Canada’s Forgotten Slaves

a review by Peter McCambridge


The same might be said, perhaps, of any history book, but upon reading Marcel Trudel’s meticulous though free-flowing Canada’s Forgotten Slaves, it appears the historian has two main weapons: the well-chosen anecdote and the revealing statistic. Indeed, this flood of information can be so overwhelming at times that we may catch ourselves skimming over a table and thinking for a moment, “Only two aboriginal slaves in 1696, only one black slave in 1705,” until we come to our senses and remember that it’s people we’re dealing with here, people who were bought and sold at auction like animals.

Canada’s Forgotten Slaves, first published in 1960 and translated into English only in 2013, focuses on unearthing the facts. No excuses are sought and none are made. We learn that slavery in Canada was far less widespread than in the United States: there were 4,200 aboriginal and black slaves in Canada between 1632 and 1834, versus 5,000 slaves in Louisiana in the year 1746 alone. Yet slavery was practiced in New France and elsewhere in what is now Canada, a fact that still may come as news to many. It was this news that led to historian Marcel Trudel being “virtually banished by the Catholic Church” from teaching at Université Laval in Quebec City when his study was first published. As George Tombs notes in his translator’s preface:

“Canadians have long seen slavery in terms, above all, of the Underground Railway, that clandestine network of forest and waterside paths by which Quakers, black freedmen and other human rights advocates smuggled runaway American slaves northwards to liberty in the early nineteenth century. As many as a hundred thousand slaves escaped to Canada. But for some strange reason, while congratulating Canadians for offering refuge to these fugitives, generations of historians maintained a virtual conspiracy of silence about slaves owned and exploited, bought and sold, by Canadians themselves.”

Trudel’s work shows that “men and women at every level of French and English Canadian society owned slaves, from farmers, bakers, printers, merchants, seigneurs, baronesses, judges and government officials to priests, nuns and bishops.”

We discover, for instance, that the first slave we can positively identify was brought to New France by David Kirke in 1629. He might have been from Madagascar, or perhaps from Guinea. He was sold on to a French trader, given to Guillaume Couillart in 1632, and subsequently went to a school run by a Jesuit missionary. He was baptized in 1633, briefly arrested in 1638, and appears in the official records one final time, when he was buried as Olivier Le Jeune in Quebec City on May 10, 1654.

New France Map

Courtesy Les éditions du Septentrion

And so it goes on, as Trudel – despite the many obstacles in his way – gives names and faces to this steady trickle of numbers. Bishop Saint-Vallier had a slave, we learn, along with the likes of Marguérite d’Youville, later canonized by Pope John Paul II, and James McGill, founder of McGill University… in 1689 Louis XIV granted permission to the people of Canada to own black slaves… two thirds of slaves were aboriginals while one third were black… one slave was acquired in return for a bottle of whiskey… a slave named Joe escaped his owner no fewer than seven times… a certain Louis-Antoine voluntarily became a slave out of love… and in 1798 Chief Justice William Osgoode, based in Montreal, “refused in principle to convict a slave charged as a runaway, ruling that in future he would free every slave brought before his court.”

Statistics and lively details such as these mostly get the better of my hyperlink-addicted brain, while the research and groundbreaking nature of the work is impressive. And, despite an occasionally jerky forward narrative – as Trudel’s many facts, curiosities, and numbers begin to pile up – George Tombs’ GG-nominated translation ensures that the read is virtually always smooth going. Less so, when we pause to consider the issue at hand. ≈



From Canada’s Forgotten Slaves

by Marcel Trudel
≈ translated by George Tombs (Véhicule Press, 2013)

The most spectacular crime by a slave in New France was surely the one committed by the black woman Angélique (also known as Marie-Joseph-Angélique). She was the slave of a Montreal merchant, François Poulin Francheville, and had been baptized on June 28, 1730, at about twenty years of age: by then, she was pregnant by César, a black slave belonging to Ignace Gamelin. In January 1731, she gave birth to Eustache, and in May 1732, she had twins by César. Angélique then seems to have dropped this first lover for a white man, Claude Thibault.

