Did you know that the Sydney local government area of the City of Canada Bay commemorates the link between French-Canadian patriot rebels and the place they were exiled to following a failed uprising in 1838?
From the late 18th century, Canada was divided into two British-ruled provinces known as Upper and Lower Canada. Lower Canada was part of the former French territory in the North Americas known as “New France” – it was ceded to the British in 1763 following the Seven Years War (1756-1763). It included the present day French-speaking province of Quebec.
Although British ruled the sparsely populated province of Lower Canada, the majority of the population was French. In reaction to British rule, a “revolutionary secret society pledged to restore sovereignty to … settlers from France and their Canadian born descendants” was formed, led by Louis-Joseph Papineau and others.
The first rebellion took place in 1837, with a second one following in November 1838. The patriots, as the rebels were called, were no match for the British forces. They were outnumbered by the British troops, but nor were they well armed: weaponry included antique guns, pikes and scythes. The uprising was a failure.
Eventually, the ringleaders and others involved in the rebellion were captured and tried for treason.Those found guilty initially faced the death penalty. But by September 1839, the patriots who had not been hung were reprieved. Fifty-eight of the French-Canadian patriots were transported to Australia aboard the HMS Buffalo, along with prisoners from another rebellion in Upper Canada who were disembarked in Tasmania.
After a five month journey, they arrived in Sydney in February 1840. Two months later, convict transportation to New South Wales ceased, making them some of the last convicts to be transported.
It was initially planned that the rebel patriots from Lower Canada would be sent to Norfolk Island, but following the intervention of a local priest, they were sent to the Longbottom Stockade on the site of today’s Concord Oval. The stockade had previously been the half-way stopping point between Sydney and Parramatta, but had fallen into disuse and disrepair by the time the French-Canadians arrived to Sydney.
Although they faced prejudice and discrimination because of their convictions for treason and their religious beliefs (they were Roman Catholics), the convicts would make good through deed and character once in Australia.
They were sentenced to hard labour, set to work breaking rocks for road making. But as the commander of the stockade, Harry Baddiley, was corrupt, they were soon given privileges and found other ways to augment their income.
One of the most lucrative sources of alternative income was collecting shells along the foreshores of the Parramatta River, which were sold and used for making lime. Sydney was then undergoing a building boom, and lime was an essential ingredient for making mortar.
Despite making the most of their situation – the extra money they earned meant they could bake bread, make French stews and experiment with wine making – most experienced homesickness.
Within a year of living at the stockade, the convicts were assigned, meaning they could leave the confines of the stockade and work for private employers. By 1844, most had received their Ticket of Leave. Within ten years, all but three had returned to Canada – two had died, and another stayed on in Australia, marrying and raising a large family in the Illawarra.
Canada Bay, Exile Bay, France Bay and several street and park names nearby commemorate the French-Canadian exiles, and their link to Sydney.