Three small wooden crosses connect a French patriot, HMS Buffalo, the penal colony of New South Wales, Quebec, Canada and Mercury Bay Museum.
The beginnings of British settlement in New Zealand are vastly different to that of Australia. New Zealand British arrival was free settlement, no prisoners, those serving the British crown, those wanting religious freedom, and those who wanted to establish a little England. Australia was a penal colony a destination for all who were excess to London’s overcrowded jails, that included not only common criminals but political prisoners who were not friends of the British government. Some prisoners did nothing more than rebel against the colonial reign of the British in outer places. Mind you, stealing a loaf of bread was considered a crime punishable by a life sentence to Australia as a convict.
The heartfelt wish of one such prisoner, French-Canadian dissident Francois Xavier Prieur, transported to the penal colony of Australia in 1839, was honoured this last Saturday morning, 22 April on Buffalo Beach, Whitianga, by the Buffalo Memorial. This wish involved the HMS Buffalo, now a shipwreck lying off the beach.
As a young man, Francois Prieur took part in the Lower Canada Rebellion – an armed insurrection against British rule which sought to drive the British out of the southern Quebec region. Prieur and his comrades failed and were eventually captured and sentenced to death. In time the death sentence was commuted to transportation, and Prieur along with 57 other French Canadians, found themselves banished to New South Wales. The ship that took them to their place of incarceration on the other side of the world was the HMS Buffalo, which now lies submerged off Buffalo Beach at Whitianga.
“Prieur was an idealistic young man stirred by the rhetoric of politicians like Louis Papineau and others and was inspired to take part in the rebellion – with unfortunate results,” says Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Northland Manager, Bill Edwards, who uncovered the story last year after researching the influence of the French on New Zealand history.
The young dissident recorded the privations he experienced on the Buffalo as well as his time in various prisons in Canada and Australia in a book entitled Notes of a Convict of 1838,” says Bill.
Bill’s research included public screenings of Land of a Thousand Sorrows Revisited, a documentary on the dissidents by Canadian film-maker Deke Richards. (Deke intended to arrive in New Zealand for this event, but travel from Canada delayed him several days.)
Prieur’s passage to Australia was marked by harshness, hunger and abuse at the hands of many of HMS Buffalo’s crew. Prieur recorded the inhuman conditions in his book, including his first impressions of the ship:
“We went below into this frightful wretched hole, through a hatchway about two feet square; then two sentries took up their positions at ends of our quarters, strongly barred with iron grills,” he wrote.
The quality of the food was similarly appalling designed to keep the prisoners alive and nothing more: “A bucket was the communal dish intended to contain [...] all our food; for the rest we had neither knives nor forks nor spoons; the whole of our table equipment was made up of one small cup or pint measure.”
Reflecting on his experiences in his memoir, Prieur – a devout Catholic – recorded a small but heartfelt request.
“A wounded man preserves as a memento the bullet or piece of shrapnel that has been extracted from his lacerated flesh. 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 unworthy treatment,” Prieur writes.
Last Saturday, morning - 185 years after his conviction - Francois Prieur’s wish was fufilled thanks to a community-led initiative by the Mercury Bay Museum and the HMS Buffalo Re-examination Project with support from Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.
“The Whitianga community is in a unique position to ensure that Francois Prieur’s wish becomes a reality,” says Mercury Bay Museum Manager, Rebecca Cox.
Glen Schache of the Whitianga Menzshed carved three small wooden crosses from timber of the Buffalo that washed up onto the beach over the years. The crosses were blessed as part of the beachfront ceremony, by local Roman Catholic priest, Fr Tony Delsink, before they begin their journey to Canada where they will be presented to descendants of Francois Prieur and his home parish.
The larger cross (pictured) will be exhibited in Mercury Bay Museum and the two smaller crosses will be taken back to Canada. Their presentation is planned to coincide with National Patriots Day in Canada (May 22) - a day of commemoration in Quebec to honour French patriots who fought against British colonial powers in that part of the country.
The story of this little known but powerful connection to HMS Buffalo was of great interest to Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Mid-Northern Regional Archaeologist and co-director of the HMS Buffalo Re-examination Project, Dr Kurt Bennett.
Dr Bennett spoke with emotion at the ceremony on the beachfront, sharing the journey to this point. “When my Northland colleagues saw the very clear link to HMS Buffalo they contacted me,” he says.
“In the case of the HMS Buffalo shipwreck, its proximity to the beach and historic wrecking event means that over the years stray pieces of timber have washed ashore,” he says. “These timbers were brought to the museum, then underwent professional archaeological recording and significance assessments to preserve important information before the timbers naturally degrade. Thanks to the Whitianga community, we continue to respect HMS Buffalo’s international links while learning so much more about its broad but condensed history.”
“HMS Buffalo was anchored off Mercury Bay carrying a load of kauri spars when a storm struck on July 28, 1940 – five months almost to the day after dropping Prieur and his comrades off in Sydney.” - Rebecca Cox.
“This is a great example of how a community has been empowered to raise awareness of heritage in its own area and to tell its own stories,” says Bev Parslow, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Mid Northern Area Manager.
“Heritage New Zealand is delighted to support this wonderful initiative by Mercury Bay Museum and the HMS Buffalo Re-examination Project.”
Caption: The three crosses set against the Buffalo Memorial.