In 1741 Marie-Joseph Angélique, a black slave girl who lived in Montreal, was accused of setting her mistress’s house on fire. The blaze spread rapidly and destroyed a sizeable part of the city. Under torture, Angélique confessed to the crime, was found guilty and was eventually hanged.
In 2007, 265 years later, a new posthumous trial was organized. It was presided over by none other than Michel Robert, Chief Justice of the Quebec Court of Appeal. The event was part of a school project to re-enact the trial with pupils from various primary schools playing the roles of witnesses, lawyers, and so on. This time, the slave was found innocent. The chief justice took the opportunity to teach something to the children. Today, he said, it would be impossible to find Angélique guilty — or to execute her — because the law has changed and the death penalty has been abolished. So the kids could see, thanks to progress, that today’s world is obviously a much better place.
It did not seem to occur to Robert that he was comparing apples with bananas. The context of the 18th century is completely different from today’s. Not to mention that it is impossible, so many years after the fact, to determine whether Angélique was guilty or innocent of setting fire to the house and neighbourhood.
Ahistorical reasoning did not, however, prevent “historical correctness” from prevailing. In fact, it greatly facilitated the process. Over the past 15 or so years various publications, documentaries, museum exhibitions and commemorations have invited Quebecers to “discover” that slavery was widespread in New France, that it was a historic crime, and that they should feel guilty about it. Angélique has become a symbolic figure in condemning the sins of Québec history.
The roots of this mania are to be found in Le procès de Marie-Josèphe-Angélique, published in 2004 by archivist Denyse Beaugrand-Champagne. Her work takes the form of a traditional narrative history. We follow the tragic fate of the slave, how she lived and died in New France. Her mistress had decided to sell her to an owner in the West Indies, where living conditions for slaves were significantly worse than in Montreal. Angélique tried to escape with her French lover Thibault, who later fled Montreal. She was recaptured, accused of arson and finally put to death.
Champagne did a very good job in bringing the past back to life in a competent biography full of drama. The problem lies elsewhere. Her book gives the impression that slavery was common and widespread in New France. Over the course of 269 pages, Beaugrand-Champagne gives almost no indication of its true scope. The reader therefore must turn to other sources to understand better and also to compare slavery in Canada with what prevailed in other colonial societies.
According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, between 1525 and 1866 12.5 million Africans were captured and sent to the Americas. About 10.7 million survived the Atlantic crossing and were sent to various colonies or countries. Of this total, 388,000 or less than 4 percent went to North America, the vast majority of these to the United States as opposed to Canada. Until 1700, only six African slaves lived in the Canadien colony and their number increased very slowly afterwards. In reality, most slaves in New France were natives. The highest estimates place the number of blacks in bondage in what is today Quebec and Ontario at 1,400 under the French and British regimes combined and over the course of more than a century. That represents 0.01 percent of all slaves brought to the New World from Africa.
Although enslaving any individual is an outrage, the tiny figure clearly demonstrates that African-origin slavery was almost nonexistent in Canada. But Beaugrand-Champagne only once mentions the number of slaves in Canada in her book, in a one-sentence footnote that provides the total number of slaves who lived in the colony. She omits the number of African-origin slaves. Nor is there any comparison with the United States, Brazil, or the West Indies, where the presence of slaves was the norm rather than the exception, and where the numbers were massive.
Once you start to put things in perspective, the notion that New France was a slave society evaporates like a drop of water under the desert sun. But for those who want us to remember the story of Angélique as something significant and meaningful about our past, as opposed to something anecdotal, it is essential to ignore reality.
That is not to say Angélique’s story does not make for good history; quite the opposite. One of the reasons the story is fascinating is precisely because it is extraordinary and unique. It is not about the coureurs des bois, the fur trade, the famous explorers, wars with the British, and other things we are more familiar with and that were more typical of New France. The Montreal depicted by Beaugrand-Champagne is particularly exotic. It belongs to a past so seldom told, and one barely recognizes the city in it. Another reason is that the tragic fate of the slave embodies a universal theme: the arbitrary deprivation of liberty and a quest for liberty and love. We cheer for Angélique as we read and we are moved to sorrow when she is put to death.
Telling a good story was not, however, the author’s sole purpose. She also wanted Quebecers to understand there was slavery in New France. That is no easy task. As Beaugrand-Champagne said herself when presented with the fact, “The people say come on!” I asked her myself in an exchange of emails why there was virtually no explanation on the fact that slavery was marginal here. Although she did admit that it was not as important as elsewhere, she denied that it was marginal. As for the reason why there was not more information about the scope of this practice in her book, she said that the publisher wanted her to focus on the trial and not on historiographical questions.
In fact, had she done otherwise, it would have been difficult indeed to achieve her stated purpose: to convince people that slavery in New France was worthy of attention. The answer she would have received would indeed have been, “Come on, it was marginal!” If you set out to make people feel guilty about their past, that’s not the answer you are looking for.
