The Hanging of Angelique, The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal, written by Afua Cooper, is the story of not just Marie-Joseph Angelique, a black slave in 18th century Montreal accused, tried and hanged for arson, but gives insight into the entire African slave trade and brings to the forefront the thousands of African slaves here in Canada, a fact that has been “bulldozed and ploughed over” (P 7)1, while we ridicule our southern neighbours for their involvement in the very same industry.
It is also a useful tool in the study of everyday life during this time period in New France, including their personal interactions, economic pillars, cultural beliefs, and overall social structure. Dr. Afua Cooper is a leading authority on Canadian black history and slavery; she has devoted her life to uncovering the past and educating the public on the little known subject of black slavery in Canadian history.
She is a renowned presenter, scholar, poet, and author, having published five books of poetry, and several books both historical and historical fiction2 in her efforts to bring to light “Canada’s sorry history of slavery and racism” (P XII)1. She is currently the Ruth Wynn Woodward Endowed Chair in Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia2.
Fifteen years of research went into the telling of Angelique`s story, using a variety of methods including court and business records, including Angelique’s trial transcripts, newspapers containing advertisements for the purchase and sale of slaves (P 97)1 and other histories of slavery. It is these many details that Dr. Cooper has included that helps the reader to become immersed in the story. From the haunting description of la question ordinaire et extrodinaire (P 17-19)1, the rise and fall of Portugal as a maritime superpower (P 24)1 , and the descriptions of the city and buildings that were destroyed so easily (P 142-3)1.
She tells the story of not only Marie-Joseph Angelique, but of all people in New France including both negro and Indian slaves, indentured labourers, and those of the higher classes. Angelique`s owners, Francois Poulin de Francheville and his wife, Therese de Couagne belonged to a social class referred to as bourgeois, “a social class of middle standing—between the aristocracy and the lower classes” (P 107)1. Their business was commerce, most notably, the “lifeblood of the colony”, the fur trade.
Francois, and many others, prospered from the fur trade, it was, in fact, the main economy of the colonies at the time. Not only for the actual voyageurs and merchants, but the supplies needed for the outposts, goods to trade with the natives (especially alcohol), and transportation of these goods to the trading posts. Without support from Montreal, none of the posts would have been able to survive. The fur trade was an essential part of life in New France, not only to those directly related, it affected everyone. The trade was the pivot upon which most other affairs, especially politics, religion, and war, spun. Politicians and priests, Natives and French, merchants and voyageurs, soldiers and kings, architects and engineers all had careers made, enhanced, or unmade by the fur trade” (P 115)1. Another barrier between the rich and poor keeping the class divisions separate was the Seigneurial system, of which Angeliques owner was a part.
An upper class man were granted land by the crown, and then was rented to others to work it, all the while paying the Seigneur rent and paying for the use of his mill. Only a Seigneur could own the mill, and all of the natural resources on said land, including fish, timber, or valuable metal deposits, belonged him as well. Francois Poulin de Francheville happened to be Seigneur for a plot of land about fifteen acres outside of Montreal, which just happened to be rich in iron deposits.
In an effort to diversify the colony’s economy, he obtained a twenty-year monopoly from the crown to mine the iron in the Trois-Rivieres area (P 121)1. Francheville continued to support the fur trade, still the pivot of life in the colonies by selling manufactured goods such as sewing needles, cookware, and stoves, but the majority of the steel was used by France for shipbuilding and military equipment. Montreal was no longer economically dependant on the fur trade.
Among the classes of New France, Angelique was at the very bottom, disadvantaged on three fronts. Not only was she a slave, but she was a black female slave. After the black slaves were the Indian slaves, or Panis (P 81)1, free blacks, indentured labourers, and then the traders, bourgeois, and Nobles that made up the high society. Though the class structure was quite rigid, there was room for movement in the ranks. Angelique was romantically involved with Claude Thibault, an indentured labourer in the same household as herself.
Though Claude was not a slave, he was contracted for three years and was paid for the work he did, he wished to escape the colonies and return to France. The pair did escape once, but were caught, and he was believed to be Angelique`s accomplice in setting the fire. As those in lower classes mingled and formed bonds, so too did the middle and higher classes, though for different reasons. Francois Poulin de Francheville was a social climber, and in order to expand his social circle, he married the daughter of a very influential and rich Montreal merchant, Therese de Couagne.
Where Angelique and Claude had shared frustration and humiliation of serving others, the marriage of Francois and Therese was a mutually beneficial agreement mostly due to money and family connections. Though Patriarchy was the dominant ideology at the time, white women still had some freedom. Black slave women were advertised for sale usually as house servants, the ability to cook, clean, and do household chores were the selling points. They were seen as not being able to do any more than such duties.
When her husband died, however, Therese de Couagne, being a high class white woman, took full control of all of her husband’s business dealings and they flourished. Not only were men seen as better than women, white women were more capable than black. Legal procedure when prosecuting Marie-Joseph Angelique was shockingly different to that which is practiced today. Pierre Raimbault, Angelique’s prosecutor, gathered evidence and prepared the case against Angelique. The evidence against her was strong, several witnesses testified against her, and she had motive, being a mistreated and angry slave.
She was found guilty by the judge, who was not entirely impartial because he, like many others, had lost most of his possessions in the fire. Her sentence was to “be condemned to make honourable amends, and to have her hand cut off, and that she be thrown alive into the fire in a place in this town deemed most appropriate, after having been subjected to la question ordinaire et extraordinaire in order that she name her accomplices and that the judgement of the one named Thibault be delayed until the said accused has suffered such interrogation” (P 254)1.
Angelique`s punishment was appealed, and downgraded, but such brutal punishments were quite common in European societies, carried out on perpetrators of such crimes believed despicable, others included burnt alive, boiled, quartered, covered in hot oil or tar (P 255)1. La question ordinaire et extraordinaire was, indeed, torture. The judge not only wanted a confession from Angelique, he wanted her to name her former lover, Thibault, as her accomplice, so that he too could be executed.
Once again, not exactly promising for a “fair and unbiased” trial. Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angelique, The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal not only shows an overview of the African slave trade and its beginnings, the overall social structure, cultural beliefs and economic backbone of New France, but she also succeeds in showing the indomitable nature of the human spirit by showing no matter how little freedom she has, Angelique still finds ways to rebel.
It shows the class distinctions that ruled people’s lives in the 18th century Canada that no longer exist to such an extent, the way they lived, whether by the fur trade, or farming, or as a government official. It is a great example of how Canada has grown from small colonies with little to no economic diversity, and rigid class structure ruled by societal pressure where slaves were a sign of prestige, to a multicultural developed country today.