Marie-Josèphe Angélique : Montreal on Fire | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Marie-Josèphe Angélique : Montreal on Fire

Listen to Strong and Free, a six-part podcast from Historica Canada, produced by Media Girlfriends. Because Black history is Canadian history.

Marie-Josèphe Angélique was an enslaved Black woman owned by Thérèse de Couagne de Francheville in Montreal. In 1734, she was charged with arson after a fire leveled Montreal’s merchants’ quarter. It was alleged that Angélique committed the act while attempting to flee her bondage. She was convicted, tortured, and hanged. While it remains unknown whether she set the fire, Angélique’s story has come to symbolize Black resistance and freedom.

We discuss Angélique’s story, and that of enslavement in Canada, with three women who have examined the trial: Dr. Afua Cooper, historian, poet, and professor at Dalhousie University; Denyse Beaugrand-Champagne, historian and archivist, and Ayana O’Shun, director of “Black Hands: Trial of the Arsonist Slave.”

Garvia Bailey: Before we begin, we should mention that this episode covers the violent and inhumane history of African enslavement in Canada. Please listen with care.

When we talk about enslavement, we all have these images embedded in our minds of Black people working to exhaustion under a blazing sun in the cotton fields of our southern neighbors.

But if I tell you that there was slavery in Canada too, how would you react? Surprised? 

If it’s news to you, I know you probably think: “Why am I only learning about this now?”

Well, you’re not alone. Even today, most Canadians are still unaware of our slave-holding past. For my part, I was an adult when I first learned about Black enslavement in Canada. When I was a teenager, this was not taught in high school. It’s this lack of education in the subject matter that motivated Ayana O’Shun in 2010 to create the documentary, Black Hands. Ayana is cousins with Josiane Blanc, who put together this podcast episode in French and English. Josiane called up her cousin to ask Ayana when she learned about slavery in Canada.

Ayana O’Shun: We're talking about the late 2000s. I think it was around 2006 - 2007 or so.

And what I found most profoundly shocking was that the story was hidden from me, when it was a story that was actually known. When I say they hid it from me, I don’t mean me specifically, I mean they hid this story from all Quebecers.

GB: I remember being shocked, too. My years spent in history class with Samuel de Champlain and Jacques Cartier without the slightest mention of this important element of our past. And yet, in the days of New France, the enslavement of Black and First Nations people was a common practice.

You see, there was a system called the Transatlantic Slave Trade, in which European colonizers captured and transported Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to places like Europe, North & South America, and the Caribbean. Enslaved Africans were even brought to New France, which meant that for a period of about 200 years, a lot of what is now central and eastern Canada was slave territory. Between 1629 and 1834, there were more than 4,000 people enslaved, mostly in what is now Quebec. But enslavement was not as prominent here as it was in other places.

As a French, and later British colony, New France participated in the Fur Trade, which was operated by small groups of French colonizers and Indigenous peoples and did not require slave labour. In the British colonies in the Americas slave labour was an integral part of the economy, and Black Africans were forced to work on plantations to harvest crops such as cotton, sugar cane, and tobacco.

Most Black enslaved people in what is now Quebec were forced to live and work in family homes, mostly in Quebec City or Montreal. But as time went on, enslavement also appeared across the British and French colonies that became Canada.

Today, I'm going to tell you the story of one woman in particular, a Black enslaved woman named Marie-Josèphe Angélique. Before Ayana made her documentary about slavery in New France, she produced a play about Marie-Josèphe Angélique. In her documentary, which was inspired by the play, Ayana brought Angélique back to life, playing her role in re-enactments.

AO: One of the reasons I wanted to play Angelique is that she's not the typical slave that you hear about, right? You know, there's a whole trend of movies we call “slavery films”; movies about slavery where the slaves are portrayed as victims.

GB: Marie-Josèphe's story has become larger than life. She was an outspoken enslaved woman who lived in Montreal in the early 1700s. She acted out against her forced enslavement and stood up to her French owner. As a result, she is said to have started a fire.

Today, I will tell you how in 1734 this enslaved woman became known to all in Montreal.

My name is Garvia Bailey. You’re listening to Strong and Free, a podcast from Historica Canada. Because Black history is Canadian history.

In order to understand Angélique's story, we decided to turn to two historians who have both dedicated several years of their lives to carefully studying the archival records.

