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Slavery in the French Colonies: Le Code Noir (the Black Code) of 1685

The following is a guest post by Nicole Atwill, Senior Foreign Law Specialist.

The Black Code tells us a very long story that started in Versailles, at the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, in March 1685 and ended in Paris in April 1848 under Arago, at the beginning of the ephemeral Second Republic.  In a few pages, with the aridity that befits the seriousness of laws, it tells us of the life and death of those who, in fact, do not have a history.  In five dozen articles, it marks the road that was followed by hundreds of thousands, millions of men, women and children whose destiny should have been to leave no trace of their passing from birth to death. (p. 7) (Translation by the author of this post).

This first paragraph of Le Code Noir ou le calvaire de Canaan (“The Black Code or the Ordeal of Canaan”) by Louis Sala-Molins perfectly conveys the substance of the Black Code.  I first reviewed the Black Code a few years ago when I helped a reader.  The Law Library owns a 1742 edition that is part of our Rare Book Collection.  I did not know much about it and wished to study it when I found time – thankfully, this blog gives me the opportunity to do so.

Although published two years after his death, the Black Code is usually attributed, at least in spirit, to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the famous Minister of Louis XIV.  Colbert, known as a great financier, the founder of the French Navy, and the reorganizer of French commerce and industry, was also a remarkable jurist (as noted in the book Great Jurists of the World).  He was at the origin of the codifying ordinances adopted during the reign of Louis XIV such as the Civil Ordinance, the Criminal Ordinance, the Commerce Ordinance, and the Navy Ordinance.  The Colonial Ordinance of 1685, best known as the “Black Code,” was the last one to be prepared during his Ministry and may have been completed by his son, the Marquis de Seignelay.  Although subsequent decrees modified some of its provisions, the gist of the Code remained in place until 1848.

The Code’s sixty articles regulated the life, death, purchase, religion, and treatment of slaves by their masters in all French colonies.  It provided that the slaves should be baptized and educated in the Catholic faith.  It prohibited masters from making their slaves work on Sundays and religious holidays.  It required that slaves be clothed and fed and taken care of when sick.  It prohibited slaves from owning property and stated that they had no legal capacity.  It also governed their marriages, their burials, their punishments, and the conditions they had to meet in order to gain their freedom.

Although some may have seen the Black Code as an improvement over existing law at that time, many condemned it in very strong terms.  Voltaire wrote that “the Black Code only serves to show that the legal scholars consulted by Louis XIV had no ideas regarding human rights.”  Robert Giacomel, a French attorney, called the Black Code a crime against humanity in his book Le Code Noir, autopsie d’un crime contre l’humanité (“The Black Code, Autopsy of a Crime against Humanity”).  Sala-Molins, who taught political philosophy at the University of Toulouse and at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, referred to it as “the most monstrous legal document of modern times” and only a weak barrier to the master’s tyranny.

Slavery was abolished in France on February 4, 1794.  The decree stated: “The Convention declares the slavery of the blacks abolished in all the colonies; consequently all men irrespective of color living in the colonies are French citizens and shall enjoy all the rights provided by the Constitution.”  Unfortunately, none of the implementing measures were taken, and slavery was reinstated by a decree of July 16, 1802, while Napoleon Bonaparte was First Consul.  It was definitively abolished by a decree of April 27, 1848, on the initiative of Victor Schoelcher.  The Black Code had remained in force for 163 years.

On May 10, 2001, the French Parliament adopted Law 2001-434 known as the “Taubira law,” after the deputy who introduced it before the National Assembly (click on “Les autres textes législatifs et réglementaires” and enter the law number).  Its first article provides as follows:

The French Republic acknowledges that the Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trade on the one hand and slavery on the other, perpetrated from the fifteenth century in the Americas, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and in Europe against African, Amerindian, Malagasy and Indian peoples constitute a crime against humanity.

In addition, the law required the introduction to the school history curriculum of courses on slavery and the establishment of a Slavery Remembrance Day to ensure that the “memory of this crime lives forever in future generations” (Articles 2, 4).  Former President Jacques Chirac chose May 10th as the commemoration day.

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