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

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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).

The front page of a copy of the Black Code, title in French "Le Code Noir...".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.

Comments (26)

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  15. Le Code Noir ou le calvaire de Canaan (“The Black Code or the Ordeal of Canaan”)
    In an effort to justify this by Biblical scripture, the curse of Cain, did the french view the enslaved Africans as descenders of Canaanites or did they know those being enslaved were Canaanites?

  16. I think we can all agree that slavery was a crime against humanity. For me it’s what was born out of slavery, the total disregard for human life. Yes one can make the argument of the Trans – Atlantic slave trade being a symbiotic relationship between captures who lived on the continent and the traders bringing slaves to the new world. Now that we’ve gotten that out the way let’s dissect these crimes against humanity further.

    Like Europeans see themselves as different and speak many different languages depending on their country of origin so to do people of the African continent. I think the first mistake we make is grouping all of Africa as one, this is at the base of degrading and destroying culture. European countries have been at war for centuries, the same can be said for african countries. The difference is we identify those European countries, they are England and France and Spain, but when we talk about Africa you have to do a little more digging to discover African countries and the languages spoken. What we get is Africa and Africans, in my estimation this is the foundation of dehumanizing an entire ethnic group. By doing this you are creating a situation where it is believed these people have no customs, culture, or traditions; essentially no history. I realize I’m not speaking about the book, but some of the comments seem to justify slavery. Much like capitalism today where people do some really shitty things to people in the name of the all mighty dollar, the Trans – Atlantic slave trade was an economic system where people did some really shitty things to people for the all mighty dollar.

    To be honest slavery or how some try to pass it off as oh well Africans were capturing and selling other Africans isn’t even my biggest gripe, it’s how dismissive people are about slavery being a crime against humanity.

    What was born out of slavery are large populations of people who can’t trace their lineage past the west African coast. What was born out of slavery were governments who allowed the dehumanizing of people to thrive. What was born out of slavery (I’m talking about after it was abolished now) was more than a hundred years of being treated as second class citizens. Any inclination of mass advancement by the descendants of these slaves were utterly destroyed. Why? I think I know why, because these people were so dehumanized in society it was felt by people in the majority this minority didn’t deserve to prosper. I think a simple apology from governments which allowed any crime against humanity to thrive would go a long way to healing wounds.

    One Love people, hope we will get there some day.

  17. Are there online slave registries for the French West Indies? If yes, can someone drop the link.

  18. Where would I obtain additional information of the enslavement of aboriginal peoples during French rule of New France 1535 to 1763 ? Additionally, were slaves from other nations brought to this area during these years ?

  19. Enslavement, no matter where we find it around the globe and to whom it was and is being done to since man was created, is absolutely inhumane. It is still going on TODAY! Where is the outcries concerning this plague on the world? Where is the anger towards the countries committing this atrocity now?
    People across America have acknowledged the inhumane enslavement of the past. We must move on. The enslavement that took place in the French/Spanish Colony was wrong.

    Why hasn’t this system of slavery been taught in the educational system across America other than Louisiana? Doesn’t the rest of America want to know the truth? It’s astounding that only Louisianan’s know of its complexity! It was wrong and in the same vane we must honor the thousands of humans that were caught up in it against their will. We can’t forget how they lived and labored during many years of enslavement. Plantations that still exist today care for the names of those folks they know were there during the Code Noir. They display their names. It’s very likely that the names we know about are the only place in the world that they are remembered. One line across an inventory list almost says it all…

    Instead of outright anger concerning the past, maybe some understanding of everything that happened at that time can be redirected to ridding humanity of it ever happening again! Let’s not ever forget those folks who were living and dying the Code Noir.

  20. African slavery wasn’t just putting someone in chains and saying you’re my slave. There is the physical aspect but the mental slavery can have a lasting effect. How does one say ok you are free to go now. Go where? They have been stripped of culture/names/religion/not allowed to read and will oftentimes pass on the uneducation they received to their descendants and people ask why do blacks not progress. Can be difficult to progress when you have black code laws thru agencies to keep them from progressing. Turned down for jobs/loans
    while enabling other nationalities to succeed. This portion of slavery exists.

  21. The Greek Philosopher Aristotle is attributed with coining the proper relationship between masters and slaves but did not say that slavery should be defined as raiding and kidnapping non-white people in Africa. This practice was condoned by certain European powers who saw “black gold” in African slaves as a way to expand their sphere of influence, power, and control using the Bible, gun, maritime superiority, and horses. The Catholic Church was complicit in what the Portuguese and Spanish did in Kemet as well as Islamists. Black Africans may have traded their slaves, but there was more going on above and beyond trading for liquor, beads and weapons. They had little choice in the matter because they were invaded. The reign of racism/white supremacy still lives on today all over the world but can be overcome if the religious peoples of the world deem it a priority.

  22. “There is a lot of confusion about New Orleans and France and the code noire and slavery. People forget that in 1763, all of Louisiana territory including New Orleans passed in the hands of Spain. New Orleans very briefly passed into the hands of France as part of Bonaparte’s conquest of Spain. When the Spanish took over they were appalled at the degree of persecution of African slaves, people of mixed blood, etc. Much of the socalled liberality imagined in Louisiana, especially small paths to freedom from slavery for some people of African descend which led to the emergence of the socalled Free people of color, many of whom were slave holders, were products of changes that the Spanish established in Louisiana, rather than an expression of how Louisiana was under French rule, or how the enslaved were treated in the other colonies of France in the Caribbean such as Haiti and Martinique and Guadeloupe which remain French colonies.

  23. It’s a promising article, but it’s a shame it falls short from exploring France’s relationship with slavery, namely the great disctincion between how the subject was treated in continental France and in overseas colonies. It fails to portray the fact that the french had tried to curb slavery in france since (at least) the 14th century, but somehow allowed it in the colonies. This is of immense geopolitical significance.
    It also fails to explore the documents provisions to regulate the potential abuse of masters, limiting corporal punishment to practices that were largely applied to free citizens. Even if in practice these regulations were somewhat ineffective it is still an invaluable document to understand the dimension of human dignity and worth towards enslaved people, which ultimately resulted in a general abolition of slavery.

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