Remembering The Radical Resilience of Marie-Joseph Angélique & Chloe Cooley

There are sounds and stories that can never be unheard. Once they enter your subconscious, they take up residence and refuse to leave. It’s the phenomenon we now refer to as something “living rent-free” in your brain. On September 10, 2019, I heard something that has been squatting in my psyche without a cent paid ever since. 
It happened during the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of Harriet starring Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman. There’s a moment in the film when Tubman, the hero who freed hundreds of enslaved Black people via The Underground Railroad, finally reaches Canada after an emotionally taxing and physically brutal journey. When she crosses the border into St. Catharines, ON, the theatre, which was hush with a silent reverence until then, erupted into applause — a big chunk of the room literally started cheering like they had just seen the Toronto Raptors win the NBA Finals. And of course, as I looked around, the faces I saw clapping vigorously were white.
A Black girlfriend of mine who was also at the premiere can’t get the sound of Canadian white people cheering like they had done something during a story about slavery out of her head either. Two years later, we still text each other about this baffling moment. 
It’s not that Canada didn’t play an integral role in Tubman’s story, or that it didn’t become a safe haven for enslaved Black Americans seeking freedom. It’s that this Canadian connection to slavery is the one this country loves to claim. White Canadians would rather clap for a narrative that paints this country as an exceptional saviour than face the reality that Canada’s story of slavery isn’t all freedom and heroics. The clapping in that theatre stays with me because I know that many of the people in that room cheering for Canada’s virtue can probably easily rattle off a watered-down version of Harriet Tubman’s story and yet have no idea of the names or stories of the Black enslaved women who never found freedom within our borders.
I would bet they don’t know two names that I think about often: Marie-Joseph Angélique and Chloe Cooley. Their stories have also been on my mind since the moment I heard them. Both of these women hold as important a place in Canadian history as Tubman. On Emancipation Day, it’s these two women who I am choosing to remember — for their perseverance, courage, and defiance under unjust circumstances in a country that not only stripped them of their humanity when they were alive, but that too-often willfully ignores their place in history. 
You should know Marie-Joseph Angélique’s name. Not just because I have written about her before, but because her story reveals the horrific truth of slavery in Canada and also showcases the radical resistance of an enslaved Black woman. For too long, the image of enslaved people we were sold was one of compliance and subservience. There’s this ignorant misconception that accompanies stories of slavery that claim Black people didn’t fight back. Angélique’s life stands in opposition to that myth. She was born around 1705 in Portugal and is said to have been sold into slavery in her early teens. At 20, she was bought by a French merchant named François Poulin de Francheville who forced her to Montreal. When he died, Angélique was left to his widow, an evil woman named Thérèse de Couagne.
The details of Angélique’s life during her enslavement in Montreal are murky but what we do know is disturbing. She is believed to have given birth to three children who she was forced to have with another enslaved Black man Jacques César, but all of them died in infancy. Throughout this time, Angélique had a secret lover, a man named Claude Thibault who was a white indentured labourer from France
In 1733, Angélique asked for her freedom. The aforementioned widow denied this request and understandably, our girl Angélique was furious. According to Afua Cooper’s 2006 book The Hanging of Angélique, she “went on a small reign of terror in the household,” which included “talking back to her owner” (the audacity of a Black woman to use her voice!), and threatening to “roast” everyone in the house (she said what she said!). A year later, Thérèse de Couagne was planning to sell Angélique to another slave owner who was then going to sell her to the West Indies. When Angélique found out about the sale, she loudly threatened to burn shit down, along with de Couagne. She and Thibault tried to run away to Portugal (after setting fire to her bed) but they were caught in Chambly, Que. When they returned to Montreal, Thibault went to jail and Angélique went back to boldly yelling that she would burn her slaveowner's house down. 

Marie-Joseph Angélique’s “burn it all down” energy has become an enduring emblem of Black resistance and the fight for freedom.

