19 Years a Slave: The story of Marie Marguerite Rose

Posted Jan 13, 2015

As she wiped counters, poured drinks and counted out change in her very own tavern, Marie Marguerite Rose often stopped to think about how far she had come.

She was born in Africa in the early 18th century and was either stolen or traded to North America. No one knows what her original name might have been, but at the age of 19, she had been reduced to slavery. The young woman “belonged” to Jean Chrysostome Loppinot, a French officer posted in Louisbourg on Île Royale (modern-day Cape Breton Island).

It was customary at the time for slaves to be baptized and given a French name, so they were deprived of their identity. She was now to be called Marie Marguerite Rose, and her past was gone. Her future would centre around serving the Loppinot family, which included 12 children.

Slaves like Marie Marguerite Rose were a common sight across Canada, with more than 1,330 of them spending their days fetching, mending, cooking and cleaning. There were more than 350 slaves on Île Royale alone, mostly at the Fortress of Louisbourg.

When she was 21 years old, Marie Marguerite Rose gave birth to a baby boy. Since it was unclear who the child’s father was, the baby became a de facto slave. He was responsible for performing domestic duties in the Loppinot home alongside his mother.

After the fall of Louisbourg, Marie Marguerite Rose and her son accompanied the Loppinot family to Rochefort, France. She remained in servitude to them, even though slavery was not permitted in France. She and her son returned to Louisbourg in 1749 with their masters, but her son tragically died just two years later, at the age of 13.

Shortly after her son’s death, Marie Marguerite Rose’s life began to change drastically. After 19 long years of servitude in the Loppinot family, she was emancipated – finally free to live her own life – at the age of 38.

In the fall of 1755, Marie Marguerite Rose married a fellow free man, Jean-Baptiste (or Jean-Pierre) Laurent – who was likely a Mi’kmaq. To help support her new husband, she decided to become an innkeeper. After choosing the perfect spot in Louisbourg at the corner of Saint-Louis Street and Place d’Armes, near the barracks, she proudly started her business.

Marie Marguerite Rose’s tavern proved to be very successful, although sadly she lived for just two years after opening the doors. Before her death in 1757, Marie Marguerite Rose managed to become part of the group of merchants in the capital of Île Royale, which was an incredible accomplishment in itself.

Today, visitors can see a special display at the Fortress of Louisbourg that celebrates the life of Marie Marguerite Rose. Unlike the slaves in most colonies in New France, she was able to become emancipated, marry a free man who was not a part of her cultural community, and become a successful merchant in Louisbourg.

A selection of her inventory can be seen onsite at the Fortress of Louisbourg, and serves as a reminder of her strength and determination.