Two small wooden crosses made from timber washed up over time on to Buffalo Beach in Whitianga from the wreck of the HMS Buffalo were presented to the descendants of 19th century French-Canadian dissident Francois Prieur at a special ceremony held in Quebec recently.
Prieur took part in an armed insurrection against British rule in Quebec in 1838 and was subsequently transported to Australia on the Buffalo as punishment. Six months after Prieur arrived in Australia the Buffalo was wrecked off Whitianga in 1840 and has sat 50m off the namesake beach since.
Prieur recorded his harrowing ordeal onboard 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.
He wrote, “A wounded man preserves as a memento the bullet or piece of shrapnel that has been extracted from his lacerated flesh.”
One hundred and eighty-five years after his conviction, Francois Prieur’s wish was fulfilled as a result of a community-led initiative by the Mercury Bay Museum and the HMS Buffalo Re-examination Project with support from Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.
Thames-Coromandel Mayor Len Salt gave the crosses, fashioned by the Whitianga Menzshed, to the Canadian High Commissioner, Joanne Lemay, in a small, but sombre ceremony at Buffalo Beach on April 22 this year- before they were transported to Prieurs’ homeland.
Ronald Prieur and Gilles Boismenu, both descendants of Prieur, spoke movingly about their ancestor and what the crosses mean to the family at a ceremony held at St Polycarpe Church in Quebec on Patriot’s Day on May 22.
Gilles Boisemenu spoke for many family members at the ceremony:
“I thank Saint Polycarpe for welcoming me on the special day of Patriots Day in tribute to Patriot Francois Xavieur Prieur, my great-great-grandfather. A special thank you to New Zealand for this contribution to this event with the crosses that are a reflection of what Francois Xavieur Prieur was – being a man of faith, belief, resilience and perseverance,” he said.
An excerpt from Prieur’s journal was read by Andre Goulet, the treasurer of the Society for the Reenactment of Lower Canada.
The ceremony also received official recognition from New Zealand with a message from the High Commissioner of New Zealand, Martin Harvey, which was read out at the gathering:
“We are honoured to share in this valuable piece of New Zealand, Canadian and Quebec history today. The ties between our nations are broad and rich and this ceremony today is an important way of celebrating our enduring friendship. We offer our best wishes and congratulations to the descendants of Francois Prieur who have kept the memory of the 144 patriot exiles almost 183 years ago and the hardships they endured,” he wrote.
The event also contained a speech from Samuel Pineault, co-producer of the documentary Land of a Thousand Sorrows Revisited, which has done much to increase awareness of the story of the French dissidents and the Buffalo.
Screenings of the documentary last year in New Zealand organised by documentary maker Deke Richards inspired, in part, the Whitianga community’s plan to make the crosses and present them to descendants of Prieur in accordance with his wish.
The ceremony concluded with a symbolic firing to honour the patriots by members of the Society for the Reenactment of Lower Canada.
Additional reporting Heritage NZ and John O’Hare.