Marie-Joseph Angélique

a montreal slave, a canadian tragedy

Background

Born in Madeira, Portugal in 1705, Marie-Joseph Angélique was brought to Montreal as a slave in 1725 by a Flemish owner, Nichus Block, and was purchased upon arrival in New England by French merchant François Poulin de Francheville. Less than 8 years later, Marie had borne three children, all of whom died in infancy. After Francheville's death, Marie changed. She took a boyfriend, Claude Thibault, and a month later requested freedom from her new mistress, Thérèse de Couagne. Needless to say, Thérèse refused.

Burning of Montreal

When Marie heard rumors of her mistresses plans to sell as a slave in the West Indies, Marie threatened to burn down the house, before running away with Thibault. The two set fire to Marie's bed, but they were caught in Chambly two weeks later, trying to board a ship to New England.

On April 10, 1734, the merchants quarter of Montreal burned down, setting fire to 46 buildings, including a convent and the Hotel-Dieu-de Montreal. The following day, Marie was arrested and charged with arson, whose possible punishments were torture, banishment, or death.

Trial

In New France, at the time, there were no lawyers or juries, only inquisitorial tribunals, where the victim was supposed to prove they were innocent. On April 12th, Marie was brought before a traditional Montreal courtroom-judge, prosecutor, notaries, scribe-small, but efficient. During the trial, twenty four witnesses were called, and twenty three of them testified that Marie had set the fire simply because she said she would.

After six weeks, Angélique was sentenced to death by burning. An appeal to the superior court upheld the sentence but changed the method of death. Now, she was to be tortured, hanged and then have her corpse burned.

Even though she denied having set the fire during the trial, she confessed under torture. She was hanged at the Notre-Dame Basillica.

Marie Joseph Angélique: Trial of a Rebel Slave

Legacy

Even after her confession, it is possible that she did not set the fire. But in 18th century Quebec, being a Black slave was just the same as being guilty. It was easy for the judge to believe that she could have done it: foreign, poor, an outcast, without rights-and with no other suspect-it was an easy conviction.

Then again, it is possible that she did. She had committed a lesser arson before, and she was enraged at White society.

Now, she is a symbol of resistance and freedom of Canada's hidden enslavement past. Her contribution to Canadian heritage was one of acting out. She rebelled against the barely legal institution of slavery in Canada, and may well have set Canada on a path to abolishing it. Even though it was only abolished in 1833, the abolitionist movement began gathering steam as early as 1793.

In her violent actions, she showed the injustice of slavery in Canada, and served as a violent cataclyst for change. Our heritage, however shamfeul, serves to remind us how far we have come, and what heroes of social justice have existed to make life better for others.