The Portuguese Slave who Burned Down Montreal
The Portuguese Canadian community, like other ethnocultural groups, has made determined efforts to demonstrate that it belongs in Canada. One way in which it has done so is by trying to show that it has long roots in the country, as reflected in the existence of such topographical names as Labrador and Baccalieu and Fogo islands, and of course the long relationship with Newfoundland through the cod fisheries. Interestingly, one early link between Portugal and Canada that no one seems to have pursued is that of the slave who was hanged for burning down Montreal in 1734, a Madeira-born woman known to history as Marie-Joseph Angélique. Although understandable, the Portuguese Canadian community’s failure to claim Angélique as one of its own is curious, especially considering that, during her life in Canada, she struggled valiantly to return to her native land
Born in Madeira in 1705, Angélique arrived in Montreal in 1725. Prior to that, little is known about her, beyond the fact she hailed from Madeira and subsequently was sold to a Dutch trader, who took her either to New England or New York. It was this Dutch trader who, in turn, sold her to a Montreal merchant named François Poulin de Francheville and his wife Thérèse. However, to this day, there is no known physical description of Angélique, such as her height, weight, or general appearance. Also, we have no knowledge of her original (presumably Portuguese) name. All the documentation that survives in the archives is that she was a young black slave woman, “la Noire Angélique,” and that she was born in Portugal, more specifically on the island of Madeira.
Angélique lived in Canada for nine years, between 1725 and 1734, working as a domestic slave for the Poulins, one of the most prominent families in what was then New France. She may have been a gift from François Poulin to his wife Thérèse, who had lost their only child, a baby girl named Marie-Angélique-thus the Madeira slave’s name. There are no reports of Angélique being involved in any public disturbance during her first years in Canada. That all changed, though, with the premature death of François Poulin. When Angélique discovered that the newly-widowed Thérèse intended to sell her, she became so incensed at what appears to have been the breach of a promise made to her that she rebelled.
According to the surviving documents, Angélique gave birth to three children, all of whom died as infants, and who are believed to have been fathered by male slaves. However, in 1733 she became involved with an indentured French labourer named Claude Thibault. A former soldier, Thibault resented his state of servitude and soon he and Angélique started to plot their escape to Europe. Their situation became urgent once François Poulin died unexpectedly late that year and his widow announced that she was going to sell Angélique, which would separate the Madeiran from her lover, thus making any possibility of escape even more remote.
Angélique reportedly threatened to make Thérèse Poulin “burn” when the latter insisted not only on selling her but to do so to someone outside Montreal. Consequently, when her bed was discovered to be on fire, everyone assumed Angélique had done it. This suspicion seemed to be confirmed when people learned that Angélique had conspired with Thibault and had fled to New England, in order to board a ship and sail from there to Europe. Her dream was aborted, however, when both she and Thibault were captured a couple of weeks later some distance south of Montreal.
Interestingly, while Thibault was jailed, Angélique was sent back to Thérèse Poulin. No less perplexing, she was allowed to visit her lover in prison. In early April 1734, Thibault was released from jail and he and Angélique resumed their relationship. Only days later, on April 10, another fire broke out in Montreal. This would be a much more devastating conflagration, which would raze a good portion of the city, including the hospital and a nuns’ residence, but miraculously no one was killed. The fire started in Thérèse Poulin’s house and then quickly spread to the neighbouring dwellings. Although there was no proof that Angélique set it, and she emphatically denied doing so, all the evidence pointed in her direction. For one, the fire began in the attic of the Poulin home, which housed not only the family’s granary but also Angélique’s room. Of course, Angélique also had more than enough motivation to burn down the residence of the family that owned her. Finally, as noted, she had been heard threatening to kill Thérèse.
Angélique and Thibault rescued some of Thérèse’s belongings and moved them to the hospital’s garden. Thibault then fled the city. But for reasons that remain unclear, Angélique did not join him. She remained in the hospital’s garden, where the city’s poor had congregated, and where she was eventually arrested and charged with arson. She underwent a two-month trial and, even upon being subjected to brutal torture, she continued to maintain her innocence. It was to no avail, though. On June 21, 1734, Angélique was escorted to the gallows and, after being hanged and strangled, was burned to death.
The story of the Madeira-born slave who was killed for purportedly setting fire to the city of Montreal in 1734 is obviously a dramatic one. To begin with, it raises a series of questions about the place of slavery in Canada, a country that is usually perceived as the terminus of the Underground Railroad and thus a haven for slaves. In addition, it forces a reassessment of the nature of collective memory; what societies choose to remember and what they would prefer to forget, and who has the right to claim heroes from the past. Not unexpectedly, the rebellion and death of Angélique have resonated with Canadian writers, particularly those of African descent, who have transformed her into the greatest martyr in African Canadian history. She has inspired a growing list of novels, poems, songs, plays, and films, the best known of which are arguably Lorena Gale’s 1999 play Angélique and Afua Cooper’s 2006 biography The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Montréal.
However, considering Angélique’s roots in Madeira and her persistent efforts to return to her native island, one group that has not yet produced any aesthetic representation of her is the Portuguese Canadian community. This is not a complete surprise, since the reclaiming of Angélique would necessarily entail an exploration of Portugal’s pivotal but inglorious role in the transatlantic slave trade, as well as of the lingering racism in Portugal and in the Portuguese Canadian community. Indeed, such a project would force the Portuguese Canadian community to consider the possibility that the first major Portuguese figure in Canadian history was not of European but of African descent.
Albert Braz is an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of Alberta, Canada. He specializes in Canadian literature in both its national and inter-American contexts, being particularly interested in literary representations of the encounters between Natives and Newcomers in Canada and the rest of the Americas. His other main areas of research are authorship, historical fiction, hybridity, translation, and transculturation. Among other works, he is the author of The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture With Marie Carrière, he is the co-editor of a special issue of the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature on Comparative Canadian Literature in the Twenty-First Century/ La littérature canadienne au XXIème siècle.
Photo taken from http://www.njheritage.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=14&Itemid=22