Land of a Thousand Sorrows: Revisited

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Land of a Thousand Sorrows:  Revisited

A documentary, which follows the unknown and untold story of 58 Canadian patriots from Lower Canada, sent into exile in the penal colony of Australia from 1840-48, was to have been released in May this year with three particular ceremonies:  May 18, Bayview Park, 50th anniversary of the unveiling of the memorial in Concord;  May 20, West Dapto Cemetery, acknowledging Joseph Marceau, the exile who chose to remain in Australia;   and May 21, Eastern Suburbs Cemetery, honouring the two Canadians who died in exile while at Longbotton.

Unfortunately, these ceremonies honouring the Canadian exiles and their legacy of responsible government have had to be cancelled due to COVID-19.  However, through these monuments, books, street signs and descendants their history lives on.

Through the documentary, in a 90 minute account in three acts, this journey will be told through narration by a Quebec/Australian actor, interviews, film clips, trailers, news stories, photographs and illustrations throughout to engage the viewer.  Historian Tony Moore, author of Death or Liberty, is one of the star commentators in this documentary, which was written, produced and directed by Pierre Marcoux.

To better understand why the Canadians were sent into exile to such a far away land, the first act they will cover events that examine the roots and growth of Lower Canada (Quebec) and Australia in conjunction to each other before the patriots’ arrival at the penal colony.

The second act will focus on the six month journey the patriots had to endure, which commenced in Montreal and concluded in Australia.  It will examine the challenges they had when arriving in Sydney with the locals, their time at the Longbottom Stockade (Concord) as political prisoners and their adjustment to the penal colony upon receiving their ticket-of-leave.

The third act will focus on their return voyage to Canada, the growth of Quebec and Australia in relation to each other since 1848, as well as the legacies the patriots had left in both continents today.

That being a summary of the documentary itself, a brief story follows which examines the historical connections Australia and Canada had in common with each other through the patriot political prisoners.

It is now 50 years since the inauguration of the Canadian exile monuments at the present City of Canada Bay (NSW) and Hobart (Tasmania).  The first ceremony took place on May 18, 1970, in commemoration of the French-speaking Lower Canadian prisoners, with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau doing the honours (ironically his son Justin now serves as Prime Minister of Canada).

Like distant cousins, Australians and Canadians do not know much about each other, especially these events which shared so much of our early history.

After an insurrection in Lower and Upper Canada in 1837-38 for better government representation, a total of 58 Lower Canadian and 92 Upper Canadian prisoners who were spared the gallows were sent to the penal colony of Australia.  This was under the recommendation of the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada (Ontario), Sir George Arthur, who had assumed the post there in 1837.  His last posting was Van Diemen’s land, where he left a dark legacy.

The ship containing all the patriot prisoners, HMS Buffalo (which brought the first settlers to South Australia in 1836), commenced the journey from Quebec City in September 1839 to its first stop to Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land, in February 1840.  There the ship unloaded the Upper Canadians to their fate.  What is not known is that the majority of those prisoners were Americans who fought for Canadian independence in the Battle of the Windmill at Prescott, Ontario, in November 1838.  There to meet the patriots with disdain was the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, James Franklin, who was related to American revolutionary Ben Franklin.  He would later lead the doomed 1845 expedition to find the Canadian Northwest Passage after leaving the island.

The second ceremony took place on September 30, 1970, at Hobart to honour the English Upper Canadians, with former Canadian Defence Minister, Douglass Harkness,  doing the honours. 

John Bede Polding

Once the Lower Canadians arrived in Sydney on February 25 they would stay on the Buffalo for two weeks, awaiting their fate.  Msg. Bede Polding, who spoke fluent French and was of their faith had vouched for the patriots to NSW Governor Sir George Gipps, who served in the 1836 Gosford Commission in Lower Canada, studying the patriots’ grievances before the insurrection broke out there.

Spared transport to Norfolk Island, the Lower Canadians were lodged at the Longbottom stockade, where the present Concord Oval Stadium now stands.  They worked on improving the Parramatta Road, collected oyster shells to make limestone and had even worked on the officers’ quarters in the present-day Victoria Barracks, where a monument to their legacy is on display in the section of the family quarters.

The Upper Canadians in Van Diemen’s Land also worked the roads but had suffered more hardships than their French Canadian counterparts.  Five had escaped the island while one Lower Canadian escaped from Sydney.  (He would become the first mayor of a town called Farnham in Quebec years later.)

The Lower and Upper Canadians would receive their tickets-of-leave in 1842, and after much political pressure from American and Lower Canadian lobbyists, the young Queen Victoria granted the political prisoners from the 1838 insurrection a pardon.  The majority would return to Canada, but a few had stayed where their descendants now live throughout Australia, carrying the surnames of their patriot ancestors like Sharpe, Polley and even the French Canadian Marceau.

NSW would receive responsible government in 1855, another Canadian legacy which was a result of the 1837-38 insurrection that led to responsible government being established first in a United Canada in 1849.

The book, Land of a Thousand Sorrows, written secretly by a French Canadian political prisoner, Francois Lepailleur, at the Longbottom stockade, was much revered by Australian historians as an important piece of literature describing convict life in NSW at the time.  Two other books written by the French Canadian exiles would also be published in Australia.  Many Upper Canadians, which included the Americans, had books published as well on their memories of convict life in Van Diemen’s Land.

Heritage:  May-June 2020

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