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Code Noir

The Code Noir, 1742 edition.

The Code noir (French pronunciation: ​, 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 (it included a provision that all slaves must be baptized and instructed in the Roman Catholic religion), and ordered all Jews out of France's colonies. The Code Noir also gave plantation owners extreme disciplinary power over their slaves, including legitimizing corporal punishment as a method of maintaining control. 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."[1]


  • Origins 1
  • Context 2
  • Summary 3
  • In popular culture 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


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

In Canada, slavery received legal foundation from the King from 1689-1709. 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 with regard to protection to slaves and limitations on corporal punishment.


Code noir of 1742, Nantes history museum

In 60 articles,[2] 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)
  • prevented the exercise of any religion other than Catholicism (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 female 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 harbour 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 regards 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 DLC, 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 (present-day Haiti). It is mentioned during both the main story and has its own database entry in the game which provides background on the Code Noir.

See also


  1. ^ Stovall, p. 205.
  2. ^ Full text of the "Code Noir"

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. [1]
  • Le Code noir (1685) [2]
  • The "Code Noir" (1685), translated by John Garrigus, Professor of History [3]
  • 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.
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