For the Week of Monday, April 12, 2021.
On 12 April 1734, Marie-Joseph Angélique, appeared before a judge in Montréal on charges of arson—a capital offense in the colony of New France. She was accused of setting fire to a private residence on rue Saint-Paul, which spread quickly, destroying approximately 46 homes and the Hôtel-Dieu hospital.
Angélique was an enslaved Portuguese woman of African descent, forcibly transported across the Atlantic and then sold in 1725, at the age of 20, to merchant Francois Poulin de Francheville of Montréal. Following his death in 1733, Angélique became the property of his wife, Thérèse de Couagne de Francheville. She endured regular whippings and suffered the loss of three children in infancy while enslaved in the Francheville household.
The enslavement of African people was legal in the colony of New France, which denied the humanity of enslaved people, reducing them to property to be bought and sold, exploiting their labour, and subjecting them to physical, sexual, psychological, and reproductive violence. Enslaved people fought back in many ways, which included destroying tools to limit their productivity, and risking violent capture and re-enslavement to seek refuge in communities of free people of African descent or reunite with family members.
On April 10, 1734, a large portion of Montréal was destroyed in a fire that began in the Francheville household. Angélique was accused of starting the devastating blaze and arrested by police the following day. Her testimony, given during a trial that lasted three months, was one of the earliest, first-hand accounts of an enslaved person to be recorded in New France, although mediated and likely influenced by the French officials who transcribed her description of the events. When asked where she was when the fire began, she said she was “on the other side of the road near the door of the Hôtel Dieu,” and did not return to the Francheville household until she heard someone cry “fire” (translated from the original French).
Twenty-three witnesses accused Angélique of starting the fire, alleging that she hoped it would serve as a distraction, so that she might escape enslavement with a white indentured servant from France, named Claude Thibault. The court for the jurisdiction of Montréal convicted Angélique, who had maintained her innocence throughout her trial. Judge Pierre Raimbault went to the prison to pronounce judgement with a physician, one of the court assessors, the hangman and torturer, and four armed guards, who tortured her until she confessed. Marie-Joseph Angélique was hanged in the public square on June 21, 1734.
The Enslavement of African People in Canada (c. 1629–1834) is a designated national historic event. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of National Historic Events, which evoke significant moments, episodes, movements, or experiences in the history of Canada.