Code Noir

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The Code Noir, 1742 edition.

The Code Noir (French pronunciation: ​ [kɔd nwaʁ], Black Code) was a decree originally passed by France's King Louis XIV in 1685. The Code Noir defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire, restricted the activities of free Negroes, made Roman Catholicism compulsory, and ordered all Jews out of France's colonies.

The Code Noir governed many blacks in an often harsh slavery, but did not relieve the brutality of that slavery in many areas under French control. In some areas it resulted in a higher percentage of blacks being free people of colour than in the British system (13.2% in Louisiana compared to 0.8% in Mississippi [1]). Those freed were placed under restrictions by the Code Noir but on average they were exceptionally literate, with a significant number of them owning businesses, properties and even slaves. [2] [3]

The code has been described by Tyler Stovall as "one of the most extensive official documents on race, slavery, and freedom ever drawn up in Europe". [4]

Context, origin and scope

International and trade context

At that time France was in competition with England which still had the Barbados Slave Code.

At this time in the Caribbean, Jews were mostly active in the Dutch colonies, so their presence was seen as an unwelcome Dutch influence in French colonial life. Furthermore, the majority of the population in French colonies were slaves. Plantation owners largely governed their land and holdings in absentia, with subordinate workers dictating the day-to-day running of the plantations. Because of their enormous population, in addition to the harsh conditions facing slaves (for example, Saint Domingue has been described as one of the most brutally efficient colonies of the era[ citation needed]), small-scale slave revolts were common. Despite some well-intended provisions, the Code Noir was never effectively or strictly enforced, in particular regarding protection for slaves and limitations on corporal punishment.

Legal context

Leonard Oppenheim, [5] Alan Watson [6] or Hans W. Baade [7] were wrong to consider roman law was the basis of this new law. In fact, this new law is based on the codification of previously applicable usages, decisions and rules used at that time in the Antilles.

This was shown by a Vernon Valentine Palmer study [8] which described the process which led to the Édit de 1685 : 4 years, with draft and preliminary reports and the project of 52 articles, and king's instructions, known by documents in public French archives [9]

The king decided in 1681 the creation of a legal status for black people in the American islands, and asked Colbert to write it. Colbert gave the mission to the Martinique intendant, Jean-Baptiste Patoulet, replaced in July 1682 by Michel Bégon, and the gouverneur général des Antilles Charles de Courbon, comte de Blenac (1622-1696).

A king's Mémoire to Colbert, dated 30 April 1681, shows the need of an Antilles specific ordinance when there is yet no more slaves in France, due to 11 July 1315 Louis X le Hutin decision.

At this time, there were still at least two common law status applicable in Martinique : French status, la Coutume de Paris, and aliens one. Soldates, nobles, or religious had specific status. Additionally, the Édit du 28 mai 1664 established the Compagnie des Indes occidentales which applied to Américan islands which superseded the Compagnie de Saint-Christophe '1626-1635) the Compagnie des îles d'Amérique (1635-1664).

Native people known as Indiens caraïbes had French status with same right than French people, only after their baptism in the catholic religion. It was forbidden to make them slaves.

Two sources of people were planned for: natural people and French origin people. The 1664 Édit did not plan for neither slaves nor the import of Black people.

After the Compagnie française des Indes occidentales bankrupt in 1674, its insular territories come back into the Crown lands.

Martinique Conseil souverain decisions answered the absence of law related to slavery: in 1652, it considered the probition to make domestic workers work on Sundays also apply to slaves; in 1664, it required their baptism and catechism involvement. [10]

The Édit de 1685 recognize those slavery practices incompatible with both (metropolitan) French laws [11] and Canon law. [12]


In his 1987 analysis of the Code Noir's significance, Louis Sala-Molins claimed that its two primary objectives were to assert French sovereignty in her colonies and to secure the future of the cane sugar plantation economy. Central to these goals was control of the slave trade. The Code aimed to provide a legal framework for slavery, to establish protocols governing the conditions of colonial inhabitants, and to end the illegal slave trade. Religious morals also governed the crafting of the Code Noir; it was in part a result of the influence of the influx of Catholic leaders arriving in Martinique between 1673 and 1685.

Versions and territories of application

The Code Noir was one of the many laws inspired by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who began to prepare the first (1685) version. After Colbert's 1683 death, his son, the Marquis de Seignelay, completed the document. It was ratified by Louis XIV and adopted by the Saint-Domingue sovereign council in 1687 after it was rejected by the parliament. It was then applied in the West Indies in 1687, Guyana in 1704, Réunion in 1723, and Louisiana in 1724.

The second and third versions of the code were passed by Louis XV at age 13 in 1723 and 1724.

In Canada, slavery received legal foundation from the king from 1689–1709. The Code Noir was not intended for or applied in New France's Canadian colony.

In Canada, there never was legislation regulating slavery, no doubt because of the small number of slaves. Nevertheless, the intendant Raudot issued an ordinance in 1709 that legalized slavery. see Virtual Museum of New France

From the 18th century, Code noir referred to Codification (law) of related texts.