Denyse Beaugrand-Champagne: My name is Denyse Beaugrand-Champagne. I worked as an archivist at the National Library and Archives of Quebec in Montreal.

GB: It was during a research project on the construction of Montreal that Denyse discovered the archives of the court trial of Marie-Josèphe Angélique.

Marie-Josèphe Angélique was on trial for starting a fire that burned down a huge portion of Old Montreal in 1734. But before Marie-Josèphe was accused of setting a fire, before she even arrived in New France, records show she was born in Portugal. The next piece of information we have on the historical record is that a Dutch man by the name of Nichus Block owned her and brought her to New York. It’s not clear how she arrived in New France, but we do know that she was sold to a man named François Poulin de Francheville and wound up in Montreal, as a 20 -year-old enslaved woman working in their home. 

But what was she like as a person?

Through her research, Denyse has gotten a sense of how Angélique was perceived.

DBC: This is a woman who's not afraid to give her opinion. She's not an introvert, not an introvert at all. And she gives her opinion. She talks back to her mistress if things don’t suit her.

GB: Afua Cooper is also a historian who agrees with this assessment of Angélique.

Afua Cooper: My name is Afua Cooper, I am a historian, I'm a poet, I teach in the Departments of History and Sociology and social anthropology at Dalhousie University, where I coordinate the Black and African Diaspora Studies Minor.

According to Madame de Francheville, Angélique was not an obedient slave. She was, she didn't make Madame's life easy from the point of view of Madame. She threatened her. She told the woman she was going to burn her. She called the woman a b---- in front of her face.

DBC: A woman, an enslaved Black woman in Montreal with a personality like Angelique. It upsets people, it’s very upsetting. People don't like it.

GB: By the time of the fire, Angélique had had an on-going relationship with an enslaved man and had buried 3 of their children. She suffered great loss. If we want to understand her better, and the slavery that existed in what is now Quebec, let's take it back to the beginning and set the scene of a society during the slave trade in Marie-Josèphe Angélique’s lifetime.

DBC: So, as far as Marie-Josèphe Angélique's early life, you have to understand that there were no newspapers at the time, that all we have, all we know about Angélique's story is contained in the record of her trial in 1734.

GB: This is how we know that when she arrived in New France, Marie-Josèphe Angélique was 20 years old. She was enslaved by Monsieur de Francheville who owned two houses, a farm outside of Montreal, and a major ironworks near Trois-Rivières. But 8 years later, in November 1733, François de Francheville died.

AC: His widow became, you know, the legal owner of Marie-Josèphe Angélique. And that's kind of when the story picks up momentum, because upon the death of Sieur Francheville, Angélique informed her mistress that she was leaving because she said Sieur Francheville had promised her her freedom. But the mistress said, “No, that's not going to happen. You can't leave. I own you.”

Angélique threatens, and this is according to the trial records, she said she's going to run away. She hates Montreal, she hates Canada. She wants to go back to her country, which is Portugal.

GB: It’s impossible to know if Monsieur de Francheville had really promised her freedom, but there are a few things we know for certain. Including that there was a fire, not the big one that burned down Old Montreal – we’ll get to that one in a minute – but a little one, in a home where Angélique was staying.

It happened three months after Marie-Josèphe Angélique’s owner, Monsieur de Francheville, died. It was February 1734. Angélique was staying in the home of Madame de Francheville's brother-in-law, Alexis Lemoine Monière.

DBC: Marie-Josèphe slept in a large room, where there was a wood stove that she had filled with wood chips. And she had laid down close to the stove. At some point in the night, a member of Monsieur Lemoine Monière's family saw that Angélique had fallen asleep near the stove, and that she had put in too much wood, so that the stove was overloaded, and there were sparks that had fallen near her blanket which had caught fire. At the same time, or at more or less the same time, the place where the men were lying had also caught fire.

GB: Who were these men? One of them was Marie-Josèphe Angélique’s lover, Claude Thibault. Claude Thibault also worked for Madame de Francheville, doing small jobs in her house.

DBC: The next morning, when everyone woke up, Claude Thibault and Angélique were missing.

GB: Let me tell you about Claude Thibault, Marie-Josèphe Angélique’s lover. He was a white man, a former French prisoner sent here by the king and put on contract to spend three years in the icy winters of New France. Claude Thibault had only one desire: to return to his native France. Claude and Angelique ran away together. She wanted to escape back to Portugal.

