small flourish

The Trial in Context

The trial of Angélique immerses us in a world whose physical environment, political system, economy and social structure are unfamiliar to us. The absolutist regime in France had even less tolerance for democracy in its colony, and did not allow freedom of expression. There were no newspapers in Nouvelle-France and the king had forbidden the import of printing presses. Slavery was endorsed by the king and torture was incorporated into the legal system.

This section contains documents that place urban life, society and justice in context. The sub-section entitled “Reference Material” includes a glossary of terms, and an introduction to the personages and places referred to in the documents. The chronology provides a framework of the events surrounding the fire in the city and the trial of Angélique.

At the time, Montréal was still a young city, founded less than 100 years previously. Located at the south-western limit of the Laurentian Plains, Montréal was the departure point for trade and military expeditions to the interior of the country. Montréal was inhabited by allied Amerindians, numerous slaves from enemy nations and a large garrison of soldiers from the Marine troops. The “domestic” nature of the events explains why allied Amerindians are not often mentioned in the documents contained on this site. This domestic aspect placed slaves, both Amerindian and African, at the heart of daily life for the citizens of Montréal, and at the centre of events surrounding the fire itself. Marie dite Manon, a panis slave, and particularly Angélique, a Black slave, were two of the main personages involved in this story. As for the soldiers, they were ever-present background players in the series of events: they called out the guard, they fought the fire, they supervised the execution.

Montréal was therefore more diversified than we might have thought, yet it was also predominantly French-populated. The social structure reflected the class divisions observed in France at the time. Between the elite class that oversaw government and trade and the marginalized people involved in petty crime, ways of life varied immensely. Young girls and married women were placed under the legal tutelage of their fathers or husbands, but the reality of pre-industrial life led many of them to assume a role in the public sphere.

Given that this story begins with the fire of April 10, 1734, it is important to be familiar with the physical layout of the city. The fire itself, as well as the reaction of the citizens to the disaster, causes us to want to better understand how fire was used, and the means employed to contain it within such a densely constructed urban context.

Finally, one can hardly follow the unfolding of Angélique’s trial without any knowledge of the French criminal system. An overview of the administration of this system makes it possible to then provide an introduction to how the actual trial proceedings were conducted, as described at the time. Various officials had a function in the trial process and it is important to know the role played by each one of them. Ultimately, Angélique was given a sentence that might be viewed as excessively cruel. How did it compare with practices prevalent at the time?