Code Noir of 1742, Nantes history museum

In 60 articles, [13] the document specified the following:

Rules about religion

  • Jews could not reside in the French colonies (art. 1)
  • Slaves must be baptized in the Roman Catholic Church (art. 2)
  • Public exercise of any religion other than Roman Catholicism was prohibited; masters who allowed or tolerated it by their slaves could also be punished (art. 3)
  • Only Catholic marriages would be recognized (art. 8)

Rules about sexual relations and marriage

  • Children between a female slave and a free man:
    • If the father was else unmarried, he should marry the slave concubine, thus freeing her and her children from slavery [14]
    • Otherwise the punishment would be a fine for both the father and the slave's master. The fine was 2000 pounds of sugar (art. 9)
    • If the father was a slave's master, in addition to the fine, the slave and any resulting children would be removed from his ownership, but not freed (art. 9)
  • Weddings between slaves strictly required the masters' permission (art. 10) but also required slaves' own consent (art. 11)
  • Children born between married slaves were also slaves, belonging to the female slave's master (art. 12)
  • Children between a male slave and a free woman were free; children between a female slave and a free man were slaves (art. 13)


  • Slaves must not carry weapons except under permission of their masters for hunting purposes (art. 15)
  • Slaves belonging to different masters must not gather at any time under any circumstance (art. 16)
  • Slaves should not sell sugar cane, even with permission of their masters (art. 18)
  • Slaves should not sell any other commodity without permission of their masters (art. 19–21)
  • Masters must give food (quantities specified) and clothes to their slaves, even to those who were sick or old (art. 22–27)
  • (unclear) Slaves could testify but only for information (art. 30–32)
  • A slave who struck his or her master, his wife, mistress or children would be executed (art. 33)
  • A slave husband and wife and their prepubescent children under the same master were not to be sold separately (art. 47)


  • Fugitive slaves absent for a month should have their ears cut off and be branded. For another month their hamstring would be cut and they would be branded again. A third time they would be executed (art. 38)
  • Free blacks who harboured fugitive slaves would be beaten by the slave owner and fined 300 pounds of sugar per day of refuge given; other free people who harboured fugitive slaves would be fined 10 livres tournois per day (art. 39)
  • If a master had falsely accused a slave of a crime and as a result, the slave had been put to death, the master would be fined (art. 40)
  • Masters may chain and beat slaves but may not torture nor mutilate them (art. 42)
  • Masters who killed their slaves would be punished (art. 43)
  • Slaves were community property and could not be mortgaged, and must be equally split between the master's inheritors, but could be used as payment in case of debt or bankruptcy, and otherwise sold (art. 44–46, 48–54)


  • Slave masters 20 years of age (25 years without parental permission) may free their slaves (art. 55)
  • Slaves who were declared to be sole legatees by their masters, or named as executors of their wills, or tutors of their children, should be held and considered as freed slaves (art. 56)
  • Freed slaves were French subjects, even if born elsewhere (art. 57)
  • Freed slaves had the same rights as French colonial subjects (art. 58, 59)
  • Fees and fines paid with regard to the Code Noir must go to the royal administration, but one third would be assigned to the local hospital (art. 60)

In popular culture

The Code Noir is mentioned in Assassin's Creed IV: Freedom Cry, as it is mainly set in Port-au-Prince. The Assassin Adéwalé, formerly an escaped slave turned pirate, aids local Maroons in freeing the slaves of Saint-Domingue (now the Republic of Haiti).

It is mentioned during the main story and also has its own database entry in the game which provides background on the Code Noir.

See also


  1. ^ Rodney Stark, "For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery", p.322 [1] Note that the original hardcover contained a typographical error stating "31.2 percent"; this was corrected in the paperback edition to 13.2. This is confirmed by examination of the 1830 census.
  2. ^ Samantha Cook,Sarah Hull, "The Rough Guide to the USA"
  3. ^ Terry L. Jones, "The Louisiana Journey", p.115
  4. ^ Stovall, p. 205.
  5. ^ The Law of slaves: a comparative Study of the Roman and Luisiana System, 1940.
  6. ^ Slave Law in America, 1985.
  7. ^ Law of slavery in spanish Luisiana 1769-1803,
  8. ^ "Essai sur l'origine et les auteurs du Code noir", in Revue de droit international comparé, No. 1, 1998.
  9. ^ Archives de l'Outre-Mer, à Aix-en-Provence, Col F/390.
  10. ^ Cornec (6 September 2019). Un royaume antillais: d'histoires et de rêves et de peuples mêlés. L'Harmattan. ISBN  9782747585897. Retrieved 6 September 2019.
  11. ^ Les instructions du roi rédigées par Colbert rappellent que le droit de l'esclavage est

    nouveau et inconnu dans le royaume

  12. ^ Encyclique interdiction de l'esclavage par le pape Paul III en 1537 .
  13. ^ Full text of the "Code Noir" Archived 4 March 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ Aubert, Guillaume (July 2004). ""The Blood of France": Race and Purity of Blood in the French Atlantic World". The William and Mary Quarterly. 61 (3): 464. doi: 10.2307/3491805. JSTOR  3491805.

External links

  • Le code noir ou Edit du roy (in French). Paris: Chez Claude Girard, dans la Grand'Salle, vis-à-vis la Grande'Chambre. 1735.
  • Édit du Roi, Touchant la Police des Isles de l'Amérique Française (Paris, 1687), 28–58. [2]
  • Le Code noir (1685) [3]
  • The "Code Noir" (1685) (in English), trans. John Garrigus
  • Tyler Stovall, "Race and the Making of the Nation: Blacks in Modern France." In Michael A. Gomez, ed. Diasporic Africa: A Reader. New York: New York University Press. 2006.
  • "Slavery". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on 29 November 2011. Retrieved 7 November 2016.