A small group of people including Thames-Coromandel Mayor Len Salt braved poor weather to gather at a shipwreck memorial at Whitianga’s Buffalo Beach on Saturday, April 22, for the blessing of three small crosses that fulfilled the heartfelt wish of a French-Canadian dissident transported to the penal colony of Australia in 1839.
The crosses are associated with the story of Francois Prieur, who was part of an uprising against British rule in Quebec in 1838.
As a young man, Francois Xavier Prieur took part in the Lower Canada Rebellion 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.
That earlier sentence was commuted to one of transportation to Australia for Prieur and 57 others.
HMS Buffalo, the ship on which the rebels were transported, was shipwrecked off Whitianga in 1840 and has sat 50 metres off the namesake beach ever since.
Prieur recorded his ordeal in his book Land of a Thousand Sorrows, along with a wish that a small cross be made from the timbers of the Buffalo for him as a memorial to the suffering he and others endured on their passage.
The journey to Australia was characterised by harshness, hunger and abuse at the hands of many of HMS Buffalo’s crew. Prieur recorded the inhumane 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 [60cm 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.”
Worse was to come. Already insanitary on board with makeshift latrines, conditions deteriorated with the onset of widespread seasickness. “The poor sick folk were compelled to cling desperately to anything available in order to reach the narrow bench from which the plunging of the ship, and their own weakness, continually flung them down upon the deck which had become wet, slippery and stinking through the vomiting.”
The blessing of three small crosses was 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 gesture satisfied Prieur’s wishes as detailed in his recollections, in which he said: “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.”
Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Northland manager Bill Edwards uncovered the story last year after researching the influence of the French on New Zealand history.
“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,” Edwards said.
His research included public screenings of Land of a Thousand Sorrows Revisited, a documentary on the dissidents by Canadian filmmaker Deke Richards.
“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. “With permission, volunteers from the Whitianga Menzshed have made three small wooden crosses from a timber of the Buffalo that washed up on to the beach over the years.”
Whilst the Buffalo shipwreck site itself is protected as an archaeological site under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act, the wood used for the crosses had washed ashore and been brought to the Mercury Bay Museum and professionally recorded.
The crosses were blessed by Father Tony Delsink of St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Whitianga.
The story of this little-known but powerful connection to HMS Buffalo was of great interest to Dr Kurt Bennett, the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Mid-Northern regional archaeologist and co-director of the HMS Buffalo Re-examination Project.
Bennett notes that the wreck itself is an archaeological site protected under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act.
“Our approach to shipwreck sites is that they are protected under legislation and should be celebrated as they represent a shared heritage with other nations. 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.
“Timbers brought to the museum undergo 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.”
Writing in his memoir in 1869, Prieur mused about the condition and location of HMS Buffalo “whose fate ... at the present time, I should love to know”. By the time he had written those words, the ship – which had eaten so much into his soul and was the cause of so much trauma and misery – had been underwater for almost 30 years.
“HMS Buffalo was anchored off Mercury Bay carrying a load of kauri spars when a storm struck on July 28, 1840 – five months almost to the day after dropping Prieur and his comrades off in Sydney,” says Rebecca Cox.
“The ship became separated from its cables and when it became clear that the crew would be unable to save the vessel, the captain steered the ship on to the beach. Two crew members died, though the rest survived. The ship, however, was a complete loss.”
News of the ship’s fate reached patriot exile Francois LePailleur, who recorded the event in his journal, saying he discovered the sinking of HMS Buffalo in September 1840 while in captivity – and rejoiced.
The crosses will be returned to Canada in time for Patriot’s Day on May 22 and presented to some of Prieur’s descendants.