Shipwreck links to French-Canadian dissident commemorated
May 01, 2023 | Stories

By John O'Hare

The heartfelt wish of a French-Canadian dissident transported to the penal colony of Australia in 1839 is being honoured this year – and commemorations have involved the wreck of HMS Buffalo lying off Whitianga.

As a young man, Francois Xavier Prieur took part in the Lower Canada Rebellion in 1838 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, later commuted to transportation. Prieur along with 57 other French Canadians found themselves banished to New South Wales.  

The ship that took them there was HMS Buffalo – which now lies submerged off Buffalo Beach at Whitianga.  

“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 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.

Prieur recorded 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.”  

Worse was to come. Already unsanitary on board with make-shift latrines, conditions deteriorated with the onset of widespread sea sickness:  

“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 vomitings.” 

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.  

This year – 185 years after his conviction – Francois Prieur’s wish is on the way to being fulfilled 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 has been 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 onto the beach over the years. On April 22 we blessed these with support from the local Roman Catholic community before they begin their journey to Canada where they will be presented to descendants of Francois Prieur and his home parish. Ngāti Hei was also present representing Tangata Whenua.” 

The crosses will be presented to descendants of Francois Prieur on 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. 

We continue to respect HMS Buffalo’s international links while learning so much more about its broad but condensed history—Dr Kurt Bennett

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, who notes that the wreck itself is an archaeological site which is 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.  

“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 1840 – five months almost to the day after dropping Prieur and his comrades off in Sydney. The ship became separated from its cables and in desperation, the captain steered the ship onto the beach. Two crew members died, though the rest survived. The ship, however, was a complete loss. 

“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 Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Mid Northern Area Manager Bev Parslow.  

“Heritage New Zealand is delighted to support this wonderful initiative by Mercury Bay Museum and the HMS Buffalo Re-examination Project.”  

Prieur, Francois
O'Hare, John (author)

John O'Hare | Communications Advisor
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