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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
For more info call 313-8938 or e-mail info@ari-iar.org

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  • by Dawn Manhertz - February 16, 2006, 8:03 am

    That white master of hers just got what he deserved. Whatever greedy & evil deeds he did or had done to that poor Portuguese immigrant, graciously came back around on him, sooner than he expected. It = unfortunate that white folks had to make an example out of her – killin’ her & all.

  • by Eric Wilson - February 16, 2006, 4:03 pm

    It is too easy to point down south, and blame them for slavery. But we were right next store, and articles like this show that Montreal was not as innocent as people would like to believe!
    Yes, it might not have existed outright here like it did in the South. But the south were dependant on a completely different kind of economy. An economy perfectly suited to slaves who could pick cotton, and live on the land.
    Up North, we had factories. You couldn’t ‘cage’ people up, or tie them to a land. So it isn’t that we did not have slavery because we were so moral.
    We didn’t have slavery because we didn’t need it.
    And this article shows, that we did have the attitudes. And those attitudes are what was really wrong!

  • by Maria Cecillia Silva - February 16, 2006, 6:36 pm

    Amazing to see such a story , but how much of it is really true. Do we have memoires or journals from this time.Was Angelique acused of setting the fires with proof. What real evedence do we really have.
    I am glad to see that part of history come forth about the Black slaves , because to this day nobody even new they existed. Although the American history mentions how they always ran to Canada , but our history never mentioed them.
    On the other hand I know that writters out there will take advantage to all these portions of information and start creating never ending stories and romances. Funny I don’t remember ever seeing black people in Portugal until the Portuguese government gave independancy to the african collonies like Angola. Portuguese people had alot of black slaves but they were taken to Brasil and other lands. As a child I don’t ever recall seeing one black person in Portugal. So I did not understand that part of the story.

  • by Martin Dansky - February 16, 2006, 10:07 pm

    There was a recent film of Angelique with Robin Wilcox where she had an air of resignation before her execution. Confused citizens wanted to know the truth and Angelique commented that it didn’t matter if she did or didn’t set Montreal on fire. Imported blacks were scapegoated and there was good reason to point a finger at her if she actually used fire as a tool to cover her tracks at a previous arson. That’s how I think the scenario might have happened. Most likely in Quebec, blacks were shunned like anywhere else in the ‘free’ world. Their opinions were often considered often worthless, so why should a black slave woman be inspired to the point of admitting guilt in a white dominated society?Now for years the idea of slavery in Quebec wasn’t something that Catholic parents liked to transmit to their kids. It’s time to absolve her of the crime if she was never clearly proven to be the culprit of.

  • by Pedro Eggers - February 17, 2006, 6:00 pm

    How far and how low can you push another human being before they explode? I’m just guessing here but the breaking point for most slaves must have been razor thin. Yes, I’ll grant you that most slaves knew that their lives weren’t worth a damn to their masters and that the society that they lived in was designed to keep them broken, docile and obedient but even knowing all of that it had to have burned in the hearts and minds of each and every slave to be free at any cost. Did Marie-Joseph Angélique set the fire? I doubt we’ll ever be totally sure but I’d argue that symbolically that fire was always there to be started by someone too long oppressed.
    It’s ironic when you think about it, for a woman credited for having burned down Montreal in 1734 you’d think that the name of Marie-Joseph Angélique would mean something to most Montrealers but it doesn’t. I’ve ran a few informal polls in my work and social circles upon reading this article and it seems that most Montrealers don’t know who she is or why it matters. More Montrealers have a firmer grasp on the Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup record than they do on this city’s own dark history. If you’re asking yourself why Black History Month matters, this is why.

  • by Meghna Patel - February 18, 2006, 2:53 pm

    I had no idea this had even happened. This article was quite informative to me, as I never heard of Montreal being set on fire. But how are people so sure of her apparently being the one to set it on fire? I’ve never even heard of this story till today, and so i think this might be news to some other people also. Too bad that I havent seen any books or movies about this. It would really be an eye-opener.