Darkening Quebec’s past and making the multicultural present look brighter than ever is the motive that has been propelling Marie-Joseph Angélique’s memory ever since. She was chosen to be part of “La Place des Grandes Montréalaises,” a square inaugurated in 2017 as the city was celebrating its 375th anniversary. The same year there was also a sound and light show projected in the Old Montreal and, of course, Angélique was part of it.
The part about the famous slave was followed by another segment reminding visitors of the story of baseball legend Jackie Robinson. In 1946 Robinson was playing in Montreal for Les Royaux and lived in Quebec for about a year. He was acclaimed by baseball fans and the Robinsons were treated very kindly by Montrealers, in stark contrast to their experience of racial prejudice in the United States. As Jackie Robinson’s wife Rachel would put it later, their life in Montreal was almost like paradise.
Martin Landry, a history teacher who worked on the Montreal anniversary project, explained to me why they had decided to present these two stories back-to-back: “We wanted to show that there had been progress.” Surely no one can deny this. But the problem here is that race relations are elevated into an issue that was fundamental for Canada — although this was never the case. Racial tensions in Canada’s past are depicted today as if we were an American state, as if Montreal, Quebec was like Mobile, Alabama. In an echo of wannabe-Americanism, Canadian history is thus Americanized. Canada’s multicultural academic and civic left is thus revising our history, and activating the consciences of young Canadians, through the lens of the superpower south of our border. That is an obvious and ironic manifestation of self-imposed cultural alienation, a form of self-administered American cultural imperialism.
When it comes to the treatment of people of colour, Canada’s reality has almost always been in sharp contrast to that of the United States. That has not stopped Angélique from becoming a new deity of repentance in English Canada, too. Two years after Beaugrand-Champagne’s book, historian Afua Cooper published The Hanging of Angélique: the Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal.
If Champagne’s biography had some undisputable qualities, Cooper’s book is a monument of dishonesty that assails the reader page after page. In fact, it starts even before you open the book, with the inflammatory title. How can you say that you are telling the “untold story” of Angélique, two years after a bestseller was published on precisely the same topic?
The title merely whets the appetite. The appetizer, an introduction by George Elliot Clarke, a former Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate, is indigestible. Among other things, he writes that just like Haiti, the Canadian economy was built on slavery, something ironic, he says, since Michaëlle Jean was then Governor-General. For Clarke, racism is a defining feature of Canadian history and identity.
Among the evidence, the University of Toronto Professor of English points to the participation of a Canadian mercenary in a Belgian military operation in Africa during the 19th century. William Grant Stairs, a graduate of the Royal Military College, Kingston, allegedly took part in the killing of Africans whose heads were severed and displayed on a fence. One wonders how today’s Canada can be held responsible for a massacre in which one of its citizens, a subject of a worldwide empire living in a completely different context, took part?
The fact that this story is not well-known, like the existence of slavery in our country, is a proof, according to Clarke, that Canadians are trying to deny the sins of their past. This historic atmosphere of racial prejudice in Canada is allegedly pervasive and led directly to the torture and killing of at least two Somali prisoners by Canadian soldiers on a UN peacekeeping mission in the early 1990s. That this event was received with utter revulsion by the Canadian public and that the perpetrators were put on trial and found guilty all goes unmentioned. For Cooper the story of Angélique is part of a long fantasy sequence of oppression by Canadian whites, French or English, reconciled in a fanciful common cause to oppress natives and blacks.
Just like the title and introduction, every chapter in Cooper’s biography contains events taken out of context, replete with dubious comparisons, not to mention a number of things invented from scratch. She throws punches at Marcel Trudel, the first historian who worked on slavery in Quebec and who talked (a little bit) about Angélique. Why would he be attacked? Because of his interpretation of the slave’s motives. According to Trudel, she did what she did because she wanted to escape with her lover Thibault. By proposing this explanation, Cooper alleges, he is guilty of denying the slave any agency, depriving her of any resolve in fighting the white oppressor, and this amounts to prejudice. It would seem that feminist ideology combined with an infatuation with protest culture clouded Cooper’s ability to assess a perfectly reasonable attribution of motives.
The idea that Angélique rose in revolt is central in Cooper’s account. The fire confirms her belief that the slave-girl was guilty of setting Montreal ablaze, just as Trudel concluded. But it contradicts Champagne, who finds Angélique innocent. Cooper goes as far as describing with minutiae how Angélique set her mistress’s house on fire. How can she know that? The answer is simple: she cannot. Her book becomes a novel at that point even if it is clearly presented as non-fiction.
In her conclusion Cooper recounts a visit she made to the little preserved district of Old Montreal. How, she bemoans, could there be a statue of Sieur de Maisonneuve, the founder of the city, and none of Angélique? This, she says, proves that Quebeckers have a monolithic and racist memory. She believes that a statue commemorating slavery in general, and Angélique in particular, should have been erected. Her suggestion shows how completely out of touch she is with the actual history of the city, and how disproportionate is her sense of historical balance. How many cities celebrate the memory of local arsonists?
