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In his autobiographical book, Notes of a Convict of 1838, François Xavier Prieur recalled his harsh experiences on the sailing ship HMS Buffalo en route to Australia in 1839–40. “A wounded man preserves as a memento the bullet or piece of shrapnel that has been extracted from his lacerated flesh,” he wrote in his memoirs, published in 1869. “Well, I, too, would like to possess a little cross made from the wood from which this vessel was constructed, and within whose sides my heart and my body have been lacerated by my unworthy treatment.” It would take more than 183 years for his wish to be fulfilled. 

As a 24-year-old merchant, Prieur and 57 shipmates were destined for Port Jackson in Sydney, New South Wales. By the time they reached the far-flung penal colony, they’d endured a voyage of almost six months from Quebec City. Although they were prisoners, Prieur and his companions were no common criminals. They were Patriots – Lower Canadian revolutionaries who, in 1837–38, took up arms to fight for democracy against autocratic British colonial rule in Lower Canada (now Quebec) and Upper Canada (now Southern Ontario).

Land of a Thousand Sorrows, the memoir of François-Maurice Lepailleur (pictured in an 1888 portrait), recounts his political exile in Australia’s colonies; A monument dedicated to the Upper Canada Patriots is unveiled by Canadian MP Douglas Harkness at Sandy Bay in Hobart, TAS, on 30 September 1970.
Image credits: courtesy City of Montreal; courtesy Hobart Library Service

Ultimately, 29 Patriots – 12 Lower Canadians and 17 Upper Canadians – were hanged for their participation in the failed 1838 insurrections. To avoid backlash, there were no further executions. Conditional pardons were granted to some prisoners, but 58 captives remained in Lower Canada, while 92 – the majority of whom were Americans who fought for the patriot cause – were incarcerated in Upper Canada. 

Upper Canadian Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Arthur, who’d previously served as lieutenant-governor of the notorious penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (now Lutruwita/Tasmania), had proposed the Patriots be sent to his former post. At that time the Australian penal colonies were a dumping ground, not only for criminals, but also political prisoners gathered from across the British Empire. On 25 September 1839, Prieur and his 57 fellow Patriots departed Montreal, deported to a lifetime of exile in the penal colony.

Bound for Van Diemen’s Land

After transport to Quebec City, the prisoners from Lower Canada were joined by those from Upper Canada and herded aboard HMS Buffalo – the same ship that brought Governor John Hindmarsh to South Australia in 1836. Constructed in Sulkea in India in 1813, it served as a timber carrier from New Zealand and later transported convicts, then immigrants, to Australia. 

HMS Buffalo, a 37m-long, three-masted wooden sailing ship, left Quebec City and commenced its journey to the South Pacific on 28 September 1839. The prisoners were confined below deck day and night, except for a daily two-hour exercise break. They were lodged in a dark, hot and crowded hold; light penetrated only through the grilles that covered the hatches.

At last, on 13 February 1840, the Buffalo reached Hobart Town in Van Diemen’s Land, where the prisoners from Upper Canada were herded off the ship three days later. According to the memoirs of an American prisoner, Robert Marsh, the island’s Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin, who was Arthur’s replacement, held contempt for the Patriots after hearing that most of the prisoners from Upper Canada were Americans. Given political-prisoner status, they were set to work building roads at Sandy Bay in Hobart Town. Franklin was relieved of his duties there in 1843, and later perished in the Canadian Arctic while leading a doomed expedition in search of the Northwest Passage in 1847.

A map of Australia in 1840 showing borders and names.

The Buffalo continued its journey to Sydney, delivering the Lower Canadians there on 25 February. The Patriots were listed as political prisoners, and held on the ship until 11 March 1840. 

Shortly after their arrival, the transportation of convicts to NSW ended, making the Patriots some of the last prisoners to be sent to the colony. As for the Buffalo, the ship met its fate on 28 July 1840, when it ran aground on the shore during a storm at Mercury Bay in New Zealand. The wreck now rests 100m from the high-water mark, with a monument on the shore marking its location. In 1980, in tribute to the founding of SA, a replica of HMS Buffalo was built at the beachside suburb of Glenelg in Adelaide. Used as a restaurant, with a museum located on the top deck, the business closed in 2019 due to staggering costs and the replica was demolished.

The Patriot prisoners were placed at the Longbottom Stockade, established about 1817 and located along what would become Parramatta Road, about halfway between Sydney in the east and the inland town of Parramatta in the west. Patriot Leon ‘Leandre’ Ducharme described the stockade as “a sort of barrack or prison, which formed a square: there were several small, detached buildings, such as a kitchen, a tool-shed, etc.” The Patriots were confined in huts measuring 3 x 5m, each housing 15–18 men. 

