Our Home and Slave Land?

23 Feb 2006

Dr. Afua Cooper investigates the roots of slavery in Canada

"How do we unearth the Black past -- one rooted in slavery? How do we recover the story of Angélique that lies buried in obscurity? The transcripts of her trial present themselves as the surest means to do so. ... I make the bold claim that Angélique''s trial transcript constitutes the first slave narrative in North America."
- Afua Cooper. From the Epilogue to The Hanging of Angélique

During the course of Afua Cooper''s book launch for The Hanging of Angélique (HarperCollins), at a buzzing and jam-packed Gladstone Hotel two weeks ago today, George Elliott Clarke, in his usual passion-filled vocal delivery, praised Dr. Cooper for her kind of "guerilla scholarship" which she describes above. As Prof. Clarke introduced fellow UofT professor Afua Cooper to the amassed anticipating crowd, he took pleasure in reminding everyone that she was recently listed by Essence magazine as one of the 25 women who are shaping the world. The Hanging of Angélique is indeed a seminal work which will take its place as the authoritative treatise on the much-downplayed period of slavery in colonial-era Canada.

The very concept of "slavery" associated with Canadian history customarily brings out a wide-ranging array of reactions. From outright denial, utter shock, ridicule, and even the apologetic, and may I add strange, characterization of Canada''s involvement in this terrible scourge of human history as a "mild" or "good" form of slavery. Canadians like to think of themselves as somehow "morally above" the inhumane slavery-tainted history and legacy of our neighbours to the south. After all, wasn''t Canada code-named "Heaven" by the African-American slaves of the Underground Railroad? Canada was the final stop. The land of freedom where they could experience their full humanity.


Afua Cooper

But Professor Afua Cooper challenges us to look deeper. Reminding her detractors that "denial is not going to help”, Cooper asks us to look beyond and before the Underground Railroad and confront the real history of Canada''s colonial times. “This is not a history that is inaccessible. The documents are there" as she points out to the audience at the Gladstone Hotel. When Dr. Cooper set out to write her book on the life and epic trial of Portuguese-born slave Marie-Joseph Angélique, she initially used her own resources to access the primary materials and was committed enough to her "guerilla scholarship" to learn French -- since the original court documents were in French.

Who was Marie-Joseph Angélique? And what was this trial about? On Saturday, April 10, 1734, Montreal burned to the ground. All fingers pointed to a 29 year-old Portuguese-born slave-woman accused of torching the home of her widower-mistress, Madame Thérèse de Couagne de Francheville, out of malice and revenge. The fire spread and resulted in the fiery decimation of 46 buildings. The city was devastated.

Born in 1705, Marie-Joseph Angélique was sold into slavery in 1725 to a wealthy Montreal-based fur merchant by the name of François Poulin de Francheville. It is known that Angélique had three children, probably from her white master using her as a "breeder". Her children died very young however. As Dr. Cooper outlines: "The reproductive story of enslaved Black women shows that slavery was as much a system of sexual bondage as it was one of racial bondage. ... Black women were vulnerable to an experienced all kinds of brutality."

The later arrival in the Francheville household of former French soldier and indentured labourer, Claude Thibault, brought some hope to Angélique. They supported each other''s common goal to flee from Canada and return to France and Portugal. The two became lovers. Threatened by this growing alliance, the widow of the now dead Sieur Francheville, Thérèse de Francheville, was all-too-aware that she needed to keep them apart. "Committed partnerships between Black enslaved labourers and White contract servants spelt doom for the elite class" as Cooper writes. "If these workers could put aside their "racial differences" and see clearly their common economic and social oppression, and move to overcome that oppression, a veritable revolution could occur" she goes on to argue. This poignant analysis illuminates the perhaps uniquely Canadian reality of slavery. Those who withhold the flawed argument that Canada only had "indentured servants" and not "slaves" per ser, fail to take into account this most basic racial dynamic.

Claude Thibault, once he regained his freedom, as White, male, and French, could always find ways to integrate society. On the other hand, Angélique, or the other 1,200 slaves who lived in New France (Quebec city and Montreal) at the time, had no such options. Marie-Joseph Angélique understood this reality. Not only was Thibault a White male but, as a former soldier, he would be familiar with the surrounding terrain once it was time to flee. "So, even if Angélique was in love with the Frenchman, she had other practical reasons for entering into an affair with him" argues Afua Cooper. The "love" theory has been preeminent in discussions of the Marie-Joseph Angélique story. The two did attempt to escape in 1734 after Madame Francheville tried to sell Angélique to a Quebec government official. But they were soon caught. Angélique was returned to the Francheville estate and Thibault was sent to jail. When Thibault was released from jail a couple of months later, he came back for Angélique. But two days later, on April 10th 1734, fire broke out at the Francheville estate. The fire spread to burn half of Montreal. Thibault ran away an was never seen again. But Angélique was rounded up by mobs of angry Montrealers and was later tried and executed.

In The Hanging of Angélique, Dr. Afua Cooper offers a very different portrayal of Angélique, that is much more revolutionary, than what is found in previous generally accepted works. The main reference thus far has been Quebecois historian Marcel Trudel book''s L''Esclavage au Canada Français (Slavery in French Canada) which came out in 1960. While expressing her gratitude to Marcel Trudel for his groundbreaking scholarship on slavery in Canada, Afua Cooper points out the following in her book:

"While most contemporary and modern commentators agree that Angélique did set the fire, they disagree as to her motive. However, the accepted wisdom is that the enslaved woman set the fire because she wanted to run away with her White lover, Claude Thibault. The "in love with Thibault" thesis has gained some currency because of Marcel Trudel, the acknowledged authority on slavery in New France. ... By emphasising love as Angélique''s primary motive, these writers not only rob her of the agency that she exhibited in her quest for liberty, they also diminish the violence inherent in slavery."

 

This is one of the most powerful central ideas espoused in The Hanging of Angélique, and perhaps the book''s lasting legacy for the future. The reclaiming of the humanity and strength of Marie-Joseph Angélique. She was sentenced to death by hanging. After leaving her to hang for two hours, her body was burned and her ashes scattered about the four winds. But thanks to Afua Cooper, those winds are becoming winds of change into our undestanding of Canada''s own history of slavery. As George Elliott Clarke pointed out to Cooper at the book launch, withouth taking anything away from her scholarship and thorough historiography, it is evident that her own experience as a Black woman has informed her understanding of the life of Angélique. To quote Afua Cooper herself: "She [Angélique] was a Black woman. She was enslaved. I wasn’t enslaved; I haven’t had that experience. … But I come from that tradition."

 

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