Code Noir

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A frontispiece of the Code Noir, from the 1742 edition. Le Code Noir 1742 edition.jpg
A frontispiece of the Code Noir, from the 1742 edition.

The Code Noir (French pronunciation:  [kɔd nwaʁ] , Black Code) was a decree passed by the French King Louis XIV in 1685 defining the conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire. The decree restricted the activities of free people of color, mandated the conversion of all enslaved people throughout the empire to Roman Catholicism, defined the punishments meted out to slaves, and ordered the expulsion of all Jews from France's colonies. The code's effects on the enslaved population of the French colonial empire was complex and multifaceted. It outlawed the worst punishments owners could inflict upon their slaves, and led to an increase in the free population. Despite this, enslaved persons were still subject to harsh treatment at the hands of their owners, and the expulsion of Jews was an extension of antisemitic trends in France. Free people of color were still placed under restrictions via the Code Noir, but were otherwise free to pursue their own careers. Compared to other European colonies in the Americas, a free person of color in the French colonial empire was highly likely to be literate, and had a high chance of owning businesses, properties and even their own slaves. [1] [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

Codes governing slavery had been established in many European colonies in the Americas, such as 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 in the Americas were enslaved. 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.

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 Edict of 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]

In 1681 the king ordered the creation of a legal status for black people in the American islands, and asked Jean-Baptiste Colbert to write it. Colbert delegated this task to the Martinique intendant, Jean-Baptiste Patoulet, replaced in July 1682 by Michel Bégon, and the governor-general of the Antilles, Charles de Courbon, count of Blenac (1622–1696).

A royal memorandum to Colbert, dated 30 April 1681, shows the need of an Antilles-specific ordinance when there were no slaves in metropolitan France, due to a decision of 11 July 1315 by Louis X.

At this time, there were still at least two common law status applicable in Martinique: French status, the Custom of Paris , and aliens one.[ clarification needed ] Soldiers, nobles, and clergy had specific status. Additionally, the Edict of 28 May 1664 established the French West India Company which applied to American islands which superseded the Compagnie de Saint-Christophe (1626-1635) and the Company of the American Islands (1635–1664).

Native people known as Indiens caraïbes had French status with the same rights as French people, although only after their baptism into the Catholic religion. It was forbidden to enslave them.

Two sources of people were planned for: native people and people of French origin. The 1664 edict did not plan for either slaves or the import of Black people.

After the West India Company went bankrupt in 1674, its insular territories reverted to the Crown lands.

Decisions of Martinique's sovereign council remedied the absence of law related to slavery: in 1652, it extended the probition on requiring domestic workers to work on Sundays also apply to slaves; in 1664, it required them to be baptised and given religious education. [10]

The edict of 1685 recognized 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 its 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 inhabitants of the colonies, 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 to 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. [13] [ full citation needed ]

From the 18th century, Code noir referred to codification of related texts.


Code Noir of 1742, Nantes history museum Code noir - Nantes museum.jpg
Code Noir of 1742, Nantes history museum

In 60 articles, [14] the document specified the following:

Rules about religion

Rules about sexual relations and marriage




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 enslaved population of Saint-Domingue (now the Republic of Haiti). It is mentioned during the main story of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and has its own database entry in the game which provides background on the Code Noir.

Further reading

See also

Related Research Articles

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  1. Stark, Rodney (2003). For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery. Princeton University Press. p. 322. doi:10.2307/j.ctt1287k58. ISBN   9781400866809. JSTOR   j.ctt1287k58.
  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. Oppenheim, Leonard (1940). "The Law of Slaves: A Comparative Study of the Roman and Louisiana Systems". Tulane Law Review . 14: 384–406.
  6. Watson, Alan (1989). Slave Law in the Americas. University of Georgia Press. ISBN   9780820311791.
  7. Baade, Hans Wolfgang (1983). "The Law of Slavery in Spanish Luisiana, 1769-1803". In Haas, Edward F. (ed.). Louisiana's Legal Heritage. Pensacola: The Perdido Bay Press. ISBN   9780933776128.
  8. Palmer, Vernon V. (1998). "Essai sur les origines et les auteurs du Code Noir". Revue internationale de droit comparé. 50 (1): 111–140.
  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. The royal instructions written by Colbert stated that the law is slavery was "new and unknown in the kingdom".
  12. Pope Paul II, Veritas ipsa , 1537.
  13. see Virtual Museum of New France
  14. "The 60 articles of the Code Noir". Liceo Cantonale di Locarno. Archived from the original on 4 March 2007.
  15. 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.