In April 1734, someone did burn a bunch of shit down in Montreal. Property was destroyed, including 46 buildings, and Angélique was accused of arson. She initially denied setting the fires until she was brutally tortured in her jail cell (Google medieval torture instrument the brodequins at your own risk) and coerced into confessing. Still, Angélique refused to give up Thibault even though the judges believed they set the fires together. She also continued to deny her arson charges throughout the historic trial. Ultimately, Thibault fled, leaving Angélique to face her guilty verdict alone (proving that, historically, men are trash). She was sentenced to “have her hands cut off and be burned alive,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia but her sentence was reduced to torture, death by hanging, then burning. How generous. I don’t mean to be flippant about the gruesome facts of Angélique’s death, but they are so egregiously unjust and proof of the reality of slavery in Canada, there’s no use sugarcoating their heinousness. 
It’s important to remember that Angélique’s enslavement, torture and killing were all legal, part of the institution of enslavement in Canada that existed for over 200 years. It’s understandable then if she did set the fires, it was as a defiant act of rebellion against a system that brutalized her. But it’s just as believable that Angélique was used as a scapegoat for the crime, since she was poor, Black, enslaved, and an easy target. There’s also the theory that Thibault set the fires himself, then ran when he realized Angélique would take the fall, which is what playwright Lorena Gale posits in her 1998 play, Angélique. We will never know the truth, but Marie-Joseph Angélique’s “burn it all down” energy has become an enduring emblem of Black resistance and the fight for freedom.
I like to think that Angélique’s spirit lived on in Chloe Cooley, an enslaved Black women in Upper Canada (now Ontario) whose life and struggles, almost 60 years later, would help lead to the first legislation in Canada to restrict the slave trade
We don’t know as much about Cooley’s life before enslavement or exactly what it was like leading up to the fateful incident that solidified her place in history, but we do know that she was a fighter. Cooley was enslaved by a man named William Vrooman, who fled to Canada after the American Revolution. After legislation passed that would make it illegal for newcomers to Canada to enslave others, and that any enslaved people born to an enslaved mother would be free by age 25 (that’s a lot of caveats instead of just, you know, freeing all Black people), Vrooman was scared he was going to lose Cooley, whom he viewed as his property.
On March 14, 1793, Vrooman sold Cooley to a slaveowner in America, where these convoluted amendments to slavery did not exist. Cooley was beaten, bound, and forced onto a boat which would cross the Niagara River to New York. She screamed and resisted the whole time. “Chloe Cooley does not go quietly. It takes three men to tie her up and throw her in a boat. Once on the American side she screams and resists again,” official documents from 1793 state of the incident.
Because of Cooley’s loud resistance to her violent kidnapping, multiple witnesses, including Peter Martin, a free Black Loyalist, and William Grisley, reported what they saw to Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe and the Executive Council of Upper Canada. Cooley had no rights and was considered “chattel’ in the province so she could not defend herself in court, but the council did resolve to “put an end to the violent removal of slaves.” Charges laid against Vrooman were dropped but not before he stated in a petition that he sold Cooley and considered her as his property, so he had done nothing wrong. 

“Chloe Cooley does not go quietly. It takes three men to tie her up and throw her in a boat. Once on the American side she screams and resists again."

official documents from 1793
Before the incident, Cooley had long protested her enslavement. Records say she behaved in “an unruly manner”  — stealing Vrooman’s property, refusing to “work” for free and frequently leaving her slaveowner’s property without permission. (I like to think Cooley and Angélique would have been friends.) After Cooley was sold to a new owner in the U.S., the records of her stop. We don’t know where she ended up or if she ever found freedom. However, her legacy lives on in The Act To Limit Slavery of 1793. Simcoe, an abolitionist (but still a colonizer), used Cooley’s incident as a catalyst to enact legislation to abolish slavery in Upper Canada. Simcoe’s Act did not actually free any enslaved people in the province but it was the first and only piece of legislation to limit enslavement in the British Empire until Emancipation Day in 1834. 
Like Angélique’s, Chloe Cooley’s story is a testament to the resilient spirit of Black women and the ways in which enslaved people pushed back against their inhumane circumstances. She’s also a reminder that enslaved people in Canada not only existed, but many actually escaped to America for freedom long before the Underground Railroad. Slavery was restricted in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and the northeastern part of Minnesota in 1787 so Black enslaved people in Canada used to cross over to Detroit, for example, to escape bondage. For the people who didn’t flee, like Cooley, resistance through fighting back, speaking up and being boldly themselves in the face of their oppressors was their own form of freedom. 
I think about Marie-Joseph Angélique and Chloe Cooley a lot because they were both deemed “unruly” women for daring to defy the tyranny they were subjected to. As we continue to fight for the freedom of Black and Indigenous women in this country, I choose to channel the spirits of Angélique and Cooley who refused to accept their fates without causing a ruckus. Their lives stand in stark contrast to the feel-good fallacy that Canada is inherently good or safe or superior to our neighbours south of the border. They kicked, screamed and set fire (allegedly) to any delusions of Canadian moral superiority. They’re the ones who deserve a standing ovation. 

More from Politics