AC: This was in February of 1734. And it was, and they said they were going to New England or New York. So, they fled, and they were able to stay out, to stay away for two weeks. And then they were caught.

So that happened, and like I said, when they returned, when the constables returned them to Montreal, Thibault was launched in prison and Angélique was returned to her mistress's house.  Angélique kept visiting Thibault in prison. She would bring him food.

GB: Claude Thibault was put in prison on March 4, 1734, where he stayed for one month. Upon his release from prison, Claude visited Madame de Francheville, who was not happy to see him and told him never to return.

DBC: She says to him, “don’t ever come back here again.” She chases him away, and she's very, very, very clear about it. She never wants him to set foot in her house again, and she tells him that she’s sold Angelique.

GB: That’s right. Mme de Francheville had made a deal and sold Angélique.

AC: She didn't want to be sold. When she was returned to Montreal, she said to her mistress, “I'm going to behave myself. Please don't sell me-” you know “- I'll be good. I'll be good. Don't sell me. I don't want to be sold again.”

Well, Madame sold her. Madame told her in April, she said, “I've sold you. It's a done deal. You're going to Quebec City in April. As soon as the ice breaks and the fishing fleet leaves, I'm sending you with a fishing fleet.”

GB: That was the scene in the de Francheville household. There was a lot of conflict. Which brings us up to the day of the big fire.

DBC: So, what we know is that April 10th is a Saturday. And Mme de Francheville is way, way uptown in church for evening prayers. And Marie-Josèphe Angélique is on the doorstep. She's watching the two little girls. She's watching them play. She's here with an enslaved Indigenous woman who lives in the house next door, to the west. And then, all of a sudden, someone shouts, “Fire.”

And from there everything unfolds very quickly.

AC: And so, the fire happened very fast. They said shingles were flying through the air and were landing on other people's roofs so.

The fire started in Thérèse de Couagne’s house where Angélique was domiciled…

GB: To clarify, Therese de Couagne is Madame de Francheville, which is her married name.

So, a fire started…

AC: … and it spread to the rest of the merchant's quarter in Montreal and burnt down the merchant's quarter and also the hospital and many other buildings.

DBC: And three hours later, so around 10, 11 o’clock at night, 46 houses have been destroyed.

GB: Soon, a rumour began to circulate in the city that it was Claude Thibault and Angélique who set fire to Mme de Francheville's house. Here, it’s important to note that Angélique did not run away that night. She stayed to help people fleeing the fire. And then the next day...

AC: The constables came, they arrested her on the morning of April 11th. She was remanded in custody. Then they took her to court the following morning and she was charged with the fire.

GB: However, no one saw Marie-Josèphe Angélique set the fire.

DBC: The Criminal Act of 1670. In this document, it clearly says that you can arrest, accuse, and convict someone purely on the basis of a public rumour. And that's what happened. The whole court case is based on this rumour.

GB: The day after the fire, Angélique is thrown into prison. And where is Claude Thibault in all this?

AC: Thibault was officially charged. Thibault was seen as an accomplice in all throughout all of this, he was seen as an accomplice and then there was a document issued for his arrest, but he had disappeared by then.

DBC: So, they’re looking for Claude Thibault in order to arrest him. But no one knows where he is.

GB: Thus begins Angélique's trial.

DBC: And then this very long trial begins, which is quite unusual in New France, in Montreal. Trials in New France are very swift, it's a matter of one day, two days and it's done.

AC: They brought in at least twenty-four people, witnesses who said, “yeah, we saw her, we saw her looking at the roof.” And as said earlier, one said, “she told me she was going to burn her mistress. She was going to go back to Portugal.” Another one said “she hated Canada.”

DBC: Everyone uses the same phrase: “I don't know who set fire to Mme de Francheville’s house, but I think, I suspect, or I'm certain it was Angelique.” It's the same phrase every time.

GB: Then, after several inconclusive weeks, a new witness is brought to testify against Angélique.

DBC: A five-year-old girl was brought before the judge. In New France, at that time, even children could testify. Marie Amable Lemoine Monière was brought before the judge by her father, Alexis Lemoine Monière, who was Mme de Francheville's brother-in-law.

GB: Monière is the brother-in-law in whose home the first little fire occurred. Remember when Marie-Josèphe Angélique filled the wood stove and fell asleep and in the morning, she and her lover Claude had run away? Yeah, that was Monière’s home. And now his 5-year-old daughter was put forward as a witness in the trial: Marie Amable.

