Review: The Hanging of Angelique by Afua Cooper
Title: The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Montreal
Author: Cooper, Afua
Length: 309 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Publisher / Year: Harper Perennial / 2006
Source: Chapters Indigo
Why I Read It: I heard about this book from Marilyn of Me, You, and Books who has a great review on her site.
Date Read: ?/12/12
An examination of slavery and race in Canada via the historical documentation of the trial of a slave woman in early Montreal, accused of setting a fire which burned much of the city in 1734. The book provides an important voice for early slaves, as the trial was during a time before any currently acknowledged written slave narratives.
The main focus of the book is the life, what little is known of it, of Marie-Joseph Angelique. Through various historical records Cooper was able to pull bits and pieces together, though the main of the details come from the trial transcripts. Through these documents she is able to pull together an engaging story not only about the life of one woman, but about the status of slaves in the early colonies, and the running of the early colonies themselves. The story of Angelique is interesting, but doesn’t provide enough in itself for the entire book. Instead Cooper has used it as a narrative frame around the larger historical issues that the story brings to light.
While race isn’t often a focus of public conversation and study here in Canada, that doesn’t mean that we have achieved any kind of ‘post-racial’ society. As well, just because we like to argue that slavery was ‘better’ or ‘easier’ in Canada does not erase the fact that slavery did exist, and that it was as brutal as it was elsewhere on the continent. Throughout this work Cooper examines the documentation around slavery in Canada, lays out the laws governing slavery, and the misery of those who suffered under them. The fact that slavery isn’t a part of the narrative of Canada is one that Cooper seeks to redress.
For example, in talking about the ways in which Angelique’s story is told in present day by historians she talks about how the silence around race issues causes a distortion of the facts:
“Trudel and his cohorts are all modern Quebec historians, and they may have been influenced by the fact that today one does not examine (publicly) the race question in Quebec unless one is talking about the French and English. These historians refuse to see that Angelique was an enraged woman who wished to run away from enslavement not because of Thibault [romance], but because of slavery itself.” (Page 289)
Through quotes like this, it also a critical examination of what we have previously read or what we encounter written on race relations in Canada. We have to consider – is what we are writing accurate to the historical documents? Could it be clouded by our current perceptions of the past? And so on. Cooper has made a very important contribution to our history shelves.
Highly recommended to all Canadians, and anyone interested in the history of slavery.