Cooper’s monograph made it to the shortlist for the Governor General’s Literary Awards. Ingenuous and uncritical reviewers praised it. “Powerful and memorable” said the Literary Review of Canada. For the Toronto Star, it was “one of the most significant books on Canadian history this year…passionate, engaging writing.” For the Winnipeg Free Press, “Cooper’s passionate style reflects her commitment to shake Canadians from their complacency about the past,” while the Edmonton Journal called it an “exceptional work.” The CBC put it on a list of top books on black history.
Even if Cooper did not win the Governor General’s award, the jurors were full of praise. Angélique’s “voice” — that of an oppressed, blameless young visible-minority woman — cannot be ignored any longer, they said. It is difficult to disagree with that. She’s become the rallying point for politically-correct history.
As Angélique was becoming famous, the government of Quebec in 2012 sponsored a history book on the black communities in La belle province. The topic is legitimate, but the executive power of the state is not known to play that kind of role too often. Why should the government encourage such a publication? The then-Liberal government’s Minister of Education, Line Beauchamp, explained in the foreword to La contribution des Noirs au Québec, by Arnaud Bessière, that the work is part of “a collective effort made to eliminate prejudice, stereotypes and to recognize diversity as an added value as well as to favour everybody’s participation in the development of Quebec society.”
For his part, Bessière referred to a document produced by the ministry for multiculturalism in the time of Pierre Trudeau. The more than 40-year-old federal government publication alleges that black schoolchildren were told in Canadian schools that “the heroes were white, the nation was built by whites, blacks were intruders, at best put on the same level than (sic) parasites.” There is little evidence for this claim; it is a political agitator’s statement pretending to be a sober historical one.
The assumption of both the minister and the author is that Quebecers are racists, even if no evidence is provided. It is obvious that some derive a powerful sense of meaning by fighting evil — racism in this case — even if it is an imaginary or greatly exaggerated one. Historians are helping here by trying to make sure that the only thing we remember is that “the whites,” presented here as one homogeneous and united group, enslaved the blacks. In Quebec, this was true only to an extremely limited extent.
Slavery was historically a universal practice. Our period of history, post-1800s, is in fact unusual for its comparative lack of slavery (although it does exist today in the form of human trafficking and sexual enslavement, especially in Asia). In Ancient Greece and Rome, whites enslaved other whites. In the Middle Ages slavery more or less disappeared from much of Europe, but the discovery of the Americas and the difficulty of persuading voluntary labour to cross the ocean brought a new impetus to that institution in the form of bondage.
As it happened, Europeans took advantage of something already going on in Africa. The enslavement of blacks by outsiders had started with the expansion of Islam during the 7th century. The Arabs forced the populations they were conquering to pay them a tribute, among other things, in the form of slaves. This human traffic lasted no fewer than 13 centuries and by some estimates 17 million blacks were captured and sold by Arabs…and by fellow black Africans. For example, when the Zulu carved out an empire for themselves, they massacred or captured and sold entire tribes in Southern Africa. Black Muslims did the same in North and East Africa. In Algeria, Muslim pirates sailed out on raids to capture Europeans and sell them as slaves.
Western nations contributed the most to the reduction and ultimate abolition of slavery. A crucial step was making the slave trade between Africa and America illegal in the early 19th century, itself the result of long campaigns of political, social and religious activism. Britain’s Royal Navy was then assigned as a formidable fighting force against ships illegally smuggling human beings from the African continent. Canada became a safe haven for tens of thousands of fugitive American slaves from the 1790s onward, after Governor John Graves Simcoe began abolishing the practice. In the mid-19th century the United States abolished slavery at the cost of its bloody Civil War.
When European nations took control of Africa by conquering territories and creating colonial empires, they gradually abolished slavery. The practice was so deeply rooted in African culture, however, that when Europeans left Africa in the 1960s, slavery re-emerged in Mauritania, Nigeria and Sudan. In the Americas, slavery was common on the part of Indigenous peoples, including in Canada. In British Columbia, for example, it was an uphill battle for Governor James Douglas to dissuade people like the Haida from their age-old practice of slavery, though he found it quite easy to abolish black slavery.
Putting other human beings in bondage represents the dark side of human nature, and has been prevalent throughout thousands of years of history back to prehistoric times. Studying and remembering it should be done in a truth-seeking and balanced way, not with the purpose of putting Western countries on trial and promoting, if only indirectly, the utopian fantasy of present-day multicultural ideology. Though far from perfect, Canada’s record is good when it comes to slavery and to the treatment of African-Canadians. That should be a source of pride, not of shame.
Frédéric Bastien has degrees from the Université de Montréal and the Institut universitaire des hautes études internationales de Genève, teaches history at Dawson College in Montreal and is the author of La Bataille de Londres. The original version of this article first appeared in the Dorchester Review.