Arts

5 things you should know about Marie-Joseph Angélique, a Black Canadian slave who inspired this play

Angélique, a dramatic retelling of a critical moment in Canadian history, is on now at Factory Theatre.

Angélique, a dramatic retelling of a critical moment in Canadian history, is on now at Factory Theatre

(L-R): France Rolland, Jenny Brizard, Karl Graboshas in a scene from Angelique. (Photo: Andrew Alexander/Courtesy of Factory Theatre)

Angélique, now on stage at Toronto's Factory Theatre, is an imaginative and dramatic retelling of a critical moment in Canadian history. Quite by accident, I happened to be sitting in the audience on the 285th anniversary of the incident that inspired the play.

On April 10, 1734, a massive fire blazed through Montreal destroying homes, shops, warehouses, a hospital and a convent. The suspected arsonist was an enslaved Black woman named Marie-Joseph Angélique, and she was sentenced to death for her alleged crime. I say "alleged" because although she was convicted, and even though she confessed, unanswered questions still linger.

If you live in Canada and you've never heard her name, blame your province's education system and this country's commitment to shying away from the ugly and difficult parts of our history. As Mike Payette, the director of Angélique so poignantly asks in the show's program: "What is it about Quebec and Canada which feeds the denial of our sordid history of oppression?"

That denial has been nurtured and perfected for centuries and has created the perfect foundation for a contemporary blindness. There is an unwillingness to recognize the ways that racist oppression continues to shape our every day. Written by the late playwright Lorena Gale more than 20 years ago, Angélique is a much-needed history lesson that feels urgently necessary in this cultural and political moment.

In celebration of the production, here are five things you should know about the woman whose name has been woefully left out of Canada's history.

Olivier Lamarche and Jenny Brizard in Angelique. (Photo: Andrew Alexander/Courtesy of Factory Theatre)

Yes, slavery was alive and well in the North

We all know about the Underground Railroad and the North Star and the fact that Canada was seen as a haven for many enslaved Black people in the United States. I definitely remember reading that paragraph in my Grade 10 history book. But this fact was left out: that slavery also existed here. It lasted for more than 200 years and kept both Black and Indigenous people in shackles. Some of this country's founding fathers were slave owners. And contrary to the ludicrous idea that there can be benign forms of slavery, the play Angélique illustrates a much more realistic depiction of the sexual and physical abuse that those without freedom endured.

Slavery finally ended here not because of a push by enlightened Canadians but rather because it was abolished by the British Empire in 1833, 99 years after the death of Marie-Joseph Angélique.

It seems weird to say this about a historical figure, but...Ms. Angélique was kind of a badass

The details of Angélique's life are difficult to know. She never had the chance to write her own story or provide her own perspective. Her only documented words come from the court transcripts of her case.

These transcripts also include witness testimonies about her character and behaviour. What they tell us about Angélique is that although she was enslaved, she spoke her mind on numerous occasions — and that included expressing her deep hatred of slavery. She argued and challenged her mistress. Some even claimed that Angélique threatened to "roast" her.

In the play, we get to meet a vibrant, passionate woman who rebelled against a reality that refused to let her realize her dreams. She yearned for freedom and attempted to claim it for herself when she tried to escape. On the eve of the fire, Angélique ran away with her lover, a white French man named Claude Thibault who worked in the same household as an indentured labourer. Angélique hoped to find her way back to her birthplace, Madeira. On that Portuguese island she experienced more love, joy and freedom than she ever found in Canada.

Jenny Brizard and PJ Prudat in Angelique. (Photo: Andrew Alexander/Courtesy of Factory Theatre)

We'll never know the truth

Angélique was found guilty of setting fire to her mistress's house and subsequently causing the destruction of 45 other buildings. However, no one saw her light the blaze. The evidence brought against her was all circumstantial and she maintained her innocence throughout the two-month trial.

In the play, Angélique is innocent. Instead, it's her lover Claude Thibault who started the fire as part of a plan to help them escape. Thibault eventually deserts Angélique when he realizes how difficult life on the run with a Black woman would be.

In the book The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal, historian Afua Cooper argues the opposite, reminding us of Angélique's deep hatred for her mistress, her desire to escape slavery and her dream of leaving the Americas. Writes Cooper: "Arson was a tool of resistance commonly used by enslaved Africans throughout the length and breadth of the Americas. If Angélique set the fire, she must have felt she had nothing to lose. And she would have been right. As a slave, she was alienated from society; as a slave, she was the lowest of the low. Perhaps she set the fire to cover her tracks while fleeing and wreak vengeance upon Montréal as a bonus."

Torture and public executions: Yes, we had those in Canada too

Before Angélique's execution, she was put through a final interrogation in an attempt to extract a confession and force her to reveal her accomplices. She was tortured with something called brodequins, or the "laced boots," a device that was originally used in Europe during the Middle Ages. It left Angélique's knees and legs crushed, and it was while being tortured that she "confessed" to her crimes.

Despite the incredible pain she must have endured, Angélique never gave the judge, the notary, the physician, the priest, the guards — or any of the other men who stood watching her suffer —  the name they were looking for: Claude Thibault.

Following her torture, Angélique was dressed in a white chemise embroidered with the word "incendiaire" (arsonist) and taken on a procession through Old Montreal to the gallows where she was hung. Her corpse was left there for hours as a message to all who passed by.

Jenny Brizard and Karl Graboshas in Angelique. (Photo: Andrew Alexander/Courtesy of Factory Theatre)

Marie-Joseph Angélique the muse

Angélique may have been written out of the history books, but artists in this country continue to be inspired by her life.

Her story has been reimagined in multiple  novels. It's inspired songs, a short film and plays — including the one that's currently on stage in Toronto. And although Afua Cooper's The Hanging of Angélique is a history book, it should be noted that the historian is also a dub poet.

Angélique. Featuring Jenny Brizard, Chip Chuipka, Olivier Lamarche. Written by Lorena Gale. Directed by Mike Payette. Presented by Factory and Obsidian Theatre Company. To April 21. Factory Theatre, Toronto. www.factorytheatre.ca

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.