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The Hanging of Angelique, by Afua Cooper.

July 3, 2012

The Hanging of Angelique:  The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal, by Afua Cooper.   University of Georgia Press, 2006.

Race in the Atlantic World Series.

An important, wide-ranging history focusing on a slave woman and the context of life in colonial Montreal, slavery in Canada and the international Atlanta Slave Trade.

Afua Cooper tells the story of Marie-Joseph Angelique, a slave woman who is believed to have started the massive fire which destroyed the merchant section of Montreal in 1734.  Fleshing out her story, Cooper provide abundant historical contexts so that readers can see the larger stories of which Angelique was a part.  At times, the context pulls away from Angelique’s particular story, diminishing the unity of the book.  For those of us unfamiliar with the global dimensions of slavery, however, the larger pictures she provides are invaluable.

Too many of us know the history of slavery in one location or another.   In one of the most impressive chapters in her book, Cooper summarizes the relationships of events taking place in the global slave trade.  She explains how Angelique was born in Portugal, was sold to a Flemish man, and came from British colonies in North America to Montreal.   We see how the Portuguese started trading slaves, how the trade expanded around Africa and involving more European nations, and how eventually how slaves were captives of wars.  Cooper also describes how slavery was practiced in Europe and the trade networks between Portugal and the various regions of the Netherlands and eventually the links to New York and New England.

According to Cooper, Canadians have tried to wipe slavery out of their history, and she seeks to put it back in place as an essential part of the national story.  She presents an overview of where and how slavery developed in Canada, noting that the colony never relied on slaves economically as extensively as in the southern British colonies.  There was plenty of back-breaking tasks that slaves could do, however, from clearing land to loading ships and the everyday maintenance of households.  In Montreal, the hub of the profitable fur trade, most were owned by merchants like the owners of Angelique.

The records of Angelique’s trial for arson provided an unusually detailed account of her life of a slave woman.  The events in the months leading up to the fire reveal how her life was narrowing.  Her master died and his wife, who was closely involved with his fur trading, took over the combined home and business, dealing with Angelique more strictly than previously.  Angelique and her lover tried to run away, starting a small fire as a distraction.  After their recapture, her owner decided to sell Angelique to a slave trader in Quebec as soon as the river thawed and she could be sent there.  In turn, he would sent her to a sugar plantation in the West Indies, one of the most deadly places for slaves.  While all this was taking place, Angelique made numerous comments to her owner and to others about how her mistress should “burn.”   On the day of the fire, Angelique acted strangely as a variety of witnesses observed.  The trial records show the failure of Angelique’s attempts to lie about her actions and the torture which followed.  To the end she maintained that she had acted alone.  Cooper provides evidence that her lover, who disappeared after the fire, may have helped her, but that Angelique acted on her own.  She may have loved him, or viewed him as a useful partner in attempts at escape, but she did not follow his lead because of her love for him as some historians have claimed.

Cooper is a careful, well-trained historian, with experience not only in academia but in a variety of efforts to bring her research to the larger community of non-scholars.  She has curated museum exhibits and organized programs, often about African-Americans and slavery in Canada.  She is currently the director of a Women’s Studies program and brings an understanding of gender difference to her work.  In addition, she is a published poet and uses her skill with words to make her research easy to read and understand by readers who are not specialists.

At times, however, Cooper gets carried away with her anger that black history has not been taken seriously in Canada and that some would claim that a domestic slave in Canada, like Angelique, would have an easy life.  At times she tells us what people were thinking when such knowledge is beyond what historical evidence reveals.  For example, we can never know what Angelique thought as she waited for the verdict of her trial; we can only speculate.  Most often, however, Cooper stays within the limits of her research and only raises questions about what we can never know.  She only asks us to consider what Angelique’s relationship with her owner might have been instead of claiming that he was sexually involved Angelique.

This book and The Talented Women of the Zhang family, I found through Arpha’s Reading Room, which posted a list of 100 books and DVDs in global women’s history.   Both books were rewarding as were  others included that I had read. You can expect more reviews from there in the future.  If you are interested in an expanded history of women, check it the site.

I strongly recommend The Hanging of Angelique to readers interested in slavery or women’s history or simply curious about the past.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2012 10:17 am

    As a Canadian, I know its true that slavery is not usually taught;when I was doing my history degree the trend was in gender, family and women’s history (and other social history subjects) rather than black history – slavery included. Consequently, people don’t realize slavery did exist in Canada.

    I think its important that these kind of tales are told, even if they are not ‘pretty’. Thanks for reviewing this book and for your thorough comments and discussion.

  2. July 5, 2012 11:11 am

    As usual, a fine and articlaute review. I think this should be a must read for all. Surely th lessons learnt are of a universal nature. Thanks for sharing

    • July 6, 2012 10:39 am

      Thanks. I learned so much about the global dimensions of the slave trade from this book.

  3. July 10, 2012 2:07 pm

    What a great list! Thanks for linking to it, md.

  4. April 28, 2013 9:48 am

    Thank you so much for this post! I’m currently writing a 3 part series of articles on Cultural Healing for my blog, I plan to include this book as a “must read”! I hope you will have a chance to read the Cultural Healing articles and post a comment and/or suggest more information about our painful history. In order to heal, we must be aware that something happened and how it has impacted us! Thanks again for bringing awareness to the history of slavery in Canada that is documented in this book!-Izzie J

  5. April 28, 2013 9:52 am

    Reblogged this on BONDFIRES and commented:
    An absolute MUST READ!


  1. Review: The Hanging of Angelique by Afua Cooper | Amy Reads
  2. Connected Worlds: History in Transnational Perspective, co-edited by Anne Curthoys and Marilyn Lake. | Me, you, and books
  3. Recommended historical fiction, memoirs, and mysteries by people of color. | Me, you, and books
  4. Review: The Hanging of Angelique by Afua Cooper | Amy Reads

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