{ subscribe_url: '/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/law.php' }

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.


  1. Diane M
    February 14, 2016 at 11:57 pm

    The very first article of the Code Noir: I. Decrees the expulsion of Jews from the colony. All articles should be mentioned here in good faith.

  2. Jovon Clement
    August 22, 2016 at 10:15 am

    Why is there so little information about the Bonaparte Family (Napoleon) they ruled a very long time yet the united states only recognizes the Louisiana purchase which according to our information does not accurately show the boundaries of the Territory Napoleon kept. New Orleans is one example he did not give that to the united states. It seems like because his wife was multi-race and his living decedents are African American and there has been a grave injustice bestowed upon this family.

  3. Presley Wilson
    October 19, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    Where on earth are you getting you information Jovon Clement? Joséphine de Beauharnais was NOT of mixed race. She grew up In Martinique on a slave plantation, but her family owned it and was without a doubt white. Also, what proof do you have that his decedents are African American? There are currently NO American decedents of Napoleon living, so that claim falls flat on it’s face. New Orleans WAS absolutely included in the Louisiana Purchase, it was in fact the US’s main reason for making the purchase. The Le Code Noir that this article is mainly about was around for many years, most of which were long before the time of the Bonaparte’s. You are claiming racism in a situation where it could in no way apply. There are millions of cases of racial injustice, but this isn’t one of them. I suggest you get your facts straight before spewing lies and false accusations.

  4. Bah-soumalet
    December 29, 2016 at 4:06 pm

    Now that the slavery is perceived by all as a crime against humanity, the victim ( Africa) must be compensate. That is the only one way the West can repair its atrocities.

  5. K.L. Penegar
    July 10, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    Could this piece be amended to describe the actual process of ‘re-inslavement’ by Napoleon between 1803 and 1848? Give all the risings and unrest around 1790 to 1795, the process could not have been orderly or even complete.

    Thank you

  6. K.L. Penegar
    July 10, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    Could the author follow up with some description of how the ‘re-enslavement’ of Napoleon proceeded from 1802.

    Given all that happened in the 1790s, in the so-called Caribbean Revolution,
    it would appear that returning number freedmen to the condition of slave would be daunting and doomed to continual resistance. What in fact happened?

  7. nyikundiyukuri marcel
    November 9, 2017 at 2:58 am

    the social inequality have it’s source to white man.
    some of them may know to respect each other.
    their mindset need to know what is evil to them and keep it to others.
    if it respected social conflict can ended with us.

  8. Sam
    December 4, 2017 at 9:00 pm

    Social inequality has deep roots in Africa! Africans sold their brothers for gin among other things. What happened in America’s dark part of history is just a bit of what is happening today in Africa and Asia. Quit blaming the white man!!! Thanks

  9. steffi
    April 19, 2019 at 5:01 pm

    To answer K.L. Penegar’s question about “reenslavement” –what happened is that both freedmen and ex slaves left the islands and immigrated to Baltimore, New Orleans and other cities.

  10. Marcel
    June 23, 2019 at 7:30 am

    You have to blame the white man, because everything that has created main stream benefits in America and areas of french dominance is a direct line of slavery. They didn’t have to reinvent and change the truth in the process. Africa was thriving before colonization. Hatred, and the lack of trading skills provoked folks to invent a justified slavery.

  11. Charles Coleman-Bey
    July 28, 2019 at 9:42 am

    Code Noir is the oldest and its methods were adopted by all colonizing companies/countries. This is denationalisation of people which is a world crime. Thus the grouping of the denationalized persons known as blacks, negroes, Hispanics, African-American and even American. These are all misnomers and are not the Nationalities of the people carrying these labels. Know they self and the crimes of your oppressors.

  12. Andy Hunt
    August 19, 2020 at 10:11 am

    I have been to what has now been renamed Kunta Kinteh island (formerly St Georges Island) in The Gambia. The horror or the Slave trade is still present. Look carefully and you will find beads ripped from the Slaves so that they would have no possessions what so ever. Yet when we went, as a white European family, there was no hostility towards us. There is a small museum on the Northern bank of the river where the story of the slave trade is explained. It was the indigenous folk and the slave traders that worked hand in hand to supply the slaves . Slave traders did not walk in and capture the, soon to be, slaves it was their own people, perhaps different ethnic groups probably. But defiantly there was a symbiotic commercial relationship between the native captures and the traders.

  13. WhyYallLikeThisLikeForRealBro
    October 24, 2020 at 11:06 pm

    Why are there obvious racists in these comments bro? White people did a bad thing, stop trying to make excuses. Yes slaves were sold, did you consider the people selling them were scared too? And even if hypothetically their intentions were malicious, they didn’t sell them because they were black, they weren’t the ones who massacred them, they weren’t the ones who tortured them, discarded their corpses like poorly written notes. Either own up or shut up.

  14. David OHara
    February 4, 2021 at 10:21 am

    Napolean’s attempt to reimpose slavery in Haiti is well known as are the atrocities committed in that attempt. They tried to exterminate all existing slaves so they could repopulate the island with “uncontaminated” slaves from Africa. They drowned slaves by the thousands and even experimented with gassing them in th holds of ships in which they burned sulfur.
    In the USA we don’t teach much about the Haitian revolution but we should. You rarely hear about black men standing up to the slave masters but in this case they did so successfully and should be remembered forever for it.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.