Opposition to Slavery in New France
Ages 14-18

MysteryQuest 16

Opposition to Slavery in New France

Author: Stanley Hallman-Chong

Editor: Ruth Sandwell

Series Editor: Roland Case


A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 14-18

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During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Canada maintained a practice of slavery that forced people of Aboriginal and African descent to endure captivity and servitude. Many people at that time saw slavery as a natural social condition for certain peoples. However, there appear to be few records explicitly documenting that other people were, like us, opposed to slavery.

It is important to appreciate why it is not easy to find or interpret evidence about citizens in New France who opposed slavery. Since people who opposed slavery were in a minority, they may have been reluctant to talk openly about their beliefs. In addition, it may be difficult for us in the present to understand the historical reasons why people objected to slavery. We reject slavery because of the injustice and inequality involved in legally “owning” another person and taking away their basic human rights and freedoms. But the equality of all human beings was not always accepted; those living in earlier times may have had reasons for opposing slavery that differ from ours.

Can we find evidence in the historical documents on the Angélique website that establishes that some people in New France objected to slavery? If so, can we determine whether their reasons were the same or different from our reasons for rejecting slavery?

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In this MysteryQuest, you will take on the role of a person living in eighteenth century New France who is against slavery. However, your opinions are in the minority and you fear that raising such issues in public may cause trouble for you. Instead, you will write a letter to your family explaining why you are against slavery and why they should free the slaves they have in their house.

First, you will read about life in New France. You will also learn to make inferences from the evidence you find here about the thinking of people in New France who opposed slavery. Finally, you will construct a dialogue between yourself — the conscientious objector — and your family, explaining why you are against slavery.

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STEP 1: Learn about life and slavery in New France

Your first step is to learn more about life in the early eighteenth century in the colony of New France. Endorsed by the King of France, the practice of slavery was confined mostly to domestic duties in the cities. Go to the “Secondary documents” section of Evidence in the Case and read the two accounts listed there. These documents, written by historians, provide an overview of the story of Angélique, an enslaved African accused of burning down Montreal in the Great Fire of 1734. Angélique was found guilty, tortured until she confessed, and then publicly executed. As you read about the trial you will gain insight into daily life in French colonial society.

STEP 2: Draw inferences based on evidence

The historians who wrote the two accounts you just read were able to do so because they could piece together clues obtained from primary documents to develop a picture of what happened in the past. In other words, they were able to make inferences or draw conclusions from historical documents. Let us see how well you are able to draw historical inferences from a primary source.

On the activity sheet Relationship of a Mistress and her Enslaved Servants you will find a number of questions related to a letter written by a woman (named Élisabeth) to her son. To answer the questions, read the letter describing the relationship between a mistress (the female head of a house) and her slaves.

Record the specific information (the “facts”) you find in the letter that relates to each question on the chart and then make inferences about each question. The first question is done for you as a sample. This question asks what we can learn from the letter about Élisabeth. We can see that the letter is written by Élisabeth. This information allows us to infer that Élisabeth can write and perhaps that she has some education. When we draw inferences we must be careful not to reach conclusions that cannot be justified by the facts in the document. For example, we can infer from the letter that Élisabeth is somewhat educated but we do not know how much education she has or whether she went to school.

STEP 3: Look for evidence of conflicts

Once you have drawn inferences about the letter from Élisabeth, you are ready to examine a more difficult primary source — a legal decree from the chief economic administrator in the government. Read the document Ordinance by Intendant Raudot on the subject of slavery in Canada, April 13, 1709.

Use Finding Evidence of Social Conflict to direct your reading. Read the document twice — the first time to get a preliminary understanding of it. Next, read the questions in the “What do you know about this document?” column on your chart. Then re-read the document, looking for evidence to answer the questions from which you can make inferences. Record your evidence in the question column and then make inferences from your evidence.

STEP 4: Closely examine the document

Now that you have a general understanding of the document, use Concerns about Slaves to look more carefully at the document for possible evidence that some people in the eighteenth century objected to slavery. In this chart, the text from the document has been re-written into smaller paragraphs to help you understand each part. You are asked to re-write the passage in your own words to help you identify what is being said. Your next task is to try to think of questions or clues that might hint at the reasons why people opposed slavery. The answers to the first passage are done as an example for you. First summarize the passage, then think of questions that come from reading the passage, and finally, make an inference about each passage.

Although the document talks about what objectors have done, we are not sure that the writer is telling the truth. However, by considering the context of the document (that is, the circumstances surrounding it, its purpose, and understanding the intended audience) you may draw conclusions or inferences about the beliefs and concerns of people who objected to slavery in New France.

STEP 5: Prepare your historical objection to slavery

Using the evidence you found above for the existence of objectors and the kinds of objections some people had to slavery in the eighteenth century from the documents, write an historically informed, realistic letter to your family. From the perspective of an eighteenth century person objecting to slavery in New France, write 200 to 300 words, explaining why you are against slavery and why your family should free the slaves they own. Be sure to include how your beliefs and values are different from those who support slavery. Also, explain how you see the conditions of people who are enslaved. You may wish to describe the thoughts and feelings of people who are bought and sold in slave markets.

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The evaluation rubric Assessing the Evidence and Inferences may be used to assess how well you were able to identify relevant statements from the historical documents and draw plausible inferences from them.

The evaluation rubric Assessing a Persuasive Presentation may be used to assess your success in creating a letter that is written from the perspective of an eighteenth century person and which is supported with clear use of evidence.

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Learn more about the society of New France
Go to Archives and the “Slavery” section of Society on the Angélique website to learn more about slavery in New France. Gather evidence and make inferences about the role of slaves in the economy of New France.

Find out more about arguments for and against slavery
The following two documents contain arguments for and against slavery in New France:

Summarize their arguments for and against slavery and compare them to your own reasons for opposing slavery.

Learn more about opposition to slavery
For more information about opposition to slavery you may use the link below to read quotes from Philippe You de La Découverte's criticism of selling slaves in New France: http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=35711&query=Comanche%20AND%20Pierre

Make a list of reasons why opposition to slavery was not widespread.

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Activity Sheet: Relationship of a Mistress and her Enslaved Servants

Activity Sheet: Finding Evidence of Social Conflict

Activity Sheet: Concerns about Slaves

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Secondary documents


The Trial in Context

Primary documents

Letter: Élisabeth Rocbert de la Morandière, dite Madame Bégon, on the subject of her slaves, December 25, 1748

Colonial Correspondence: Ordinance by Intendant Raudot on the subject of slavery in Canada, April 13, 1709