More to Tell
The words “Je me souviens” (I remember) are boldly displayed on T-shirts, flags and even vehicle number plates throughout French-speaking Quebec. It is more than an acknowledgement of bilingualism or the mere repetition of the official state motto. It is a reaffirmation of Quebec’s French past and more particularly, an expression that captures the lingering resentment towards “the English”, meaning those English-speaking Canadians who are perceived to look down on the Quebecois.
Tactfully, it leaves unsaid what is remembered, but there is no doubt it invites memories of the 1837-38 Rebellion when several provinces threatened succession and were brutally suppressed.
Periodically, the revolutionary fervour that sparked the uprising in Upper Canada in 1837 rises to the surface, reprising an ongoing debate about the merits of an independent Quebec. Those supporting the cause describe it as achieving “sovereignty”, while those opposed describe the argument as “separatism”. In 1980 a referendum of Quebec voters rejected the proposal to create an independent national state by a margin of 60:40. In 1995 a similar province-wide vote significantly reduced the margin to near parity.
While there is no immediate prospect of Quebec breaking away from the predominantly English-speaking provinces, there is a growing interest in maintaining Quebec’s distinct cultural identity. This has been strengthened, no doubt, by recent changes in the history syllabus for secondary schools in Quebec that mandate the study of the causes, events and effects of the 1837 Rebellion. Elsewhere in Canada students study a mixture of ancient, medieval and modern world history which does not specifically deal with this topic.
Canadians, generally, are well aware of the events of 1837-38 that brought important constitutional changes and eventually self-government. They are less aware of the fate of those exiled to Australia as punishment for their part in the uprising. In Australia, we may know that Canada Bay was named in recognition of those political exiles, but this is only part of the story, since the majority of prisoners – those who were English-speaking, were transported to Norfolk Island and from there to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). The separation of prisoners, attributed to the intercession of Catholic Bishop Bede Polding, was also advantageous to Sydney Town which gained a skilled and educated workforce. For the authorities in Hobart, it was easier to deal with the so-called “criminal class”, who were assigned as slave labour to free settlers in a society that was essentially an open prison.
An interesting footnote to this story is that the decision to send the prisoners to Van Diemen’s Land was made by Upper Canadian Lieutenant General, George Arthur. As Lieutenant General of Van Diemen’s Land, Arthur set in place a penal regime recognised as the most severe in the British Empire. Port Arthur Gaol, completed in 1848 was his legacy.
Amongst the prisoners sent to Hobart were 92 American sympathisers captured in skirmishes across the border with Canada. The Americans sought to promote a revolution that would replace the British Crown with a republican congress. They now posed a diplomatic problem for the British as they were American citizens, imprisoned by a foreign government. American President Martin Van Buren, facing economic problems at home, internal schisms in his cabinet and frontier wars with native Americans, had no appetite for a war with Britain. Besides Congress had passed a law prohibiting Americans from enlisting in the armies of foreign governments, a legacy of the War of Independence when many “British” soldiers were Hessian (German) mercenaries and loyalists, though born in America, fought on the British side. In 1843, American President John Tyler signed a treaty with the British Government setting the Canadian border. The American prisoners received a presidential pardon and returned to the United States via visiting American whaling ships..
Comparatively little is known about the prisoners transported to Van Diemen’s Land, compared to those at Canada Bay. One reason for this is that amongst Les Patriotes were a number of educated men who kept detailed accounts of conditions and their experience. Prisoners sent to Hobart were mostly uneducated. Much of what is known is from the pen of American lawyer and activist Linus Wilson Miller who was sentenced for his part in the uprising. Miller’s “Notes Of An Exile to Van Diemen’s Land” is a thoughtful and very detailed account of the experiences of those sent to Hobart.
Physical evidence relating to the Hobart prisoners is hard to find. There is a monument at Battery Point, inscribed in French as well as English (pictured) that commemorates their arrival. There are faded signs on convict-built offices (now shops) at Salamanca Wharf, once used by the US Consul to co-ordinate the repatriation of American prisoners, but little else remains.
Given the number of American and Canadian tourists who regularly arrive in Hobart on cruise ships – it seems a missed opportunity not to point out this link with our shared history – after all both sites are adjacent to where coaches filled with tourists set out for Port Arthur, seeking the real “history experience” of Tasmania’s convict era. What the American exiles experienced, however, predated the building of Port Arthur and was far more brutal.