Sunday, 15 September 2013


Habitation Clement - Martinique
Earlier this year my travels took me to two former French colonies, Louisiana and Martinique. At both places my interest in history took me to the plantations of the French colonial masters and they shared several things in common - sugar, slavery, unspeakable cruelty and “Code Noir”. The grand antebellum mansions of the Mississippi and  the elegant facades of the island plantations were built on the blood and misery of the slaves. 

Oak Alley, Louisiana

The Code Noir (or The Black Code) was an edict of Louis XIV issued in 1685 (for the French possessions in the Antilles and introduced into Louisia in 1724) ostensibly to control the treatment of black slaves in the French colonies. Prior to the French colonisation of the Carribbean there was no history of slavery in France so the acquisition of slaves in the new colonies meant that their colonial masters had no guidance as to how slaves should be managed. Drafters of the code may have looked to Roman law for a starting place. By the mid seventeent century the number of slaves in Haiti, for example, well outnumbered their white masters (almost exceeding that number imported into Brazil). Slave unrest and minor insurrections were not unknown. 

The true purpose of the Code Noir goes deeper than just the control of the slaves. It is about France asserting her authority in her colonies and securing the sugar trade and to do that she needed to make sure the opposition was out of the way. In her Hoydens and Firebrands post on 14 April this year (17th-century Jews: Carving a Place in the New World), Patricia O’Sullivan wrote about the persecution of the Jews in the seventeenth century and you may wonder what this has to do with The Code Noir and the Louis XIV. The very first of the 60 or so Articles in the code, expels Jews from the French islands. As Patricia noted the Jews had a strong presence in the Dutch colonies of the West Indies and their presence within the boundaries of the French colonies was seen as an unacceptable Dutch influence.

The second article decrees that all slaves had to be baptized into the Roman Catholic church. The practice of the slaves taking their masters surnames came into being. The third article forebade the practice of any other religion other than Roman Catholocism. Its my observation from having poked around the museums of Louisiana and Martinique that it is from this insistence on Roman Catholic practice comes the strange hybrid of voodoo - an amalgam of catholic practice and the ancient animist religions of the slaves themselves. The slaves gave lip service to their new, imposed religion while continuing their own worship practices. Only Catholic marriages would be recognised within the colonies (Article IV) and only Roman Catholics could own slaves

From the 4th Article on the subject narrows to that of the treatment of slaves. The articles cover the marriage of slaves, the children born of slaves or children of their white masters. Children between a male slave and a female free woman were free ; children between a female slave and a free man were slaves.

Slaves were prohibited from owning or carrying weapons. Slaves of different masters were prohibited from gathering together. They were forbidden to sell sugar but they could sell other commodities with the permission of their masters. Slaves could pass under their masters wills and used as payment for debts but they could not be mortgaged. Salves could be freed and freed slaves were to be considered French citizens with the same rights as French colonial masters.

Scars from whipping

Some protections were included.  Married slaves and their young children were not be sold separately. Masters had to give their slaves food and clothes even those who were old and sick. A master who falsely accuse a slave of a crime, for which the slave was put to death would be fined. Masters who killed their slaves would be punished but masters could chain and beat their slave but may not torture or mutilate them. Masters could not force slaves to marry against their wishes, masters had to bury slaves properly (baptized slaves in a holy cemetery) and slaves who were being “barbarously” treated could report their masters

However for slaves who transgressed, punishment was  severe. Execution for a slave who struck their master, mistress or children. Recaptured fugitive slaves would have their ears cut off and be branded with a fleur de lys on the shoulder. A second transgression led to their hamstring being cut and being branded again. A third time meant death. Free blacks who aided fugitive slaves would be fined 300lbs of sugar per day of refuge and they would be beaten. 

The final two articles of the Code state:
Article LVIII. We declare their freedom is granted in our islands if their place of birth was in our islands. We declare also that freed slaves shall not require our letters of naturalization to enjoy the advantages of our natural subjects in our kingdom, lands or country of obedience, even when they are born in foreign countries.

Article LIX. We grant to freed slaves the same rights, privileges and immunities that are enjoyed by freeborn persons. We desire that they are deserving of this acquired freedom, and that this freedom gives them, as much for their person as for their property, the same happiness that natural liberty has on our other subjects.

