Slave woman burns Montreal: Hang fire

Hang fire


How Montreal slave Marie-Joseph Angélique ignited a fire in the soul of a nation

On Saturday, April 10, 1734, Montreal burned to the ground. On that cold and windy night Montrealers ran through the streets screaming and yelling. Some tried to save their personal belongings, others passed buckets of icy water hand to hand from the St-Lawrence River as burning, flying shingles set fire to neighbouring buildings.

Fire was the scourge of all colonial cities at that time, and this fire was a raging inferno. French troops did their best to contain the blaze in the walled city, but by sunrise 46 buildings had burnt to the ground, including a convent and the Hôtel-Dieu hospital, originally founded by Jeanne Mance in 1642. For Hôtel-Dieu, this was the second fire to fell their building in 13 years.

That night in 1734, angry Montrealers assembled in the hospital’s courtyard and roundly accused 29-year-old slave woman Marie-Joseph Angélique of igniting the fire that had devastated their city.

"I don’t know if Angélique set the fire, but I believe she did," says internationally acclaimed Canadian scholar Afua Cooper, whose just-published, critically hailed bestseller The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal (HarperCollins) retells the oldest slave narrative in the Americas, one which even predates the 1760 autobiography of African-American slave Briton Hammon.

"If Angélique was scapegoated," Cooper says, "she set up the scenario, because she had threatened her master before the fire, and she had set [a previous] fire to cover her tracks when she had run away two months earlier."

Today, the tragic story of Angélique has become a powerful and potent symbol of black freedom in Canada. While no one, miraculously, died in the flames that fateful night, Angélique herself would pay the ultimate price for exacting revenge on her white master.

The Black Atlantic

Marie-Joseph Angélique was born in Portugal in 1705. Cooper believes Angélique was not born a slave but was kidnapped and forced into slavery. Angélique was then brought to New England by a Dutchman, Nicholaas Bleecker, who in 1725 sold her to François Poulin de Francheville, a wealthy Montreal fur merchant.

Canadian slavery differed from American slavery in that there was little plantation-style slavery. Blacks in Canada were mostly "domestics," or house slaves. But Cooper points out the system here was equally ruthless: African slaves were punished, whipped and sometimes killed by their masters.

"Canada was part of that [slave-trading] world," Cooper says. "It was not an isolated colony. [Most] colony officials were educated, sophisticated men who had careers in the West Indies before coming here."

There were roughly 1,200 slaves in New France the year Angélique torched Francheville’s home. The vast majority of slaves were in Quebec City, which in 1734 was bigger than Montreal. Cooper estimates there were roughly 150 African slaves in Montreal when Angélique was owned by Francheville.

"We know Angélique had three children, but their paternity is unsure," Cooper says. "Were they her master’s children? Women slaves were sexually vulnerable and were assaulted, especially by their owners. Regardless, the three children she gave birth to were owned by Francheville."

By 1734, Francheville (as well as Angélique’s three children) had died. Now Angélique was owned by his 36-year-old widow, Thérèse de Francheville. By this time Angélique had a white lover, Claude Thibault, an exiled French convict and indentured labourer also working for the widow Francheville.

On Feb. 22 of that year, when Angélique was sold by Madame Francheville to a Quebec government official, François-Étienne Cugnet, for 600 pounds of gunpowder, she and Thibault ran off. When they were caught two weeks later, authorities returned Angélique to Francheville and Thibault was sent to jail.

Upon his release on April 8, Thibault returned for Angélique. "He wanted to go to France and she wanted to return to Portugal," Cooper explains. "They wanted to find a ship in New York or New England. Angélique hated Montreal."

Two days later, on April 10, fire broke out in the Francheville home on rue St-Paul in Old Montreal. Since Angélique had set the fire when she and Thibault last ran off – and arson was a common tool of resistance used by enslaved Africans throughout the Americas – all fingers immediately pointed to Angélique. Thibault, meanwhile, fled before French troops sealed the city gates and was never seen again.

As residents picked through the smoking, smouldering ruins of Old Montreal the following day, French soldiers had already arrested Angélique. She was immediately put on trial.

The execution

Afua Cooper resurrects the spirit of Angélique
photo: Courtesy Afua Cooper

Cooper’s book, The Hanging of Angélique, contextualizes Canada’s not unimportant role in the international slave trade, a role that expanded with the British conquest of New France in 1760. But that superpower battle was still 26 years away and industrious Montrealers – like explorer Jean Baptiste le Moyne, born in Montreal in 1680, who founded the city of New Orleans in 1712 – were still making their marks on the New World.

The French wanted to make an example of Angélique. So Montreal Judge Pierre Raimbault found her guilty on circumstantial evidence and sentenced her to death.

On the morning of June 21, Raimbault went to the prison where Angélique was being held and told her she would die by public hanging that same day on a specially built gallows on rue St-Paul, right in front of the charred remains of the Francheville home. Afterwards Angélique’s corpse would be burnt on a pyre.

But first Raimbault wanted a full confession.

"Who counselled you to set the fire?" Raimbault demanded, according to unearthed Quebec archives quoted in Cooper’s book. "Did anyone help you?"

"No one told me to set the fire," Angélique replied. "No one helped me because I did not do it."

But when Montreal’s hangman and torturer Mathieu Léveillé – himself a black man from Martinique – crushed her bloodied legs and knees, Angélique confessed that she, and only she, had set the fire. Half satisfied, Raimbault sent Angélique to the gallows.

Angélique was barefoot, dressed in a knee-high white chemise with the word "incendiaire" embroidered on the front and back. Since she could not walk, she was piled into a rubbish cart in which she held a two-pound torch that symbolized her crime, arson.

Léveillé drove the horse-drawn rubbish cart surrounded by guards through the blackened streets of lower Old Montreal, where residents stood roadside jeering and spitting on Angélique.

"She was human and I am sure she cried," Cooper says. "I’m a fairly defiant person and I would have cried. Angélique knew she was going to die."

In front of Notre-Dame Church, where Notre-Dame Basilica now stands, guards carried Angélique to the church steps where she reportedly cried out in agony, "I beg pardon of God, the King and justice!"

She was then driven to the gallows on rue St-Paul. Montrealers had gathered to watch her hanging. Léveillé tightened the noose around her neck, the hatch was opened and she was hanged. Angélique’s neck broke as Notre-Dame’s church bells started to toll. Then the clock in front of the Sulpician Seminary – which today is the oldest working public clock in the Americas – rang 5 o’clock.

Angélique was left hanging for two hours, after which Léveillé cut down her corpse, placed it in a fire and threw her ashes to the four winds.

Today, 272 years later, Cooper says, "Angélique fought a losing battle. But in a way she has been vindicated. The bigger story is this woman resisted oppression."

But that’s not all: After almost three centuries, Cooper says Montrealers should just "get over it" and finally build an Old Montreal monument to Marie-Joseph Angélique and other African-Canadians who helped build their city.

"There should be a monument, maybe not one like Sieur de Maisonneuve, but then again why not?" Cooper asks rhetorically. "Angélique is a powerful symbol of the historic black burden in Canada."

The Hanging of Angélique, by Afua Cooper
Watch for a book reading at Montreal’s Alfie Roberts Institute in March
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