  • by Stephen Talko - February 18, 2006, 11:45 pm

    Capital punishment is pure revenge by the state especially when there is no loss of human life as with this old incident of supposed arson in New France. This was not the bit unusual as youngsters were often hanged for petty theft in Europe around this time to prevent crime. Later in the Wild West cowboys were hanged for simply stealing a horse because it also had an important economic impact. Even in the last century rape with no murder has mandated the supreme punishment because of uncontained public outrage. And finally in this century gay couples are being executed in countries ruled by religious laws just for being themselves. The biggest achievement therefore is not the freedom of blacks but the abolition of capital punishment in most of the Western World.

  • by Rob Postuma - February 19, 2006, 9:12 pm

    Like others out there, I was completely unaware of this incident happening. People are right, her life is tragic, as were the lives of most slaves back then.
    That all being said – I think it’s inappropriate to make a monument to a person, white, black, whatever – who possibly burned down part of the city. Her story was tragic, but it’s not exactly the story of a hero. She burned down the town to cover her tracks while she was escaping, not exactly the tale of a hero.

  • by Maria Jankovics - February 21, 2006, 10:36 am

    Angelique had (perhaps) caused that fire in Old Montreal but she had just cause. She was trying to gain her freedom which rightfully belonged to her. Every human being is born free, irregardless of the color of skin, religious beliefs or genders. Angelique suffered a cruel fate at the gallows but because of this unjust punishment, she has become a symbol of all Afro-Amercian slaves in the western hemisphere especially here in Quebec. And since so little is known about slavery in Quebec, she is perhaps the best known example. I feel she was punished too severly as she had not caused any fatalities. But perhaps because of her severe fate it has set an example for others to follow and rightly so. There is no crime here punishable by death, unlike that of our neighbours south of the border. Canada is a more tolerant, peace-loving nation unlike the Americans. No human being can enslave another as we are all born equal and free. To abuse a person’s power over another is not right or just and to make the other submissive to do your bidding against his or her free will is unacceptable. Taboos of the past should rest and lay there in the pages of history and set positive examples for the world of tomorrow. So Angelique died a torturous painful death at the gallows but she didn’t die in vain, as she has become a symbol of freedom for all Afro-Americans and others peoples who suffered in any form of slavery and has contributed in the abolishment of slavery in the western world. So rest in peace Angelique and may God give you solace and perhaps you have joined your lover wherever your soul may be!

  • by Lateef Martin - February 22, 2006, 12:26 am

    It’s not about whether Angelique was a hero, it’s about freedom. If I had a chance to burn down a city to escape a system that enslaved me literally, I’d do it in a heartbeat. It would cover my tracks and I’d probably feel real good about it. A monument would be a bold move on the part of the Quebec government. One that admits that there’s a Nigger Rock (look it up boyz n girlz) that Africville was bulldozed into a park, acknowledging that slavery and the mistreatment of displaced African people ran rampant not just in Quebec, but all across Canada.
    This monument would indeed be a ‘Lest We Forget’ symbol. Angelique and hundreds of slaves north of the border have died unjustly. The least that could be done is a monument to honour their quest for freedom, by any means necessary.

  • by Alec Owen - February 26, 2006, 2:43 pm

    I am an old man and have always been interested in history so this story and stories of the cruelty we Europeans have inflicted on the Acadians (expulsion) Chinese (massacres in BC), Japanese (expulsion and theft in 1942), and Indians (hunted and shot like animals in Newfoundland) and black people are not new to me. Such tales are as much part of our history as tales of Cartier, Champlain, Wolfe and Radisson and Groseillers and other explorers and should and must be a part of every school curriculum. Kudos to Cooper for shining a bright light on this part of our story.

  • by asma - March 27, 2012, 10:40 am

    best story ever

  • by ddfyhfh - April 20, 2012, 2:13 pm


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