The Burning of Montreal

The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal

By Cassandra Hanrahan

A review of The Hanging Of Angelique: The Untold Story Of Canadian Slavery And The Burning Of Old Montreal by Afua Cooper

Published on April 1, 2006

The Hanging Of Angelique: The Untold Story Of Canadian Slavery And The Burning Of Old Montreal
Afua Cooper

HarperCollins Canada
$32.95
cloth
350pp
0-00-200553-0

Afua Cooper’s book represents a major contribution to Canadian history in both the academic and popular realms. As rigorous scholarly research, Cooper examines trial transcripts, private letters, and other New World correspondence to produce an academic coup. Her book offers a new perspective on Canadian slavery, altering the image of ourselves as benign: “Slavery was as Canadian as it was American or West Indian.” As a dramatic re-telling of one slave woman’s life of oppression, The Hanging of Angelique reaffirms and extends the feminist slogan that the personal is political. For blacks and Aboriginals in the New World, the reverse was no less true as race and skin colour were used to justify the domination of others – the political was indeed personal:

 

Black people, then, throughout the length and breadth of British North America, were owned, bought, and sold by White colonists. The lives of the Black enslaved people and their offspring were regulated and circumscribed by those who owned them and the legal resources they could access.

 

Cooper exposes little-known truths about slavery in the colonial settlement of Canada, examining the unique characteristics of slavery in a colony where a fur-trade economy was the business of the day. In New France, slavery was patriarchal and primarily an “urban phenomenon.”

The basic fact that slavery, with all its attendant inhumanity and brutality, did exist in Canada is perhaps the most discomforting of truths for Canadians. While parts of the country did welcome escaped slaves travelling north on the Underground Railroad, Cooper challenges the venerable myth of Canada as a sanctuary at the end of the North Star: “Describing the Canadian form of enslavement as mild denies the humanity of the enslaved and further compounds their degradation.” Despite the existence of free black communities, thousands of ordinary African and Aboriginal women, men, and children were still robbed of their “freedom and labour.” Slaves in colonial Canada lived extraordinary lives of survival and resistance despite their bondage.

In the decisive language of an historian and with a sense of urgency befitting a poet, Cooper begins with the story of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a Portuguese-born black woman and slave, accused of arson and the burning of Old Montreal in 1734. For this infamous crime she was tried, tortured, and executed by public hanging according to the French law known as Code Noir. The story of Angelique is complex, its layers unfolding to reveal at the centre the oldest slave narrative in the New World. “Angelique’s story, of course, is part of the story of Portuguese trade, and particularly the trade in human flesh.” Hers is one of Canada’s stories and is part of the history of New World conquest, settlement, and Atlantic trade.

Cooper’s book will be of interest to historians and history buffs alike, to students and scholars of women’s studies, to anti-racism educators and activists, and to anyone interested in the truth of Canada’s history.

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Cassandra Hanrahan, PhD, is a writer living in the Eastern Townships.

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