Prior to 1685, slavery in France and in the French colonies was dealt with via the slave trade rules and regulations. With the Code Noir, the comprehensive decree greatly reflected the societal values of the ruling French class. In addition to the status and daily lives of free and enslaved Black people becoming highly regulated, Code Noir also stipulated the secularity of France’s metropole and its colonies. Roman Catholicism was now compulsory, not only for Black people but for everyone, and those following Judaism were forced out of all of France’s colonies.
“Two and a half jars of cassava flour”
Totaling 60 articles, Code Noir regulated all aspects of the lives of enslaved people. According to a blog written by the Library of Congress, the Code “also governed their marriages, their burials, their punishments, and the conditions they had to meet in order to gain their freedom.” Such specificity was dictated in each article, which some considered an improvement on existing laws regarding slavery, but it was also heavily criticized and condemned over its 163-year history. The Code Noir was actually published twice; initially in 1685 with regards to the French colonies in the Antilles, and then again in 1724, impacting the colonies in Louisiana. Extensive and extremely detailed in its regulation, each article’s specificity contributes to the disturbing nature of the decree. For example, Article 22:
“The masters will be required to have their slaves aged ten and above provide, for each week, for their food, two and a half jars, Paris measure, of cassava flour, or three cassavas, each weighing 2 pounds and at least half, or equivalent, with 2 pounds of corned beef, or 3 pounds of fish, or other things in proportion: and to children, from the time they are weaned until the age of ten, half of the provisions above.”
Abolishment: A drawn-out process
Although slavery was initially abolished in France in 1794, the Code Noir wasn’t rendered ineffective until the official abolishment of slavery on April 27, 1848. The 1794 abolishment of slavery only lasted until 1802 when it was decreed back into law, due to a lack of strong enforcement of the anti-slavery legislation in the metropole and existing colonies. It took until the 10th of May in 2001 for the French government to write into law language that officially condemned the slave trade, and Code Noir as a crime against humanity. The law also legally required French schools to teach courses on slavery in their history curriculum, and Slavery Remembrance Day was established on May 10 so that the “memory of this crime lives forever in future generations.”
Learning from history
It’s hard to imagine that the drafters of this Code could articulate the language to legally regulate the lives of other human beings. As one reads through the particular articles and tries to conceptualize their impact on enslaved people, it becomes harder and harder to break down this mentality. It’s important, and imperative, that we face these hard truths about the past narratives of colonialism as we work together to build a more equitable and just society.
Recognizing the impact of colonialism can be uncomfortable, but a key to learning the lessons of history is to recognize the stories of resilience and to acknowledge the triumph of culture that came out of colonialism. The Code Noir event seeks to celebrate the culinary culture and history of the Caribbean, holding space to digest the horrors and beauty of colonialism on the same plate.