In all the Code Noir contains 60 articles. It is high in rhetoric but the reality in Haiti, Martinique, Louisiana and all the far flung French colonies was that it was probably more honoured in the breach than the observance. Displays in the museum in Martinique show scenes of unspeakably cruel and barbarous punishments being inflicted on slaves, long after the introduction of the Code Noir. 

This is one such example: “In Léogâne in 1772, a Haitian woman named Zabeth, her story recorded, lived a not uncommon life and death. Rebellious, like many, from childhood, she was chained for years when not working, chased and attacked by dogs when she escaped, her cheek branded with a fleur de lis. Zabeth was locked up in a sugar mill for punishment. She stuck her fingers in the grinder, then later bit off the bandages which stopped the flow of blood. She was then tied, her open wounds against the grinder, where particles of iron dust poisoned her blood before she died. Her owner lived unconcerned across the sea in Nantes.” (from Haiti’s Agonies and Exultations by Ramsey Clark)

France descended into the  turmoil of the French Revolution in 1789 and in August 1791, the slaves of St. Dominigue rebelled under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture. The ripples from this rebellion touched the shores of every slave owning nation and in 1794 the Assembly of the First Republic abolished slavery by law in France and all its colonies and granted civil and political rights to all black men in the colonies. What this meant in reality for the slaves and their masters is beyond the remit of this post but if you are interested in reading more about it, but there is much written about the rebellion (the only successful slave rebellion ever recorded) and its charismatic leader. See for example The Louverture Project. 

Slavery was reintroduced by Napoleon in 1802, possibly as a consequence of pressure from his Martinique born wife, Josephine, who still held land interests in Martinique. It was not fully exterminated until the 1830s. In the history of slavery, the French had imported over a million slaves, four times the number that went to America. 

As an example of the effectiveness (or not) of the Code Noir I leave you with this vivid first hand account of the treatment of runaway slaves in the French Colonies in the 1690s.

Punishment for fugitive slaves - Martinique 1690s

The following translation appears in the 1698 English edition: “. . . if their masters once catch them, they give them no quarter; for they hang a great iron collar about their necks on each side whereof there are hooks, whereunto is fastened a stake or branch of a tree, with which they thrash them at pleasure. . . . But if it so happen that after this sort of chastisement they relapse again into the same fault, they . . . cut off one of their legs, nay, and sometimes hang them for an example, of terrour [sic] unto others . . .. I knew one [slave master] in Martinico who being of a compassionate nature could not find in his heart to cut off his slave’s leg, who had run away four or five times, but to the end he might not again run the risqué of losing him altogether, he bethought of fastening a chain to his neck, which trailing down backwards catches up his leg behind, as may be seen by the cut [engraving]. And this, in the space of two or three years does so contract the nerves that it will be impossible for this slave to make use of his leg. And thus, without running the hazard of this unhappy wretch’s death, and without doing him any mischief, he thereby deprived him of the means to make his escape”  (Source Francois Froger, Relation d'un Voyage fait en 1695, 1696, & 1697 aux Cotes d'Afrique, . . . Brezil, Cayenne & Isles Antilles . . . (Paris, 1698), facing p. 150; A relation of a voyage made in the years 1695, 1696, 1697 (London, 1698), facing p. 120. Copies in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University)From


Kim Murphy said...

Excellent post, Alison. The photo of the slave with the whip scars is from the Civil War (American, rather than English). It was a very famous photo during the time to show the abuse of slavery.

Alison Stuart said...

Way out of our period,Kim but as an illustration of the cruelty of the slave owners, it makes its point. In researching this post, I came across a series of pictures (which I'd actually seen in Martinique) of such appalling cruelty I couldn't bring myself to put them up.

Ella Quinn - Romance Novelist said...

What I thought was cruel was when Napoleon reinstated slavery.


Kim Murphy said...

Well, the American Civil War is my other period. I've seen quite a few photos of the cruelty and can understand why you couldn't post them.

Alison Stuart said... are right I didn't mention that as it takes me right outside my period but he did and the reason he did is quite probably the influence of Josephine. Her family still held land and slaves in Martinique and it is possible she came under pressure from her family in the Antilles. I visited La Pagerie, her family estates, in Martinique in February. I can highly recommend Sandra Gulland's excellent books on Josephine.