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MY Black History: Fire Starter

February 18, 2011

“C’est moi! It’s me and no one else. I want to die. C’est moi.”

Leveille hammered a second time, while Raimbault shouted to Angelique to name her accomplices.”Let me die, monsieur. No one advised me. No one helped me set the fire.” Angelique repeated the same thing on the third strike, and the fourth shouted,”Hang me! I did it. I did it by myself.” Thus ended la question ordinaries. Angelique had broken under torture. She had confessed to setting the fire. Her knees and legs were crushed, and she was at the point of passing out. The doctor gave her medicines to revive her. But the judge would not relent…Raimbault signalled to Leveille to continue the torments. The Torturer inserted a wedge and smashed it with his hammer on Angelique’s knee. Her screams echoed through the halls and rooms of the jail, escaped their confines and pierced the stillness of the early morning.

From “The Hanging of Angelique” by Afua Cooper

Canadian black history is wrapped up in the underground. Above ground all I was taught was about the glory that is the Underground Railroad. It is a spectacular story but the only story that I knew about black Canadian people for a long while. Finding truth requires a fair amount of digging and one of the first black Canadian stories that I had to dig for was the story of Marie-Joseph Angelique.

In my last year of high school I had the privilege to see Lorena Gale’s stage-play Angélique performed by a visiting theatre group at our school. The experience was beyond words. The all white cast used a simple stripe of colour across their faces to distinguish their races (black for Black characters and red for Metis characters). The acting, music and set design were beyond anything I’ve seen before but what truly stayed with me that night was that the play was based on a true story.

Marie Joseph Angelique was accussed of  setting fire to her owner’s house and was tortured and hung in 1734. This story returned to me again, years later through the words of Afua Cooper. Her book “The Hanging of Angelique” is a testament to the oldest slave narrative in Canada. After 15 years of research, accurately depicting gruesome details from documents over 300 years ago, Cooper gives a historically accurate account Angelique’s life and the thriving slave trade in and among Canada.

I thank both these women for bringing this story.
This is one Fire Starter I can not forget.

For more about Angelique’s story click here.

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