Like so many other civil disturbances, the rebellion of the French Canadians of Lower Canada (now known as Quebec) was the result of a complex web of political, social and economic grievances spanning more than a single generation. Politically they wanted greater participation in government and socially they demanded access to positions of authority and power within the English-controlled public service.
In 1837 the Patriotes’ claims for constitutional reform were rejected and their militancy increased dramatically. Outright rebellion broke out in 1837 and there were further revolts early in 1838 and a last, desperate stand in November of that year. Despite their zeal they were no match for the British forces.
The captured rebels then endured a series of showcase trials at which the British government indicated clearly that their punishment would be severe. Twenty-nine men were executed and eight exiled to Bermuda. Public opinion, however, would not tolerate the summary execution of the remaining rebels and an alternative punishment was therefore suggested by the new lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, Sir George Arthur, who had spent the previous thirteen years as lieutenant governor of Tasmania. In September 1839 the Patriotes were told to prepare for exile to Australia on the following day.
Two days later the men were on board the Buffalo, where they spent the next five months rotting in the hold while the ship made its circuitous voyage to Australia.
On 15th February, 1840 ninety-one English-speaking rebels from Upper Canada were disembarked at Hobart Town; the fifty-eight French-speaking Canadians from Quebec remained on board until the Buffalo reached Port Jackson ten days later.
Leon Ducharme, one of the prisoners, in his Journal of a Political Exile in Australia (translated by George Mackaness), described the exiles’ horror at the first sight of their new home:
We came on deck as usual, and gazed with horror on this land that some few days previously we so ardently desired. Looking down from the deck we saw miserable wretches harnessed to carts, engaged in dragging blocks of stone for public buildings; others were breaking stones; the sight of this brought to us many sad thoughts, for we believed that within a few days we too would be employed in exactly the same way.
The prisoners, whose fate had been communicated to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Sydney, Dr Polding, by the Canadian clergy, were kept on board the Buffalo for a fortnight.
Presumably through Dr Polding’s intercession, they were saved from being sent to Norfolk Island; instead they were sent to Longbottom, Concord (Longbottom Farm).
Of the 58 prisoners, 26 stated their occupation as farmers, while a further 9 gave farming as an alternative occupation. Three were blacksmiths, 3 merchants, 2 carriage makers and painters, 2 clerks and 2 farm labourers. The remaining 9 were made up of a joiner, a merchant, a house painter, a mariner, a surgeon, a wheelwright, 2 carpenters and joiners, and a labourer.
The oldest prisoner was the Surgeon, Samuel Newcombe, who was 65, and the youngest was Desire Bourbonnais who was 20. Two of them, Francois Xavier Prieur and Leon or Leandre Ducharme, wrote accounts of their experiences which were translated by Dr George Mackaness and privately printed.
The Canadians spent 20 months at Longbottom, engaged in stone breaking and dragging it to Parramatta Road, which was then under construction. They were also engaged in cutting wood blocks for paving the streets of Sydney. In 1842 the prisoners were allowed to leave Longbottom to try and gain employment on the ticket-of-leave system. This was not always easy because the Colony was suffering from a severe trade depression at the time.
Some of the prisoners established a sawmill near Parramatta, some were employed as assigned servants by such people as the Surveyor General and the superintendent of convicts. Prieur tried his hand at a number of occupations, including confectionery making, cutting timber lathes and, with two of his compatriots, a store, a bakery and a blacksmith’s shop or forge at Irish Town on the Liverpool Road. This site is now known as Bass Hill.
The good behaviour and honest character of all the prisoners had by this time disproved the allegation made on their first arrival that they were men of the worst character.
In 1844 all the prisoners, including the Americans in Van Diemen’s Land, received full pardons. Two of the French Canadians, Joson Dumouchel and Ignase Chevrefils, had died soon after their arrival in NSW. One, Joseph Marceau, married a colonial girl, Mary Barrett, by whom he had ten children. The youngest of these died at Figtree near Wollongong in 1947 at the age of 90.
The remaining 55 Canadians all returned to their homeland. In the modern suburb of Concord the memory of these unfortunate men is commemorated in three small bays on the Eastern shores of the municipality (Exile Bay, Canada Bay and France Bay), and in the new suburb of Canada Bay and also be the erection of a monument in Bayview Park, which is where the convicts would have disembarked for the journey to the stockade.
All But One Went Home – Joseph Marceau
Land of a Thousand Sorrows – The Australian Prison Journal, 1840-1842 of the Exiled Canadien Patriote, Francois-Maurice Lepailleur – Translated and Edited by F. Murray Greenwood.
A Deep Sense of Wrong by Beverley Boissery
The Road to us of Parramatta (a literal translation of the French title) by Louise Simard.