On February 12, 1840, a sailing ship unloaded an unusual human cargo at the British penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land-92 idealistic American freedom fighters.
When the HMS Buffalo dropped anchor in Hobart Town, the old Tasmanian capital, that hot antipodal summer 170 years ago, its inmates were not Britain’s usual convict castoffs. At heart, they were law-abiding shopkeepers, farmers, and laborers. What crime brought those American prisoners to the far side of the world? They tried to liberate colonial Canada from Britain.
Their guards marched them before the colonial governor, John Franklin. The former polar explorer, having been dealt the lowest card in the British patronage deck, ran a miserable colony economically dependent on convict labor. Franklin told them they deserved to hang and should be grateful for a life at hard labor instead.
Ironically, most of the American prisoners outlived Franklin. He died seven years later on another failed attempt to find the Northwest Passage.
Canadian Rebellion Leads to Tasmanian Prison
The road to Tasmania began near colonial Toronto, Canada, less than three years earlier. On December 7, 1837, Upper Canada rebels attacked that city, lead by its former mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie. The militia quickly defeated the ill-prepared renegades.
Mackenzie escaped to Buffalo, New York, and recruited an army of American sympathizers and Canadian refugees—the Patriots they called themselves. They fortified Navy Island in the Niagara River upstream from the great falls. Mackenzie declared the Canadian island the seat of his provisional government.
Patriot cannon bombarded the Canadian shore from the island. In response, a band of British soldiers crossed the icy river one night in late December and raided the Patriot’s supply ship, the Caroline. They killed an American sailor and burned the boat.
British Sneak Attack Kindles Patriot Response
The British attack on an American ship in a U.S. port did more to boost Mackenzie’s support than any of his famous fiery speeches. While U.S. President Martin Van Buren shrugged off the incursion, angry Americans sent money and ammunition to Navy Island. Volunteer American fighters quickly outnumbered Canadians in the Patriot army.
Mackenzie’s Patriot army soon morphed into a beast beyond his control. A secret society, the Hunters Lodge, formed in May 1838 and spread like fire in dry grass through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River border states. By fall, they boasted over 20,000 members.
Spirit of ’76 Spurred Freedom Fighters
While the burning of the Caroline acted as the seed for the rising militarism, it fell on fertile ground. The Texas revolution two years earlier had rekindled the spirit of ’76 in the grandchildren of American revolutionaries. Men of good conscience believed their Canadian brothers lived under despots and deserved a republican democracy. Young men flocked to the Hunters by the thousands. They wanted to free Canada the same way their martyred heroes Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett helped free Texas.
Armies of Patriots and Hunters attacked Canada seven times in 1838. In each case, the British army and Canadian militia defeated the raiders, killing and capturing scores of men in the process. They hanged their leaders and imprisoned the others. Those prisoners formed the bulk of men who doffed their hats before John Franklin in the hot Tasmanian sun in 1840.
American Convicts Return From Tasmania
Despite terrible food and brutal working conditions, all but 14 American prisoners survived the ordeal to receive Queen Victoria’s pardons between 1844 and 1848. Abandoned by their government, most of the weary freedom fighters made their own way home on whalers and freighters—journeys that often took years—to rebuild their shattered lives. A few stayed behind in Australia and married. Seven returning Patriots published accounts of their ordeal for a welcoming populace—and then faded into obscurity.
- “Burning of Steamer Caroline Which Stirred North Country”, Chapter 3 of Northern New York In The Patriot War, 1923, by L. N. FULLER, published by the Brockway Company
- American Citizens, British Slaves, 2002, U of Melborne, ed. by Cassandra Pybus and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart
- A Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of Captain Daniel D Heustis, 1848, published by S. W. Wilder, Boston