Carleton University Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture

The Postcolonial Politics of Memory in the Hanging of the Black Slave Marie-Angelique

As Canada prepares to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the enactment of the Constitution Act 1867, uniting separate colonies into a single Dominion to be known as Dominion of Canada, we have an opportunity to not only disrupt dominant narratives of celebration but also to reflect in our national history charged with erasure and exclusion. It is the moment to consider those racialized histories that were silenced against settler colonialism, and most importantly, to question and revisit hegemonic narratives of reconciliation. The image of Canada as a progressive nation with its dominant narratives of multiculturalism and reconciliation was built upon heritage of slavery, black imprisonment and slave ownership. Slavery remained a legal practice in most of Canada until was abolished in the entire British Empire in 1834. African slavery in the colonies of New France and British North America existed for over 200 years, yet its history and the involvement of Canada in the African slave trade, remain a profound silence in classrooms and teaching resources. Is it that the exclusion in history of Canada’s slavery, black enslavement and slave ownership shaped Canada as a progressive nation?. My paper uses the case of the hanging of the black slave Marie-Angélique as an investigation of postcolonial politics of memory, examining the black experience as a hybrid negotiation between displaced collective memory and racialized political history.

Questions of identity politics are notably cogent in Canada, opening inquiry into culture, society, geography and its longstanding history of settler colonialism and racialized political history. Canada’s displaced collective memory was clearly built upon a heritage of slavery, black imprisonment and historical erasure. Colonial memory is a constant act of mourning, attempting to atone history deeply marked by conflict and collective struggles rooted in trauma. To think about postcolonial memory is to think of historical reflection as a process that identifies tensions between distance and proximity, knowledge, experience, presence and erasure. By underlining the historical tensions surrounding the conviction of the black slave Marie Angelique and its legacy of political violence, I explore the notions of facialisation and epidermalised difference. Building upon the notion of ‘regime of representation’ by Stuart Hall and Gilles Deleuze in critical race theory, I address Eighteenth-century capitalism as a process of simultaneous unification and differentiation, meditating on how even when histories were erased, they remain as processes of cultural production and signification.

On April 10th, 1734, a fire started on the south side of Saint-Paul Street, Montreal, then spread east of Saint-Joseph Street, burning forty-five houses including most of present-day Old Montreal. Marie-Josèphe Angélique, a black slave, was convicted and tried for setting the fire. Found guilty of a criminal offence, Angélique was tortured and eventually hanged, and her body burned to ashes. In her book Procès de Marie-Josèphe-Angélique (2004), author Denyse Beaugrand-Champagne speculates that the fire was likely accidental, resulting from poorly cleaned chimneys and a cooking fire in the neighbouring house. In contrast, Afua Cooper’s book The Hanging of Angélique (2006) champions that Angélique did start the fire in revenge against her slave owner and as a cover for a failed attempt at escape. This lack of consensus over Angélique’s story speaks more about the historical definitions and internalizations of class, gender and race than the factual and juridical nature of the crime. More specifically, these conflicting interpretations of Angélique’s case reflect the racial anxieties of past and present-day Canadians.

In 2012, the city of Montreal named a public square in her honour, Place Marie-Josèphe-Angélique, 280 years after her death and exclusion from national history. Almost three centuries ago, Marie-Angélique faced the most powerful men in New France, such as established settlers François-Étienne Cugnet and Gilles Hocquart, who guided by internalised perceptions about black people and enslaved Africans, have already found her guilty of the crime, even before he official ruling. As Cooper reminds us ‘There she stood, a lone, marginalized Black woman, facing the most powerful men in the colony. They were separated from her by race, gender, status, and occupation. Some, like Cugnet and Hocquart, had already made up their minds against her. As White men, settlers, rulers, imperialists, slaveholders, and colonizers, these men all had internalized perceptions about Black people and enslaved Africans’ (1). Angélique’s hanging is thus a story about the ways in which racialized thought, victimisation, and differentiation became circulated as surreptitious cultural values by those who define class, gender and race.

Beaugrand-Champagne wrote the first full-length study of Angélique’s trial in 2004, published in Quebec in French, the first rigorous analysis based off of the trial records. The author presents various documents in detail, questioning the court proceedings and questions all the possible culprits. Her conclusions point to the fire being accidental, most likely caused by the young Marie-Manon, a panis slave (slaves of Aboriginal origin), who was cooking next door. Manon apparently spread rumours about Angélique’s rebellious and mischievous personality, perhaps leading to Angélique’s eventual charge. By this account, Manon, who would have been severely punished by her owners had she been implicated in causing the fire, had plenty of understandable motivation for diverting suspicion elsewhere. Moreover, Beaugrand-Champagne believes that the authorities, who were under pressure by an enraged population looking for a scapegoat, took the easy way out and condemned Angélique on the basis of her independent and outspoken character rather then genuine evidence. In 2006, Cooper published a book in English which claims that Angélique did start the 1734 fire as a justified rebellion against her owner. Cooper’s book harshly critiques Canada’s settler society for denying the reality of slavery in its country’s past. She claims the transcript of Angélique’s trial is the first slave narrative from the New World.

