By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
October is Women’s History Month in Canada. While it can be said that the history of White women is marginalized, the history of African Canadian women is hardly even acknowledged.
African Canadian women have been oppressed and discriminated against based on race, gender and class. Their history in Canada includes enslavement when they were forced by White men and women to work without payment. The enslavement of African women in Canada included being sold away from their loved ones and the buying and selling of their children.
Enslaved African women were also sexually exploited by the White men who owned them and by any White man who took a fancy to do so. Enslaved African women were blamed for the sexual abuse to which they were subjected. The Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire myths were concocted to rationalize the sexual abuse of enslaved African women and girls.
White women physically abused enslaved African women who were sexually abused, blaming them for the abuse by their White husbands, fathers, sons and various other male relatives. There was no empathy or sympathy for the plight of enslaved African women by their free White counterparts.
African Canadian women were not seen as the equal of White women even after slavery was abolished in Canada in 1834. In October 1929 when five White women were immortalized because they fought for women to be recognized as “persons”, their fight did not include rights for African Canadian women. The images of African Canadian women have been controlled by White people from enslavement to now. The stereotypes abound including the Jezebel, Mammy and Sapphire images which have been used to degrade and subordinate African Canadian women since slavery.
Most Canadians do not know of Canada’s history of enslavement of Africans even if they know of America’s history of slavery. The stories are often told of enslaved Africans in the USA fleeing to freedom in Canada on the Underground Railroad. Until Dr. Afua Cooper published in 2006 The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal very few Canadians knew about Marie-Joseph Angélique. She was an enslaved African woman who was owned by Thérèse de Couagne de Francheville in Montréal in 1734 after de Francheville’s husband died. Marie-Joseph Angélique was part of Monsieur de Francheville’s estate when he died in 1733 and she was inherited by his widow. On April 10, 1734 a fire destroyed half of Montréal. It was alleged that Angélique committed the act while attempting to escape her enslavement. She fled but was pursued, captured and tortured until she confessed then she was hanged.
The arrest, torture (including having her legs crushed) and hanging of Angélique is a story that tells of the legal institution of slavery in Canada which lasted for more than 200 years. Following the court’s decision that she was guilty, the sentence included these instructions: “And everything Considered, We have Declared the Said accused, Marie Joseph Angelique Sufficiently guilty And Convicted of Having set fire to the house of dame francheville Causing the Burning of a portion of the city. In Reparation for which we have Condemned her to make honourable amends Disrobed, a Noose around her Neck, and carrying In her hands a flaming torch weighing two pounds before the main door and Entrance of the parish Church of This city where She will be taken And Led, by the executioner of the high Court, in a Tumbrel used for garbage, with an Inscription Front And Back, with the word, Incendiary, And there, bare-headed, And On her Knees, will declare that She maliciously set the fire And Caused the Said Burning, for which She repents And Asks Forgiveness from the Crown And Court, and this done, will have her fist Severed On a stake Erected in front of the Said Church. Following which, she will be led by the said Executioner in the same tumbrel to the Public Place to there Be bound to the Stake with iron shackles And Burned alive, her Body then Reduced To Ashes And Cast to the Wind, her Belongings taken And Remanded to the King, the said accused having previously been subjected to torture in the ordinary And Extraordinary ways in order to have her Reveal her Accomplices.”
Angélique, who had been born into slavery in Portugal was sold more than once before being bought by de Francheville and had her name changed a few times. It is possible that Angélique did not set the fire but was an ideal scapegoat for the crime: she was an enslaved African woman, a foreigner and a social outcast. As an enslaved person, Angélique had no rights that the White citizens or government would recognize. Angélique has been described as “assertive, rebellious and incorrigible”.
In the USA, a White man, Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright, invented the mental disease “drapetomania” which he asserted was a condition from which enslaved Africans suffered if they resented or resisted their enslavement.
Almost 59 years (March 1793) after Angélique was executed in Montreal another enslaved African woman described as “defiant” and “unruly” made history. On March 14, 1793, an enslaved African woman, Chloe Cooley, “fiercely resisted” her sale by United Empire Loyalist Sergeant Adam Vrooman, a resident of Queenston, Upper Canada. Cooley struggled physically and vociferously as Vrooman violently bound her with ropes and threw her into a boat before transporting her across the Niagara River to be sold in New York State.
Cooley resisted fiercely, causing Vrooman to require the assistance of two other men; his brother Isaac Vrooman and one of the five sons of Loyalist, McGregory Van Every, a number of whom served with their father in the Butler’s Rangers. Her struggle for freedom was the reason the “Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada, 1793” was enacted (July 9, 1793) by John Graves Simcoe who was Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada from 1791 to 1796.
The “Act to Limit Slavery” did not abolish slavery because Africans were enslaved in Canada until August 1, 1834.
Peter Martin, an African man who came to Canada as a member of the United Empire Loyalists and veteran of Butler’s Rangers, witnessed Cooley’s struggles and screams and along with a White witness, William Grisley, reported the incident to Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe and the Executive Council of Upper Canada. Grisley, who lived at Mississauga Point and was employed by Sergeant Vrooman, was able to provide a detailed account of Cooley’s sale as he was on the boat that transported Cooley to New York but he did not assist in the brutalizing of Cooley.
The history of African Canadian women like Marie Joseph Angélique, Chloe Cooley, Peggy Pompadour, Rose Fortune and Sylvia Estes Stark must be included during Women’s History Month.
The title of a book that was published in 1994 comes to mind as I think of the history of African Canadian women: We’re Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us up: Essays in African Canadian Women’s History.