The Hanging of Angelique (Book Review)

In 1733, the governor general of NEW FRANCE, the Marquis de Beauharnois, found himself in need of a hangman and torturer, a position most colonial societies had trouble keeping manned. So he obtained, from the Caribbean island of Martinique, a black slave and convicted murderer named Mathieu Léveillé. Given the choice of being executioner or being executed, Léveillé opted to sail to the frozen north. He never really adapted to life in Canada (or, perhaps, to his job), dying of pneumonia in 1736, even though the government had bought him a slave woman "to warm his bed." But during his three years in Quebec, Léveillé did his duty by the society that kept him in bondage, most famously in 1734, when he tortured, strangled and hanged his fellow slave, Marie-Joseph Angélique, for the crime of burning down the central core of Old Montreal.

This isn't the Canadian history most of us learned in school. African SLAVERY is something we associate with the plantation economies of the southern United States and the Caribbean, an evil that enters our national narrative only when we celebrate its 19th-century abolition. But Canada, a slave society for almost 200 years, is as much the land of Mathieu Léveillé and Marie-Joseph Angélique as it is of the Underground Railroad. Afua Cooper, a poet and University of Toronto historian, aims to shatter that silence with The Hanging of Angélique (HarperCollins), a non-fiction book based on Angélique's 271-year-old trial record, the oldest New World slave narrative extant.

About 1,500 black slaves were brought to Canada under the French regime. (After the American Revolution, another 2,000 came north with their United Empire Loyalist masters.) Most New France slaves were the property of the elite - de Beauharnois owned 27 - and lived in urban areas, toiling at jobs from personal servant to rat catcher to hangman. Most historians describe theirs as a relatively mild form of bondage, far less brutal than life on a sugar plantation or in the mines of Brazil. Perhaps so, but it was still slavery, and Angélique, for one, found it intolerable.

She was born a slave in Portugal. From there, a Flemish owner brought her to New England, only to sell her to wealthy Montreal fur trader François Poulin de Francheville and his wife, Thérèse de Couagne. That was in 1725, when Angélique was 20. Over the next few years she bore three children (it's not certain who fathered them), all of whom would also have been the property of the de Franchevilles had they survived infancy. After François died suddenly in November 1733, Angélique - according to the trial record - became a changed woman. She had a new lover within the household, an embittered white indentured servant named Claude Thibault. She began making aggressive demands for her liberty - Cooper speculates François (who may have used her as a concubine) promised her freedom after his death - and threatening to "roast" the new widow and her white servants after Thérèse refused the request.

When Thérèse responded to Angélique's domestic reign of terror by selling her to a Quebec City acquaintance (for 250 kg of gunpowder), the widow unwisely told Angélique she'd been sold. Knowing that she would be sent down river to Quebec after the ice broke on the St. Lawrence in the spring of 1734, Angélique and Thibault attempted a December escape to New England. They were caught after two weeks on the run, and Angélique was returned, still rebellious, to her mistress.

Then, on April 10, only days before boat travel to Quebec City would begin again, fire was seen coming from the de Franchevilles' attic. Spread by flaming shingles borne on the wind, the blaze raged through the merchants' quarter, engulfing 46 buildings, including the city's emotional heart, the Hôtel-Dieu convent and hospital. Miraculously, no one was killed. The search for a culprit didn't take long. Angélique defended herself with coolness and tenacity, challenging witnesses who testified about her threats and subtly changing her story over the two-month trial. But she was a black slave woman in a traumatized city desperately seeking a culprit. Still protesting her innocence, she was found guilty, then tortured, her leg bones shattered by Léveillé until she confessed to setting the fire.

Did she? It seems likely. Her confession may have been extracted under torture, but her tormentors also wanted her to implicate Thibault, who had run away the night of the fire, never to be seen again. And that she would not do, despite her agony - a final act of courageous defiance from a woman who refused to accept her fate.

Maclean's January 30, 2006