Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Conflagration! Fire destroys Montréal’s lower town in 1734 by donalee Moulton

                                                       Click here for purchase information.

My new book Conflagration! follows the arrest, trial, and execution of Marie-Joseph Angélique, an enslaved black woman accused of burning down Montréal’s merchant quarter more than 250 years ago. Here’s where it all started.


 The soldiers are beating a warning on drums that can be heard throughout the streets. Soon troops are running through town with buckets, ladders, shovels. The town crier can be heard in the distance. He says only one word, over and over and over.


My boots are on, and I am heading out the door. It is the law. All able-bodied men must report to the scene of the conflagration to assist. I take a cloth to wrap around my mouth. The smoke is starting to fill the streets, and it will be intense the closer I get to the blaze.

I turn to kiss Madeleine goodbye. She has a shawl on. “Where are you going?”

“With you.”

“Absolutely not. You can’t fight a fire.”

“But I can help those in distress.” With that my wife and my unborn child are out the door and heading down rue Saint-Antoine. I look at her retreating back, proud and perturbed.

We follow the crowd, the drums, and the voice of the town crier to rue Saint-Paul. The street is in flames. The de Béréy house is consumed. It was only yesterday I stood inside that home, admired its design and its furniture, spoke with its owner.

We form a brigade; bucket after bucket after bucket of water is passed and poured on houses that line both sides of the street. To no avail.

In less than three hours it is over. The fire has won. More than forty homes are gone. Gone. Reduced to black ash, burnt stubs of wood, and tar, from the water that was tossed everywhere in a futile attempt to squelch the flames.

Also burnt to the ground – again – is the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal. The sisters who run this convent and hospital are outside helping those who have sought refuge. A few buildings remain to offer sanctuary including a private courtyard, a small chapel, and a garden. People gather here, at what is often considered to be the heartbeat of Montréal. Mercifully, no one is seriously hurt. No one has died. But families are without homes, their servants and slaves displaced. Businesses destroyed. I see the Panis slave from the de Béréy house and the servant girl who answered the door. They are drinking tea; others are drinking sweetened brandy. They all look past me.

Neighbors and nuns are handing out blankets and offering comfort. Fortunately, the night is mild, wrapped now in a layer of damp smoke. I look from across the street at the human remnants of the fire, at the sisters who scurry to lend aid, at the neighbor woman who holds a child while its mother consoles another. I lock eyes with the neighbor woman through the heavy haze. I know those eyes.


* * *

We start to make our way home slowly. Our bodies are heavy; our hearts carry the same load. I have never experienced a fire like this. We have been warned, of course, but those warnings pale in comparison to the reality. There is solace only in knowing that we did all we could as a community. I wonder, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, if we did all we legally could have done. But that is a question for another time. Now is the time to mourn what has been lost.

I hold Madeleine’s hand. We are about to leave rue Saint-Paul behind us when we hear banging of the drums. François Roy, the town crier, has an announcement. It is perhaps more devastating than the debris and ash that surrounds us.

Marie-Joseph Angélique, Black slave of Thérèse de Couagne de Francheville, set the town of Montréal on fire.

Before there is time to think, to absorb this news, a man in the hospital courtyard turns to the slave woman at the centre of the firestorm. He, too, accuses her of setting the fire, insists everyone knows this. I see people nod their heads. I anticipate their will be trouble.

There isn’t. Marie-Jospeh Angélique confronts her accuser. There is no vacant stare, no deference here. No one, she says, would be so stupid as to light their own home on fire.

There is merit in the argument. I wonder if it is an argument that would win out in a court of law. I will soon find out.



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