Joseph Holt was a self-appointed General who raised arms against the British, but instead of a cell, he was sent to Australia. Fortunately, his distaste for the empire raised him to folk hero played well on these shores.
For the 20th and last Australian maverick of the season, I would like to take you back to the early beginnings of the country. It was the year 1800 and the first convict ship to ring in the new millennium was the Minerva, which docked at Port Jackson on the 11th of January. His Majesty’s Colony of NSW had only been proclaimed 12 years before and it would take another century-and-a-bit for us to become Australia. An estimated 5,000 white people lived here; convicts, settlers, soldiers, emancipated convicts and the first Currency Lads and Lasses, the name for native-born children. A quarter of those people were Irish and that was getting on the nerves of the powers-that-be. That was understandable, because revolutions were gripping the planet. America had been first, and heads were still rolling into the basket under the guillotine in France. Britain was also in the throes of the Napoleonic wars and among the Irish convicts hopes were high that the French or the Americans would come to save them. Escape attempts were the order of the day and employers got more lip from their Irish employees than they thought appropriate. In the middle of this ferment arrived the Minerva and our hero of the day, General Joseph Holt.
Joseph Holt was a maverick not only in because he was courageous, gutsy and fearless. He was also a windbag, a smart aleck and a pain in the neck. A professional troublemaker, who considered himself the only righteous man in the world and everybody else wrong for even daring to suggest otherwise. So although he was Irish, he was also very, very Australian – especially because that arrogance originated in a sense of inferiority and a fear that people were not taking him seriously. But let me tell you a little more about Joseph Holt and the conflict that made his name. At the end of the 1780s, Ireland had been under British rule since the Norman invasion in the 12th century and the whole country was suffering from the consequences of institutionalised sectarianism, especially the Catholics. Religious and economic discrimination was rife and the harsher the oppression became, the more strength was gained by a new movement for democracy, emancipation and voting rights for all. The United Irishmen were a group of both Protestants and Catholics, who fought the British army in a series of battles and urban guerrilla wars that quickly spread through Ireland. The British were ruthless in squashing the rebellion, which culminated in the Battle of Vinegar Hill in 1798. Whenever they captured a village or town, they burnt it down and killed its inhabitants. Torture was also widespread and an estimated 25,000 people died in a period of only six months. Afterwards, the survivors were either hanged or sent to Australia for life.
Joseph Holt was a Protestant farmer and debt collector in County Wicklow, who had become involved in the rebellion when his house was burnt to the ground by the local landlord who owed him money. Holt repaid the man in kind and then joined a group of rebels who had hidden themselves in the Wicklow mountains. Holt started taking over the command and found out he was actually really good at it. At the height of the battles, he led more than 1,000 men in campaigns of raids and ambushes, taking on government forces and winning. Never a man to sell himself short, he called himself the Bonaparte of County Wicklow and rode through the countryside with a plumed hat which had once belonged to a French lieutenant and a green serge flag adorned with a yellow harp and inscribed with his initials. Of course, he insisted on being called General and treated with the utmost respect. He even invented his own gunpowder, calling it “Holt’s Mixture” and making it work when supplies were low. But in November of 1798, it all came crashing down. That month the French were defeated at Ballinamuck and this meant the end of dreams of becoming part of an enormous force that could defeat the British. Holt realised that the game was up and engaged his wife Hester, who had contacts in high places, to negotiate a surrender for him.
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Part of the deal had been an amnesty, but as soon as the British had Holt in a cell in Dublin Castle they reneged and put him on board a ship to Botany Bay instead. Holt was furious, but managed to arrange one compromise: if he paid for the passage himself, he could take his wife and 13-year old son Joshua with him. Minerva had another 188 convicts on board, roughly 84 of them political prisoners, and the 102nd Regiment, commanded by Captain William Cox, who would later become famous in the colony for building the first road through the Blue Mountains. On board, an amicable relationship developed between Holt and Cox, with Cox putting Holt in charge of the ship’s canons when it was threatened by Spanish and Portuguese pirates. Hester, in the meantime, gave birth to a baby son on the high seas, so when Holt landed in Sydney in 1800 it was with a wife and two children in tow. He also had managed to get himself a job, as overseer of Cox’s enormous estates.
But once a troublemaker, always a troublemaker. In September of 1800, only a few months after Minerva arrived, a few of his shipmates decided that rebellion was in order. They were still hopeful that the French or the Americans would come to set them free and thought the momentum was there to push for liberation or, alternatively, the takeover of the colony. Of course, Joseph Holt was heavily involved and was soon arrested on suspicion of plotting against the government. Because no evidence could be found and Holt cried foul and threatened to take his case to the highest power, the King if need be, he was let off. But just to make sure he would not even think of taking on the powers-that-be, governor King forced him to watch the flogging of the men who were convicted. Holt especially abhorred the treatment of another Minerva passenger, Maurice Fitzgerald, who was given 300 lashes for his part in the uprising, with flesh and blood flying everywhere, including in Holt’s face. Afterwards, Fitzgerald pushed the constables who were putting him into a cart and got another 200 lashes for his trouble. Holt was appalled and wrote about the incident in a paper back home, embarrassing the government.
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Despite everything, three years later it was on again. This time the plot was bigger and they almost succeeded. Unfortunately, what would become known as the Battle of Vinegar Hill (after the one Holt had been involved in in Ireland) failed. The preparation had not been brilliant, there weren’t enough weapons and King’s response was quick and brutal. Two of the rebel leaders were executed without trial, strung from the staircase of the government store in the Hawkesbury. Ten others were hung in chains, ten received floggings of between 200 and 500 lashes, 40 were sent to Coal River, now Newcastle, to do forced labour in the mines. Others, like Joseph Holt, were exiled to Norfolk Island, where they had to contend with a particularly sadistic commandant, Joseph Foveaux. Holt fantasised of “borrowing a pistol… to rid the world of this man-killer, Foveaux, and with as short a warning as he gave to the two men he hung without trial.” Holt was locked up in Norfolk Island’s goal for almost two years, but when he came back to Sydney in 1806, he immediately got involved in more illegal activities. This time it was less politically and more economically motivated, but the operation of an illicit still was enough to get him back into King’s bad books.
Finally, Holt received his absolute pardon in 1811 and left in 1812, with Hester and his youngest son. Of course, this sea voyage wasn’t without drama either. The Isabella was wrecked off the coast of one of the Falkland Islands during a storm, and it was up to Holt to organise the rescue and the subsequent survival of himself and his shipmates. They were rescued in 1813, after a few months of improvisation that Holt described in his autobiography, A Rum Story, with relish and lots of self-praise. Back in Ireland, he was hailed as a hero, but after a few months he bitterly regretted leaving New South Wales. Believing that Ireland was too small for a man of his calibre, he pined for the colony that had cemented his reputation as a fearless superman. And Australia missed him too. When Joseph Holt died in 1826, every newspaper in the country published large articles, which alternated between admiration and friendly ridicule. In fact, when his oldest son Joshua passed away in 1860, his whole obituary was about his father, the famous general, and not about him at all.
By then, Joseph Holt had been eulogised as Australian royalty, the maverick who kept saying no to everything and anybody. An example to us all and a fitting person to bring up the rear in our parade of Knights who say ‘Ni’. But I’m already thinking about another series, so if you’ve got ideas, please let me know. For now: vale Joseph Holt.