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Code Noir

For the Marianne de Pierres novel, see Code Noir (novel).
File:Le Code Noir 1742 edition.jpg
The Code Noir, 1742 edition.

The Code noir (Template:IPA-fr, 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, forbade the exercise of any religion other than Roman Catholicism, and ordered all Jews out of France's colonies.

The Code Noir gave unparalleled rights to slaves. It includes the right to marry, to gather publicly or to take Sundays off. Although the Code Noir authorized and codified cruel corporal punishment against slaves under certain conditions, it forbade slave owners to torture them or to separate families. It also forced the owners to instruct them in the Catholic faith, implying that Africans were human beings endowed with a soul.

It resulted in a far higher percentage of blacks being free people of color (13.2% in Louisiana compared to 0.8% in Mississippi[1]) They were on average 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]


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.

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 then was applied in the West Indies in 1687, Guyana in 1704, Réunion in 1723, and Louisiana in 1724. The second version of the code was passed by Louis XV at age 13 in 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


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), small-scale slave revolts were common. Despite some well-intentioned provisions, the Code Noir was never effectively or strictly enforced, in particular regarding protection for slaves and limitations on corporal punishment.


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

In 60 articles,[5] the document specified that:

  • 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)
  • white men would be fined for having children with slave concubines owned by another man, as would the slave concubine's master. If the man who engaged in sexual relations with a slave was the master of the slave concubine, the slave and any resulting children would be removed from his ownership. If a free, unmarried black man should have relations with a slave owned by him, he should then be married to the slave concubine, thus freeing her and any resulting child from slavery (art. 9)
  • weddings between slaves must be carried out only with the masters' permission (art. 10). Slaves must not be married without their 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)
  • 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 harbor fugitive slaves would be beaten by the slave owner and fined 300 pounds of sugar per day of refuge given; other free people who harbor fugitive slaves would be fined 10 livres tournois per day (art. 39)
  • (unclear) a master who falsely accused a slave of a crime and had the slave put to death 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 husband and wife (and their prepubescent children) under the same master were not to be sold separately (art. 47)
  • 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" [2]
  3. Terry L. Jones, "The Louisiana Journey", p.115 [3]
  4. Stovall, p. 205.
  5. Full text of the "Code Noir"

External links