Code noir by Colbert (edict on slaves, 1685)

Code noir by Colbert (edict on slaves, 1685)

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Seen as the symbol of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery practiced by France, Code black (or "Edict on the slave police"), established byColbertand which comprises sixty articles, aimed to establish the legal status of slaves in the French Antilles. It was promulgated in 1685, the same year as the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, under the reign of Louis XIV, two years after Colbert's death. Other texts inspired by this will be added for other colonies, and we should therefore speak of Black Codes instead.

The context

It was mainly in the first half of the 17th century that France entered the slave trade and began to massively use slaves for plantations in its West Indian colonies. It was then in competition with its European rivals, such as Spain or the Netherlands, but especially England. The main issue is the cultivation of sugar cane. The aim of the Black Code is to regulate a traffic which was until then largely illegal, and to regulate the status of slaves in the colonies, all for better control of activities and trade, and thus better resistance to competition.

It should be noted, however, that slavery is already contested in metropolitan France, and even normally banned since the Middle Ages. The Code Noir is not registered in the Parliament of Paris. In contrast, for the colonies, slavery is tolerated for "The good of public order" !

Origins of the Black Code and the position of the Catholic Church

This "Edict on the slave police" was largely inspired by what was already happening in the colonies as early as the 1660s. In 1681, Louis XIV requested a report from the Governor General of the American Islands, Blénac. The latter's answers inspire two memoirs in 1682 and 1683, which themselves lead Colbert to write the edict (or Code Noir) of 1685 on the slave police. This therefore provides a legal framework for practices already common in the French colonies.

But the edict of March 1685 originally only concerned the West Indies, and subsequently inspired other regulations applied in other colonies from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 18th century.

Like the different positions of the popes vis-à-vis the slave trade and slavery, the Black Code is contradictory: if, in metropolitan France, a Christian cannot be a slave, in the colonies slaves must be baptized and educated (article 2)… which does not free them for all that. So we have Christian slaves (or Christian slaves). These slaves must not work on Sundays, and sales are also prohibited on this day. Slaves can marry, only with the consent of the master (article 10), who cannot force them to marry (article 11).

Better still, the Black Code ensures that only the Catholic Church deals with slavery in the colonies, by excluding the Jews from the islands and by prohibiting Protestants from public worship (articles 1 to 8), in the logic of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

The master and his slave

Article 44 states "Slaves are movable", but the masters have rights and duties over them. In addition to the obligation to baptize and educate them, they must feed them properly (Article 22), clothe them (Article 25) and care for elderly or sick slaves (Article 27). On the other hand, on the sanction side, the masters have a wide range of possibilities and, in addition to the "objectification" of slaves (which results in the absence of rights such as property, of course), it is indeed the disciplinary aspect. who is the most violent in the Code Noir.

Corporal punishment of all kinds is regulated: A slave can be chained, beaten, marked with a fleur-de-lis with a tin, have his ears cut off, be punished with death ... for many reasons, such as the attempt to flight, the fact of having struck his master, theft, etc. If article 43 frames these punishments and is supposed to punish excessive masters, the real application raises questions. Postage is allowed, but also strictly regulated.

Changes to the Code Noir

First applied to the West Indies, the amended Code Noir affected Saint-Domingue in 1687, Guyana in 1704, Mauritius and Reunion in 1723, Guyana in 1724. That same year, certain measures were worsened: mixed marriages are prohibited, postage made more difficult. On the other hand, the reign of Louis XVI saw a certain relaxation, and above all a stricter control of the actions of the masters. Because if the Black Code gives an idea of ​​the situation of slaves, it is only a legal text and can not tell us anything about the reality - often more violent still - of their condition.

On February 4, 1794, the National Convention "Declares that the slavery of negroes in all the colonies is abolished". This decision, however, has little concrete effect. And, from 1802, the First Consul Bonaparte decreed that "slavery will be maintained [and the slave trade and their importation into the colonies will take place], in accordance with laws and regulations prior to 1789", therefore to Code Noir.


- F. Régent, France and its slaves. From colonization to abolition (1620-1848), Plural, 2009.

- M. Dorigny, B. Gainot, Atlas of slavery, Otherwise, 2006.

- Black Codes. From slavery to abolition (introduction C. Taubira), Dalloz, 2006.

Video: Un trésor de Château: le Code noir


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