THE HANGING OF ANGELIQUE: CANADA, SLAVERY AND THE BURNING OF MONTREAL by Afua Cooper (HarperCollins), 349 pages, $32.95 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Think Canada's morally superior to the U.S? Get over it.
Okay, our economy didn't depend on it, but Canadians did own slaves and treated them viciously.
In The Hanging Of Angélique, poet Afua Cooper provides an overview of the subject and tells the smaller story within it of Marie-Joseph Angélique. It's not the first account of slavery in Canada, but it is one of the first non-academic treatments.
Angélique, a black Portuguese domestic servant in the Francheville household in Montreal, was convicted of setting a fire that destroyed nearly half the city in 1734. She was tortured and hung for the crime.
Cooper's vivid portrait describes a woman who wasn't easily tamed. She tried to escape with her white lover, Thibeault, but was dragged back home, whereupon she continued to verbally abuse her masters and make herself known around town as a slave out of control.
Little of Cooper's poetic sense comes through here, probably because she knows taking poetic licence on such a controversial subject is risky, and the text gets repetitive.
But two things in particular make this book important. First, Cooper uncovers little-known, counterintuitive, historical facts. For example, Jews played an active role in the slave trade from Portugal through Africa and to the Americas. And the famed Underground Railroad was often used by slaves fleeing Canada to places like Michigan, where slavery did not exist.
Better still, Cooper doesn't buy the Angélique-was-a-framed-victim line. She's a strong woman yearning for freedom.
She did set the fire, says Cooper, and who could blame her?
Cooper talks with George Elliott Clarke as a part of This Is Not A Reading Series Wednesday (February 15). See Book Readings.