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The Hanging of Angélique

Posted by lamacs On June - 15 - 2010

Afua Cooper
University of Georgia Press

The untold story of Canadian slavery and the burning of old Montréal

In 1734, Montréal burned. A slave woman, Marie-Joseph Angélique, was blamed for the fire. Born in Portugal, bought and sold into the United States, then to New France, where she was baptized anew and given her new name, she was said to have put hot embers in the roof of her mistress’s house to seek revenge for having been sold yet again. After a two-month trial she was found guilty and sentenced to have her hand cut off before she was burned alive.

This is the story at the core of Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angélique. With this book, Cooper seems to have two main goals. First, she seeks to shed light on Canadian slavery, a neglected area of the country’s history. Second, she wants to raise awareness of Marie-Joseph Angélique, as an individual, but more importantly as a symbol of the struggle of Canadian slaves, a reminder of their lives and the small, but revolutionary, acts of rebellion that were available to them.

Cooper’s book is replete with undiscussed Canadian history. Canadians are famous for reducing their definitions of themselves down to two words: Not Americans. We measure ourselves against our neighbours to the south and, generally, decide that we do more of the things they ought to be doing and fewer of the things that they shouldn’t. We’re not Americans; we’re something similar, but better. Like homemade mac & cheese versus the boxed stuff.

The mythology of each country’s independence highlights the differences. Canada had lengthy negotiations with Great Britain, outlining the pragmatic reasons for giving the country its independence; not a drop of blood was spilled. Americans, meanwhile, had a big war. Canada came into its own quietly; the United States, loudly, leaving its pacifists, loyalists (talk about a loaded term!) and oppressed peoples to find freedom here. The story of the Underground Railroad is a proud moment in Canadian history, as slaves from the south found freedom on Canadian soil. We’ve even made a patriotic commercial about it.

What a surprise it must have been for these freed slaves to discover that though they were free, Canada still had slavery. What a surprise it was to me, to read that. These are the kinds of historical omissions that Cooper seeks to repair. To many Canadians, it might come as a surprise that the country had slaves ever, at all. Yet, that was the case. The French and the British brought slaves with them when they came to Canada, and they purchased additional slaves to meet their needs long after they were settled here. The same legislation that freed American slaves who made it across the Canadian border permitted the continued servitude of those who were already in Canada. Even in Canada, abolition was controversial, and it took time.

As George Elliott Clarke notes in the forward:

The avoidance of Canada’s sorry history of slavery and racism is natural. It is how Canadians prefer to understand themselves: we are a nation of good, Nordic, ‘pure,’ mainly White folks, as opposed to the lawless, hot-tempered, impure, mongrel Americans, with their messy history of slavery, civil war, segregation, assassinations, lynching, riots, and constant social turmoil.

Just as slavery is part of the US history, our denial of it is part of ours. Clarke sees the Cooper’s book as catching us in a collective lie, and it certainly illuminates an undiscussed element of Canadian history. Cooper explains how Canada came to have slaves, what a slave’s life was like, just as she illuminates the paradox of the Underground Railroad: American slaves came to Canada to be free and Canadian slaves often fled for the US. This is one of the most fascinating elements of the book, to me, the uncovering of this buried history.

It turns out that Canadian history is not so different from other histories, full of shameful brutality and oppression. Full of mistakes and assumptions and ways of doing things that seem outrageous now. Canada, like everyone else, is within a glass house. It is important to be reminded of this.

Cooper’s telling of Angélique’s story is a series of intricate movements between historical context and the life of Angélique herself. Though details are occasionally repeated, Cooper’s attempt to explain Angélique, her time, and her place is largely successful. There are as many questions as there are answers about Angélique, including the question of whether or not she set the fire that devastated the city, and this part of what makes the story so compelling and important.

After Angélique was tried, the prosecutor appealed the vicious sentence. This was a peculiar move (as Cooper notes: “It was he, as king’s prosecutor, who had diligently and determinedly amassed the evidence against Angélique”) but it won Angélique a new sentence: torture and then death by hanging. Under the torture, Angélique confessed. Cooper and Clarke both believe Angélique was guilty. Some portrayals, fictional and factual, of Angélique have attributed her actions to love, describing the arson as an act that would enable her to run off with her lover. Cooper asserts that this storytelling technique diminishes Angélique:

By emphasizing love as Angelique’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. For them, Angelique did not flee because she found her enslavement humiliating, awful, and suffocating; she fled because she was ‘in love.’ If we take this reasoning one step further, it is easy to conclude that slavery could not have been so bad. I believe that the ‘in love’ thesis advanced by these authors speaks to their unease with the race, gender, and power relations intrinsic to slavery.

It is an uneasiness that seems to permeate Canadian history, and Cooper is to be credited for drawing attention to it, for digging it out of history’s landfill. The Hanging of Angélique is a book with an edge, an agenda, and that is to draw attention to a neglected area of Canada’s past.

In my engagement with African Canadian history, I have come to realize that Black history has less to do with Black people and more with White pride. If Black history narratives make Whites feel good, it is allowed to surface; if not, it is suppressed or buried. That is why slavery has been erased from the collective unconsciousness. It is about an ignoble and unsavoury past, and because it cast Whites in a “bad” light, they as chroniclers of the country’s past, creators and keepers of its traditions and myths, banished this past into the dustbins of history.

The Hanging of Angélique can’t give back what was taken from Angélique — her name, her freedom — but it can demand that we, at least retroactively, bear witness. That we see her for what she is, her life for what it was, and our country for its moments of shame, as well as pride. We can’t give Angélique her name, but we can name what happened to her and make her part of our collective memory. Even if remembering her took 270 years.

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