AC: And she gave evidence that she saw Angélique with the stove and Angélique was looking at the roof and so on and so forth.

DBC: The little girl declares that she saw Angelique climb up to the attic with a small shovel and some embers.

GB: Confronted with this new testimony, Angélique's reaction is all the more surprising.

DBC: She leans toward the little girl. She looks. Angelique looks in her apron for a little piece of sugar and she offers it to Amable, and she says...

AC: “Oh, you poor thing, who put you up to this?  You're such a sweet thing. Do you want a candy or something? Do you want a sweet?”

DBC: It's fascinating, isn't it? She doesn't say, “You're a liar. It didn't happen. You didn't see me because I didn't do it.” Nothing, nothing, nothing. She leans towards Marie Amable. She says, "Who told you to say that?” And that's it. The trial ends there.

GB: With the late entry of a witness who was 5 years old.

AC: It was to prove her guilt; it was to cement her guilt. She was enslaved. It's not like anyone had sympathy for her. No one had sympathy for her. And she had to be defending herself. It was Marie-Josèphe Angélique against the world.

GB: Despite the little evidence available, Marie-Josèphe Angélique was found guilty and sentenced.

A note here that the following section includes descriptions about the brutality of enslavement.

AC: They said that she should be burnt alive.

DBC: That she be forced to walk past the parish church carrying a torch, that she be paraded through the streets of Montreal, in a cart filled with filthy garbage...

GB: But according to the laws in New France, when a person is found guilty, the case must also be heard in the Supreme Court before it is finalized. 

AC: When she went to the high court in Quebec City, they said, “No, that's too barbaric, don't burn her alive. Hang her first and then burn the body and then cast the ashes to the four winds.”

DBC: But on the other hand, they’ll keep the step of torture with the boot.

Let's pause here.

These boots are very hard pieces of wood, most likely oak, which they’d attach to each side of your leg from the ankle to the knee. Then, they would drive a wedge – a pointed piece of wood – inside the board, that is between the oak board and the knee, and the executioner would hit the wedge with a mallet.

GB: Angélique is sent back to Montreal and on June 21st, shortly before her death, she was tortured in her prison cell to extract a confession. It was a brutal form of torture.

Marie-Josèphe Angélique maintained her innocence up until the very first hammer blow, when she quickly confessed.

DBC: She said, "Yes, yes, yes, it's me. Yes, it's me." Anyone is going to say "Yes, it's me." In other words, the pain is so intense that before you pass out, you're going to say “yes, it’s me,” right?

GB: Despite her confession, they continued to torture her until she screamed that she wanted to die. They wanted her to name an accomplice, but she never did, maintaining that it was her alone who set the fire.

Marie-Josèphe Angélique was then paraded through the streets of Montreal in a white chemise with the word “Arsonist” embroidered on it, while holding a torch to face her execution.

And the executioner? He was also an enslaved Black man condemned to work for the colonial government. His name was Mathieu Léveillé.

DBC: So, at that point Marie-Josèphe Angélique was hoisted up – she couldn’t walk, a soldier had to pull her up the ladder to the gallows – and she was hanged. And all this in front of an enormous crowd. There was no entertainment in New France. That was the entertainment. And then, they took down her body and burned it.

GB: This is how Angélique died. While no one witnessed the start of the fire, many Montrealers witnessed her execution.

The trial transcripts give us one of the earliest examples of Quebec’s history of enslavement - that, we know. But will we ever truly know, without a doubt, that Angélique set the fire for which she was blamed?

AC: As a historian, I cannot say 100 percent she did. I can tell you some reasons why I think she would do such a thing. I know that she had enough reason to set fire to the city, to set fire to her mistress's house. She hated the woman.

Slavery is an awful thing. It's brutal. It's not just the dehumanization of the body, it's also the killing of the mind. It drives you mad, to think, you lose your children, you don't own your body. You're enslaved, you're in bondage to someone else who owns your nights, your days, your minutes, your hours.    

You know, you don't have to be a psychologist to know this, to realize this thing, this that Angélique, in my estimation, became unhinged, or as the song said, she became undone.

GB: But for Denyse, there is no doubt that Marie-Josèphe Angélique did not set fire to the city of Montreal that night.

DBC: People were angry that they had lost their homes. They had to find someone, a scapegoat who would pay for that.

