Canada has been paraded in history as a paragon of virtue on the issue of slavery, especially lauded as a safe haven for runaway slaves. Portrayed as the antithesis of the American South, Canada's (then known as New France) version of the "peculiar institution" has been described as benevolent slavery. Benevolent or otherwise, it was still slavery with the attendant consequence of one man or one race dominating another.
Marie-Joseph Angélique was a slave owned by François Poulin of Montreal in the early 1730s. Being in her sexual prime, she was expected to breed with male slaves as well as provide sexual services to her master. Angélique had other plans, such as freedom and having a normal relationship with her lover Claude Thibault, a white indentured servant from France.
On April 10, 1734, Angélique learned that she was about to be sold and, in a fit of fear and anger, retaliated by setting fire to her owner's home. The fire spread and the final damage was forty-six buildings, including the famed L'Hôtel Dieu hospital. The conflagration resulted solely in property damage. No lives were lost.
After trying to escape, Angélique was captured and brought to trial. The trial, in accordance with the French justice system, was a systematic process that took two months. First, the chief investigator extracted her "confessions" which in essence was a narrative of her entire life. Later, she endured another round of confession, this time under torture, where she admitted her guilt.
On June 21, the day of her execution, she was driven through the streets on a scavenger's cart, with a rope tied around her neck and signs bearing the word "incendiaire" ("arsonist") on her chest and back. On arrival at the parish church at Place d'Armes, she was made to kneel and beg for forgiveness from the King, God, and her fellow citizens. Then her hand was cut off.
Placed back in the wagon, she was taken to the gallows where she was publicly hanged by another slave, Mathieu. She was summarily burned at the stake and her ashes were "cast to the four corners of the earth."
Slavery in New France was tacitly condoned by the church, which sat silent when benevolence became brutality. The case of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a Portugese-born slave woman, who was tortured and hanged for burning a large portion of Montreal, illustrates the duplicity of the Church and the nature of slavery in New France which, when shedding the veneer of benevolence, rivalled the vicious acts perpetrated against slaves in the southern United States.
The Blacks in Canada: A History, Robin W. Winks, Yale University Press, 1972.
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Blacks in Montreal 1628-1986: An Urban Demography, Les Éditions Yvon Blais Inc, 1989.
The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada, Daniel G. Hill, The Book Society of Canada Limited, 1981.
A History of Blacks in Canada: A Study Guide for Teachers and Students, James W. St. G. Walker Canadian Government Publishing Centre, 1980.
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