Resource

Women and the Code Noir

Excerpts from the French legal code governing enslaved people that deal specifically with enslaved women and reproduction.

Content Warning: This resource addresses sexual assault.

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Summary

IX. The free men who will have one or several children from their concubinage with their slaves, together with the masters who permitted this, will each be condemned to a fine of two thousand pounds of sugar; Free men who have sexual relations with enslaved women will be fined, and so will the masters who allowed the relationship.
and if they are the masters of the slave by whom they have had the said children, we wish that beyond the fine, they be deprived of the slave and the children, and that she and they be confiscated for the profit of the [royal] hospital, without ever being manumitted. If a slave owner has sexual relations with an enslaved woman and she gets pregnant, she and her children will be taken from him and given to the hospital as slaves.
Nevertheless we do not intend for the present article to be enforced if the man who was not married to another person during his concubinage with his slave would marry in the church the said slave who by this means will be manumitted and the children rendered free and legitimate. If a free man or master chooses to marry an enslaved woman in the church, the woman will become free, and their children will be born free.
XII. The children who will be born of marriage between slaves will be slaves and will belong to the master of the women slaves, and not to those of their husband, if the husband and the wife have different masters. If two enslaved people have a child together, the child will belong to the master of the mother.
XIII. We wish that if a slave husband has married a free woman, the children, both male and girls, will follow the condition of their mother and be free like her, in spite of the servitude of their father; and that if the father is free and the mother enslaved, the children will be slaves the same. Children will inherit the status of free or enslaved from their mother.

Le Code Noir (À Paris: Chez L.F. Parault). New-York Historical Society Library. Translated by John Garrigus in Le Code Noir ou Recueil des règlements rendus jusqu’à present, 1767. The Société, d’Histoire de la Guadeloupe.

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Background

The Code Noir (Black Code), signed by King Louis XIV in 1685, was a set of laws that governed the practice of slavery in the French colonies, around the time when many European governments in North America were defining the legal status of enslaved Black people. The Code Noir was written to specifically address slavery on the sugar plantations of the French Caribbean, but the laws were adjusted and applied throughout the French Empire.

About the Document

These three sections of the Code Noir show how enslaved Black women occupied an uncomfortable place in French colonial society. Law IX calls for the punishment of white men who impregnate enslaved women, unless they marry them, in which case the wife and children are granted freedom. This seems like major protection for enslaved women, but laws are only protective if they are enforced by colonial governments. While there are some examples of Black women being freed by white men who chose to marry them, it is unclear from the records whether any men were actually punished for sexually exploiting their enslaved women.

Meanwhile, laws XII and XIII make it clear that enslaved status was inherited through the mother, leaving enslaved women with the burden of birthing new generations of enslaved people. These laws reflect the French government’s interest in continuing the practice of slavery for the profit of the empire. In the next century, these economic interests would win out, and the laws governing free Blacks and interracial relationships would become more restrictive.

Vocabulary

  • condemned: Sentenced.
  • confiscated: Taken away.
  • concubinage: Sexual relations outside of marriage.
  • exploiting: Using in an unfair or selfish way.
  • legitimate: Lawful.
  • manumitted: Released from slavery.

Discussion Questions

  • What do these laws reveal about attitudes toward enslaved people in the French colonies?
  • Why does the French government call for steep fines against men who have children with enslaved women?
  • How do you think these laws impacted the lives and relationships of enslaved Black women?
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Themes

POWER AND POLITICS

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

Source Notes
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