GB: According to Denyse, the fire was an accident. A chimney fire started in the house next door where a slave named Marie-Manon lived. On the evening of the fire, it was very hot, and Marie-Manon was, according to the record, the only one who reported using her chimney to cook. And so, when someone shouted, “fire” ... 

DBC: Instead of going out the front door to see the soldier who was shouting fire, to see where he was pointing to, she went out the back, and she looked at her own chimney to see if the flames were coming out of there.

GB: In the end, whether Angélique set the fire or not, Denyse and Afua both agree that it’s important to denounce the inhumane treatment of Angélique and the importance of making this history known to all Canadians.

I mean, Ayana, the filmmaker we heard from off the top, a Black woman who spent her whole childhood in the Quebec educational system, she never knew about slavery in Canada. All of us, in this episode, only learned of slavery in Canada as adults. How has it remained so hidden to all of us?

AC: We just have to redo the curriculum and make it mandatory.

GB: Marie-Josèphe Angélique is included in the curricula in several provinces today, but as Afua points out there is a systemic issue at hand. In many provinces and many classrooms, the history of enslavement in Canada is little more than a historical footnote.

DBC: Every 20 years we revise the history books. We have to be present when these history books are written so that we can make sure that they talk about slavery, that they talk about Black people.

AC: If you're saying I'm a citizen and I'm saying I'm a citizen, you're saying I'm equal and I'm saying I'm equal, then let's see that reflected in the curriculum.

GB: While we look forward to Canadian Black History becoming a meaningful part of the curriculum in all provinces and territories, Canadians can also learn this piece of history from each other, through grassroots projects.

About ten years ago, in the summer of 2009, Ayana presented the last performance of her play not far from where Angélique was hanged.

What was it like for her to embody the role of Angélique? What did it mean to her?

AO: When the play ended, I remember I went back to my car, and I started to cry. It's like I had this deep gratitude somewhere inside me, some part of me was thankful for that experience. Thanking me for the opportunity to play that character. Somewhere in my dreams I tell myself that it was Angélique thanking me for telling her story. I was very proud to have been able to do it and very humbled to have been able to play this character who is so much larger than life.

GB: Since 2012, adjacent to the Champ-de-Mars subway station in Montréal, a square now bears the name of Place Marie-Josèphe Angélique. Unfortunately, there is no plaque or description that accompanies it. There’s no way of knowing why it was named in her honour.

What do you think, Ayana, after having made a play and a documentary, do you think Marie-Josèphe Angélique did it?

AO: Where I am today, did she set the fire or didn’t she? Really, for me, it doesn't matter.

What I actually want to highlight is the fact that at one time there was slavery. It goes beyond knowing whether or not she was guilty, where to point the finger, who was guilty. The guilt lies with the society, for enslaving a whole part of the population on the basis of their race. That's what's shameful.

GB: I agree. We need to understand slavery on a human level. There may always be a "did she or didn't she" question with the story of Marie-Josèphe Angélique but when it comes to the larger issue of slavery in Canada's history, there's no question there. It happened. Now, what will we do with that knowledge?

Thank you for listening.

Strong and Free is produced by Media Girlfriends and Historica Canada.  

This series is part of a larger Black history education campaign by Historica Canada. For more resources, visit

You can find Strong and Free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

This episode was written and produced by Josiane Blanc.

Senior producers are me, Garvia Bailey, and Hannah Sung. 

Sound design and mix by David Moreau and Gabbie Clarke

The Media Girlfriends team is rounded out by Lucius Dechausay, Jeff Woodrow, and Nana aba Duncan, the founder of Media Girlfriends. 

Thank you to Ayana O’Shun, director of Black Hands: Trial of the Arsonist Slave and to Denyse Beaugrand-Champagne, historian & archivist. Denyse is the author of Le Procès de Marie-Josèphe-Angélique.

And thank you to Dr. Afua Cooper, historian, poet, and professor at Dalhousie University. She is the author of The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal.

Thank you to our script consultant, Dr. Dorothy Williams, historian & author.

Thank you to Dominique Fils-Aimé and Ensoul Records for the use of Dominique’s song “There is probably fire” Written by Dominique Fils-Aimé and Jacques G Roy. Published by Ensoul Records and Harris & Wolff.

Fact-checking by Sean Young  

English versioning by Power of Babel.

I’m Garvia Bailey. Thanks for listening.