Both The Hanging of Angélique and Black Indians discuss what is not commonly discussed, what has been habitually overlooked, what has been deliberately concealed.

They are the sort of non-fiction that compels readers to nudge and/or wake those around them, with a stream of indignant DidYouKnow’s and CanYouBelieve’s.

HarperCollins, 2006

Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angélique

“Anyone desperate to believe that Canada was slave-free, or that Canadian slavery was gentle, must close this book now.”

So states George Elliott Clarke in the introduction to Afua Cooper’s work.

“But those seeking truth, those who want to understand Canada’s settler-barbarism, will find this book impossible to ignore and impossible to forget.”

He’s right: this book is impossible to ignore.

But the subject of slavery in Canada can be ignored — and, indeed has been ignored in classrooms.

I was taught about The Underground Railroad and the route that slaves in the United States followed to freedom in Canada; I was not taught that there was slavery in Canada, too, nor about the kind of persecution that refugees faced here when they arrived, when they were “free”.

Afua Cooper’s book does work to fill that gap, but, first, readers are introduced to Angélique, and brought into the city of Montreal in a very rich passage; Afua Cooper walks the streets, and urges you to walk alongside her (searching for images online can bring particular buildings in Old Montreal off the page even more).

After a brief sketch of Angélique’s trial, readers are whisked back into time, largely to understand the twists and turns in Angélique’s life that brought her, born in Portugal, to Old Montreal.

She may have been born to a woman who was a slave, so that she inherited her status, and she lived within/under four empires during her brief life, enslaved, before she was hanged.

This is where Afua Cooper’s history lesson comes in handy: how Portugal instigated the slave trade, how other nations entered and perpetuated it, the development of colonial territories on the backs of enslaved labourers around the world, the contrasting conditions under which they suffered and resisted and lived and died (which varied according to time and place and circumstance).

So this is the story of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a 29-year-old woman. She took walks by the banks of the river, was friendly with a neighbouring slave girl, and had two love affairs, before she was accused of burning Old Montreal in 1734.

It’s the story of the household in which she worked, the home of the Franchevilles, a married couple of social stature living in a two-storey stone house on rue Saint-Paul in the merchant quarter.

It’s the story of  a colonial city, founded on the principles of hierarchy and patriarchy, having been established in 1642 as a religious mission, Ville Marie de Montréal. “White subordinated Black, men had power over women, and those of high rank wielded authority over the less fortunate.”

It’s the story of communities within that city, like that of Hôtel Dieu, which was a social and military hospital and played an essential role in the region: “The hospital had wards for men, women, and the poor, and the complex also contained a bakery, a drug dispensary, a luandry, a shoemaker’s shop, a small chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a garden and courtyard for the poor, and several outer buildings.”

It’s the story of native peoples, whose lives were fundamentally changed by the conquests of the English and French, who struggled to control the fur trade, the “lifeblood of the colony”.

It’s the story of a fire, when fire “was the nightmare of colonial towns”. Forty-six of Montreal’s buildings were devastated and almost the entire merchant sector was destroyed in 1734.

It’s the story of a trial. “Eighteenth-century prisons were not places of repose. They were meant to put terror in the hearts of evildoers.”

But it’s a story that begins and ends with Angélique.

It’s the story of a woman who maintained her innocence of this crime for two months during her trial. A woman who only confessed after a long period of torture (every word she spoke was, apparently, transcribed). A woman who consistently resisted.

“Angélique’s interrogations and confession form a startling narration of ‘unsilencing the past’, one that ‘re-tongues’ the mouths of Black women and Black people and allows them to shout their narratives of resistance to the high heavens.”

How about you? Did you miss this history lesson in school? Are you thinking of adding Afua Cooper’s work to your reading list?