HMS Buffalo playing a starring role in Canadian documentary

14 Sep 2021

A Canadian filmmaker is putting the final touches to a documentary about French-Canadian “Patriots” being exiled to Australia 182 years ago - with their prison ship, HMS Buffalo, playing a starring role.

“Land of a Thousand Sorrows” recounts the harrowing story of 58 Patriots, as they called themselves, from present day Quebec and a further 78 “freedom fighters” from Ontario and the United States who were transported on the Buffalo to Australian penal colonies by the British authorities in Canada after unsuccessful uprisings in Quebec and Ontario in 1838.

The documentary, which has been produced and financed by director Deke Richards (also known by his birth name of Pierre Marcoux), will have its premier in Montreal for programme buyers and special dignitaries next month, followed by further screenings on Ottawa, Toronto, Washington and Los Angeles.

Deke said that there would be invitations to ambassadors from New Zealand, Australia, the United States, France and the UK as well as embassy and consular staff along with officials from the various Canadian provinces and capitals.

Next year Deke hopes to be able to come to New Zealand to show the documentary in Whitianga, Covid-19 permitting.

While the documentary - originally a three-part miniseries compressed into a longer, feature version - tells the story of the revolutionaries, their battles with the British and years spent in a penal colony in New South Wales, the arduous six-month voyage courtesy of HMS Buffalo also features prominently throughout. 

“The Buffalo is just as important a character as the Patriots, so I treated it with the same respect as someone outside the box would do, not as the Patriots would do,” Deke said.

He said the people from Quebec were passionate about their history and when the question of the rebels who fought against the Crown for self-determination came up, the Buffalo was always mentioned. “When I go to a small town in Quebec where the rebellion took place and they describe all the Patriots, they always talk about the ones that were sent to Australia and they always talk about the Buffalo.

“So, it is as important as any character I am explaining in the documentary itself. It is almost like a character in itself.”

In their journals, the Patriots complained about their harsh treatment on board the Buffalo, the dark, tiny, squalid living conditions and the appalling food.

So, when they heard that the ship had come to grief in Mercury Bay, as they worked in a penal colony in NSW three months after the disaster, they openly rejoiced at the news. But Deke said there was absolutely no smouldering resentment towards the boat in Canada today. “Historians present the Buffalo as it was - a boat that transported the Patriots and that was it. 

“It was the Patriots themselves who painted the ship in a dark light [in their journals]. “When I go to Lepailleur House (the home of one of the rebels, Francois Lepaiileur, who wrote a journal, “Land of a Thousand Sorrows,” hence the title of the documentary) or to see some kind of display, there is always a mention of the Buffalo, and it is written in some detail. They only give a negative light through the words of the Patriots themselves who wrote it. They didn’t themselves write anything out of favour.”

In Montreal there were a number of monuments that referred to the Buffalo, the events that took place in Australia, the replica of the Buffalo in Adelaide, Australia (which has since been removed due to poor construction) and the fate of the Buffalo in Mercury Bay.

It was HMS Buffalo that carried the first governor of South Australia, Captain John Hindmarsh, and his family to Adelaide, which would explain that city’s honouring of the boat. The ship also ferried the family of New Zealand’s first governor, Captain William Hobson, from New South Wales to the Bay of Islands.

Mercury Bay Museum manager, Rebecca Cox, said she was delighted that the documentary would highlight the role of the Buffalo internationally and also at home. “We at the museum are trying to promote the importance of the ship and hopefully this documentary will help push that along.”

Deke said that while the Patriots complained about the conditions on board the Buffalo, they weren’t mistreated. “It wasn’t that they were treated badly. It was just that the living conditions for these gentlemen, many of them from good families, was such a shock.”

Deke said that, in fact, when they arrived in Sydney, Buffalo captain, James Wood put in a good word for them so that, as political prisoners, they were spared some of the indignities and harsh treatment dished out to other convicts in the penal colony.

Of the 58 Patriots exiled, two died in captivity, one decided to stay in NSW and 55 returned after being freed after roughly five years. Twelve others were hanged in Canada.

There were also 92 rebels in all from Ontario and the United States, who also fought against British rule, of whom 13 passed away in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), with all but a few of the rest returning from exile. Eleven others were hanged in Ontario for their part in the 1838 insurrection.

All returned to normal life, one becoming a bailiff, another a mayor.

Ironically, one of the rebels, Francois Prieur, who wrote “Notes of a Convict 1838”, went on to become the Superintendent of Prisons in Canada. “He had been a prisoner himself and he was put in charge of all the prisons, including the one where he was held,” said Deke.

While the story of the Patriots and the role of the Buffalo were well known among “hardcore” Patriot associations, Quebec souvereigntists and re-enactors, Deke said it was less well known elsewhere in Canada and in the US. “No-one really knows the details of the story. Every time the documentary channels talk about the events of 1838, they talk about the Patriots going on this long, painful journey to Australia on this ship called the Buffalo, but they don’t reveal any of the story behind it.

“It is like they vanished to Mars. I am presenting something that has never been presented before. I think it is a very interesting story and I want to get people excited about the history and look at this in a different light, not just in Canada but in the US, New Zealand, the UK, France and Australia as well.

“This is a kind of documentary that is required viewing for any avid fan of New Zealand history.”

Pictured: The wreck of HMS Buffalo resting in the waters off Buffalo Beach in Whitianga. The photo was taken only a few days before the most recent Covid-19 Alert Level 4 lockdown.