Exiles Who Changed a Nation

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Exiles Who Changed a Nation
Historian Tony Moore pictured at the "forgotten" grave of French Canadian exile Joseph Marceau at West Dapto in 2008. Picture: Greg Totman

Strangers in a strange land is a good title for a sci-fi novel. It also accurately reflects how Australia’s founding fathers, our First Fleet convicts, would have felt on being dumped in an alien landscape on the other side of the world back in 1788.

Also springing to mind are the 34 Irish convict rebels from the Vinegar Hill uprising at western Sydney’s Castle Hill in March 1804.

We owe a lot though to these troublesome Irish rebels who probably only spoke Gaelic, not English, the language of their captors, for being exiled to the remote penal outpost of Coal River (later Newcastle).

Castle Hill Rebellion

Earlier, brandishing crude weapons like pitchforks and crying “liberty or death”, they attempted to march to Port Jackson and seize ships to return home to Ireland.

Their rebellion was crushed, their ringleaders hanged and the rest exiled here as a last resort. The Irish felons, including political prisoners, became coal miners and the reluctant founding fathers of Newcastle.

On their backs, as they worked in narrow coastal cliff tunnels hewing coal, was laid the foundations for a future thriving coal industry and the world’s largest coal export port.

The starving prisoners were only given rations twice weekly to deter any escapes. And if their convict tunnels at “Collier’s Point” (the Fort Scratchley hill above Nobbys) are ever reopened as a tourist attraction, it will be their only real memorial.

But exiled folk who helped build Australia came in all shapes and sizes.

One of the Hunter Valley’s earliest explorers ironically was a Frenchman in exile. He was the talented surveyor Francis Barrallier, who first mapped “Hunter’s River” almost up to Greta from a British longboat in 1801.

Years before, in 1793, he and his family hastily fled from their native town of Toulon, in France. It was a Royalist city and they fled to escape slaughter by Napoleon’s troops during the French Revolution.

This unsung hero of the Hunter went on to become a famous Blue Mountains explorer, almost penetrating that rugged mountain barrier in 1802.

There’s now a Barrallier Track named in his honour from Mittagong to Katoomba, but it goes in the wrong direction of his route into the Kanangra gorges.

And, while on names, who remembers Australia’s Canadian exiles?

Their sorry story is still probably largely unknown. I only stumbled across their existence during the recent National Trust Heritage Festival, where it solved a mystery for me about the origin of the oddly named Sydney suburb of Canada Bay.

It turns out 58 French Canadians were transported as convicts to colonial NSW, arriving in 1840.

French-Canadian Monument in Bayview Park, Concord

Regarded now as patriots in Quebec, they were exiled here for their part in uprisings against the hated English. They were jailed at Longbottom’s Stockade, now the site of Sydney’s Concord Oval.

Their presence is now recalled along the Parramatta River in the names, Exile Bay, France Bay and Canada Bay.

And still buried in the Wollongong bush is a French-Canadian revolutionary named Joseph Marceau, who was transported as a convict to NSW in late 1839 with his 57 compatriots for their rebellion against the then British Empire.

Cultural historian, author and academic Tony Moore tracked down Marceau’s burial plot to West Dapto some years ago before writing a book, Death or Liberty – Rebels in Exile.

Moore wrote that Marceau, a farmer, was a captain of one of the rebel armies (totalling more than 2500 men) and condemned to death for treason in February 1839.

While 12 other ringleaders were hanged, Marceau’s sentence was set aside and he and the other patriots were deported to Australia for taking up arms against British rule.

Historian Moore said before their arrests, all the exiles had been honest and law-abiding citizens. Many could read and write and were well educated.

Yet, two years later, the exiles were given their ticket-of-leave and allowed to work in the colony instead. Many obtained jobs with government departments.

In 1844, they were then pardoned by Queen Victoria and permitted to return home. Back home, one former French Canadian rebel, Xavier Prieur, later even rose to become Canada’s superintendent of prisons.

Marceau, however, stayed and married and was perhaps the only French convict to remain in Australia. As a farmer at West Dapto, he was nicknamed “Honest Joe”.

“Australia was the Guantanamo Bay of the 19th century,” Moore once wrote, saying transportation was an easy way to remove Britain’s political dissidents.

As evidence, his 2010 book explored the lives of some of the 3600 political rebels, radicals and protesters transported to Australia over 80 years.

Moore believes that through the contribution of these political prisoners, Australia later became a “working man’s paradise”.

Of course, some of the Hunter Valley’s best known early settlers were actually self-exiled British military men making a new, better life in Australia.

They were former army and naval officers and ordinary soldiers released from duty after the bloody Napoleonic Wars. Seeking fresh opportunities, they flocked into the Hunter to claim land from Wollombi to Paterson. They are best remembered in central Maitland itself by land near the Long Bridge called “Veteran’s Flat”.

But another group of later Hunter Valley settlers similarly motivated to succeed is often overlooked. They were again true exiles, fleeing from France, in the wake of another French Revolution. And yet they weren’t French, but English, and included engineers and some extraordinary inventors.

It was 1848. Europe was in turmoil again with a wave of revolutions and the Lacemakers of Calais were looking for a new home.

The late Hunter historian Harry Boyle became fascinated with them 30 years ago, saying they added to the colourful and romantic history of the Hunter Valley.

They sailed to Australia on three ships in early 1848. The ships Fairlie and Agincourt both went to Sydney, while the vessel Harpley went to Adelaide.

Boyle said it was the contingent of immigrants on the ship Agincourt he was chiefly interested in. From Sydney, these skilled English refugees from France were split between Bathurst and Maitland. Reports of the numbers coming by steamer to Morpeth varied from 126 to 142 persons, but they didn’t continue in their trade in the colony, being in demand instead as agricultural labourers, shepherds and female domestic servants.

A Morpeth family celebration in 1998 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of their ancestors arriving on that very spot attracted 60 people from as far afield as Adelaide.

At the time one of the descendants remarked that when their ancestors first arrived in Sydney in 1848, they weren’t even allowed to disembark.

“That was apparently out of fear that the new rural labourers might be contaminated by the fleshpots of Sydney,” she joked.

Author Gillian Kelly said the new arrivals prospered. One of them, Mary Anne Whewell married coach builder James Holden, of South Australia. Their name later became legendary in the annals of the Australian motor industry.

But the full intriguing story of the Lacemakers of Calais is a tale for another day.

Ref:  Article written by Mike Scanlon and published in the Newcastle Herald on 6 June 2014.   mikescanlon.history@hotmail.com

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