Two days after their arrival, the Patriots were ordered to undertake the repair and widening of Parramatta Road. Once this was completed during the first month of their imprisonment, they were given new tasks. François-Maurice Lepailleur, fluent in English, became a sentry at the Longbottom Stockade. He recorded in his secret journal the comings and goings of everyday life in the colony, such as the passage of people between Parramatta and Sydney Town. Opposite the stockade stood the Bath Arms Hotel, run by Emanuel Neich, one of NSW’s first Italian immigrants. Neich often supplied newspapers to Lepailleur while on duty, and the two became friends. Neich’s legacy would continue via his great-grandson, cricketer Don Bradman. 

The Bath Arms Hotel is still trading today. 

This map of the village of Longbottom shows the stockade where the Patriots lived in 1840–42. It’s now the site of Concord Oval in Sydney; Loyalist Katherine Jane Ellice, a British diarist and artist who was held prisoner by Patriot François Xavier Prieur, painted this scene of Lower Canada Patriots in the November 1838 Battle of Beauharnois.
Image credits: courtesy City of Canada Bay Heritage Society; supplied

The first step towards freedom came to the Patriots between 1841 and 1842, as, one by one, they were issued tickets of leave by the colonial government. Finally, after strong international condemnation for keeping political prisoners as convicts, Governor-General Charles Metcalfe of the Province of Canada issued a special pardon for the exiled rebels. Departing in 1844, Lepailleur wrote in his diary: “By God’s grace we are leaving our land of exile. Adieu a thousand and a thousand times, land of exile! Land of slavery! Land of a thousand sorrows.” 

Lepailleur arrived in Canada in January 1845, whereupon he was reunited with his beloved wife. His diary was published posthumously under the title Land of a Thousand Sorrows. The English edition was published in Australia in 1980. It is much revered by Australian historians as an important piece of literature describing convict life in NSW. In 1845 Léandre Ducharme’s memoir, Journal of a Political Exile in Australia, was published, followed in 1869 by François Xavier Prieur’s Notes of a Convict of 1838. Both were also published in English in Australia.

The ongoing Patriot Legacy

Two Lower Canadians, Louis Dumouchel and Ignace Gabriel Chevrefils, died in 1840 and 1841 respectively while working at the Longbottom Stockade, and 10 prisoners from Upper Canada died in captivity in Van Diemen’s Land. A few of the Americans and one Lower Canadian, Joseph Marceau, chose to stay in Australia. Marceau, who had been a personal assistant to the superintendent at the Longbottom Stockade, married Australian woman Mary Barrett, the daughter of convicts. They settled in the town of Dapto – near Wollongong, 95km south of Sydney – where they grew vegetables, owned a grocery store and had 11 children. Today, their descendants live across Australia and New Zealand. In 1987 Kevin Marceau published All But One Went Home: The Marceau Story, a volume of family history. 

The Patriots were, and still are, widely revered as heroes in their homeland. Although they didn’t gain the same recognition elsewhere, their actions had consequences that extended far beyond Canada. In 1848 the Province of Canada gradually achieved responsible government and it was not long until, in the mid-1850s, the colonies of NSW, Tasmania and New Zealand received responsible government without a shot having been fired – another testament to the legacy of the Patriots. 

On 18 May 1970 Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau visited Cabarita Park in Sydney to unveil Australia’s first memorial dedicated to the 58 French-Canadian exiles, with some of Joseph Marceau’s descendants in attendance. The memorial has since been moved to Bayview Park, Canada Bay, near where the Patriots disembarked before marching to Longbottom Stockade. Another memorial was erected at Victoria Barracks in Paddington, Sydney, on 6 July 1988. In Nipaluna/Hobart, two monuments are dedicated to the Upper Canadian exiles. The first was unveiled at Sandy Bay Beach Reserve on 30 September 1970, with a second erected in 1995 at Princes Park in Battery Point, not far from where the Patriots landed in 1840.

In tribute to Joseph Marceau, a boulevard bears his surname in the borough conveniently called the City of Canada Bay, located about halfway between Parramatta and Sydney. A street sign in Wollongong, where many of his descendants live, also bears his name. Today, Concord Oval stands on the former grounds of the Longbottom Stockade, next to the ever-busy Parramatta Road that the Patriots once worked on. Not far from the present Canadian exile monument is a pathway called Chateauguay Walk, facing the Parramatta River, in memory of the seven Lower Canadian political prisoners from Châteauguay in Quebec, including François-Maurice Lepailleur. 

Since 2022, two more monuments, funded by private Quebec organisations, were inaugurated in NSW. One was erected at the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park in Sydney’s Matraville, dedicated to the memory of the two Lower Canadian Patriots who died in captivity, while a plaque honouring Joseph Marceau is located in West Dapto Catholic Cemetery, where he is buried. In 2023 three wooden crosses were made from timber of the wreck of HMS Buffalo, a reminder of François Xavier Prieur’s journey on that vessel. Two of the crosses were sent to his home town in Quebec, fulfilling his wish 183 years after it was made. These events, landmarks and the descendants forge the Canadian exile legacy in Australia and ensures they will not be forgotten.

Related: The New Zealand convicts sent to Australia