Aside from any speculations surrounding Angélique’s trial and conviction, little scholarly attention has been given to the important notions of translation, identity formation, cultural contact, fusion, and disjunction involved in our understanding of Canadian colonial slavery. Returning to Cooper, the author emphasizes the context of Angélique’s story: ‘This, then, was the Montréal into which Angélique came. It was to be the scene of perhaps the greatest drama of her life. In this world, White subordinated Black, men had power over women, and those of high rank wielded authority over the less fortunate. Angélique was disadvantaged on all three counts of race, gender, and social status’ (2). As scholars, activists and artists are heavily invested in postcolonial critiques of race, gender and class, Canadian national history downplay and denies the presence of slavery in the country’s past altogether. This disconnect between academic interest and historical neglect creates points of tension and difference. How do we internalize racial identity based on epidermalised difference, and which mechanisms are at play in normalising race, gender, sovereignty, and, ultimately, identity formation?.

While race and racism extend beyond an epidermal schema, it is nevertheless through this visible differentiation that partialities, national habits and racialized fears are established. The cultural fixation on black visibility blurs everyday forms of identification with racial codes and practices. We need to recast territory and capital beyond the category the social production of face. I believe we need to rethink the category of the face in order to resist the monolithic perspectives of the nation-state, whose habits of facialisation and identification are both complicit in identity formation. Okoth Opondo speaks on this topic, claiming: ‘as a product of faciality, racism operates on the logic of the same and propagates waves of sameness until those who resist identification have been wiped out (or those who only allow themselves to be identified at a given degree of divergence). Consequently, faciality and racism do not operate through essentialising opposition marked by binary categories such as black / white or self / other. Instead, the faciality machine presents racial difference as a range of deviations from the dominant standard – the Christ, White-Man face’ (3).

Eighteenth-century capitalism was a process of simultaneous unification and differentiation. Its features included the globalization of the colonial empire, the imposition of a unitary world time, and a single integrated economic system, all achieved at the price of the dislocation of peoples and cultures. This paradigm of unification dominated discourses of hybridity, forcing incompatible entities to grow together. Colonialism’s legacy, I believe, materialized an increasing anxiety surrounding racial difference, racial amalgamation, and enforced migration, and we still operate within these legacies of violence and corruption today. Stuart Hall calls for an analysis of how regimes of representation operate, claiming we should:’ Properly understand the traumatic character of the colonial experience. The ways in which black people, black experiences, were positioned and subjected in the dominant regimes of representation were the effects of a critical exercise of cultural power and normalisation’ (4).

The history of Angélique’s hanging and Canadian slavery do not exist separately from Atlantic trading complex heightened by Portugal’s Prince Henrique. Through the expeditions financed by Prince Henrique, Portugal monopolized the Atlantic trade for over a century. The historical domination and success of the Atlantic trading system—based on the exploitation of slaves, gold, and spices—generated high profits for the Portuguese crown. ‘Angélique’s story, of course, is part of the story of Portuguese trade, and particularly its trade in human flesh’ (10). Not only did Portuguese trade raid the African coastline by shipping close to a million Africans from the West African shores to Portugal, Spain and the newly discovered American colonies, it also inaugurated a new regime of power through representation, marking, and classification. Hall dwells on the systems of power at play: ‘Power, it seems, has to be understood here, not only in terms of economic exploitation and physical coercion, but also in broader cultural or symbolic terms, including the power to represent someone or something in a certain way-within a certain ‘regime of representation’. It includes the exercise of symbolic power through representational practices’ (5).

The presumed positivity of the supposed post-racial era following Barack Obama’s administration naively glosses over the history of racialized violence, physical oppression, and historical erasure in North America; the past conveniently forgotten. Why are major historical events at the forefront of collective memory when other moments stand in the distance? Does history remember some events at the expense of others? Unfortunately, this conflict between remembering and forgetting does not have a resolution. The reciprocal relationship between remembering and forgetting affects both the perception of historical experience and the production of historical narratives. On this topic, Anderson Ray questions: ‘A persistent historical question remains inadequately addressed: why did markers of racial difference excite such a profound arousal of imaginative and violent energy on the part of white oppressor groups?’ (6). Such a question offers multiple entry points to critically examine the manifestations, discourses, epistemologies and policies of colonial heritage. To situate critical heritage as a process of cultural production and reproduction in relation to the past and aimed at the future, is to understand heritage not as an intrinsic quality possessed by objects, places or practices, but rather as a relational valuation of objects, spaces, narratives and practices, between the past and the present. In the wake of Canada’s celebratory narratives of reconciliation, it is imperative to promote critical interventions in postcolonial memory and heritage, while simultaneously questioning the uneven power relations that conventional practices of heritage seem to reinforce, between those that remember and those that are forgotten.


(1) Cooper, Afua. The Hanging Of Angelique. Harper Perennial. ibook. Chapter 11, para 52. 2006.

(2) Cooper, Afua. The Hanging Of Angelique. Harper Perennial. ibook. Chapter 5, para 38. 2006.

(3) Sam Okoth Opondo, Sam. ‘Cinema–Body–Thought: Race-habits and the Ethics of Encounter’ in Saldanha, Arun and Jason Michael Adams, eds. Deleuze and Race. Edinburgh University Press, 2013. P. 251.

(4) Hall, Stuart. ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ in J. Rutherford (ed.) Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. London: Lawrence and Wishart. 1990. P. 225.

(5) Hall, Stuart. ‘The Spectacle of the ‘Other’ in Hall, Stuart (ed.) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. SAGE Publications Ltd. 2003. P. 259.

(6) Anderson, Kay. The Racialization of Difference: Enlarging the Story Field. The Professional Geographer, Vol 54 (1), 2002. P 26.