Yet a cloud hung over this romantic relationship: in 1734 she figured that her mistress, Thérèse Decouagne (Widow Francheville), was getting ready to sell her. Angélique therefore decided to flee to New England with her lover. On the evening of April 10 or 12, 1734, she set fire to the house of her mistress in rue Saint-Paul, before fleeing, either to divert attention from her flight, or in a spirit of revenge. The house soon became a raging inferno. The neighbours realized their own homes were threatened by the advancing flames, so they rushed to move their furniture and effects to the nuns’ residence at the Hôtel-Dieu. But the flames leapt from one house to the next, finally reaching the Hôtel-Dieu, and burning both church and convent. The nuns were unable to save much – this was the third fire to strike the Hôtel-Dieu. The fire continued to spread through the city and by the time it stopped, forty-six houses had been destroyed. During the conflagration, Angélique had ample opportunity to flee with her beloved.

But the long arm of the law caught up with her. Angélique was apprehended by officers of the constabulary, although her lover escaped. She was jailed and tried by the court in the still-smouldering city of Montreal. Her sentence came down on June 4:

She shall make amends naked in her shirt, with a rope about
her neck, holding in her hands a burning torch weighing two
pounds in front of the main door and entrance to the parish
church of the city of Montreal, where she shall be led and
conducted by the hangman of the high court in a cart used
to carry off refuse, bearing a sign both in front and behind
marked with the word arsonist, and there, bareheaded and
kneeling, shall declare that she maliciously set and caused
the said fire for which she grievously repents and begs
forgiveness from God, the king and justice, after which she
shall have her hand cut off and raised on a post planted
in front of said church, and then be conducted by said
hangman in the refuse cart to the public square, there to be
attached to the post with an iron chain and burned alive,
her body reduced to ashes and scattered to the winds.

In the minds of the victims, this sentence was in proportion to the magnitude of the crime: the black woman would first be subjected to the most exacting and detailed interrogation under torture, then paraded in a refuse cart, compelled to make amends before the parish church, have her hand cut off, then be burned alive.

Angélique appealed to the Conseil supérieur, which meant she had to be conveyed to Quebec City. On June 12, the Conseil upheld the death sentence, although it changed important aspects of her punishment: the black woman would still be conducted in a refuse cart to the door of the parish church, there to make amends, but her hand would not be cut off; in addition, on reaching the public square, she would be hanged before burning. The Conseil took account of the black woman’s partial responsibility for the disaster in Montreal. And she was led back to Montreal for the execution of her sentence, at the scene of the crime and in full view of the indignant population.

On June 21, Angélique was tortured in prison in Montreal. She confessed her crime, but only after four bouts of torture, courageously refusing to denounce any accomplice. At three o’clock in the afternoon, the clerk reached the prison and read out her sentence; the Sulpician priest Navetier heard her confession, after which Angélique was handed over to the executioner, likely the black man Mathieu Léveillé. She was conveyed on the refuse cart to the parish church, where she made amends; after this ritual ceremony, the refuse cart continued on to the public square, making a long detour past the burned houses in order to confront her with the magnitude of her crime. Once this funeral procession was over, the slave Angélique was hanged, her corpse burned, and the ashes thrown to the wind.

Meanwhile, the search continued for her lover, Claude Thibault. On April 19, 1734, nine days after the conflagration, Intendant Hocquart ordered the captains of militia to arrest Thibault who was suspected of having set the fire in Montreal along with Angélique. But Thibault had a nine-day advance on the militia captains and could not be found. Two years later, in April 1736, the king authorized the intendant to stop looking for the alleged accomplice to avoid “incurring further costs related to the affair.”


Canada's Forgotten Slaves

Marcel Trudel

trans. George Tombs

Véhicule Press, 2013