all of humanity? Viewed from my seat in the stands, with distance sparing me any rambunctious rebel/rabble-rousing, Vinegar Hill 1804 was a pitiful example of inglorious defeat.

(1) Words and music by Eric Bogle.
(2) accessed 11 May 2004, author Thomas Bartlett MRIA, Professor of Modern Irish History at University College Dublin.
(3) accessed 11 May 2004.
(4) Williams, C 1996 Father & Sons HarperCollins Sydney. Out of print and now available on the author’s website