Sunday, August 30, 2020

Who Really Paid for the Sun King's Versailles? A Look at Le Code Noir and France's Slave Trade

 If behind each gorgeously ornate Baroque cathedral in Mexico and throughout Latin America there is a blood-soaked history, is the same the case for Louis XIV, the self-appointed Sun King, and his stunning complex, Versailles?  

In a word, “yes.”  The sugar plantations and the slave trade between Africa and the Caribbean produced the vast wealth needed to supplement the draconian taxation system in place in rural France. The French were the third largest slave traders in the world, after the British and the Portuguese. The sugar and indigo plantations in the Caribbean included those in Haiti (Saint-Domingue), with 773,000 slaves, Martinique, with 217,200, and Guadeloupe, with 73,000 (Slavery and Remembrance, 2020).  There was also a significant French slave trade to North America through New Orleans. 

There was an ongoing high demand for slaves to work in the sugar plantations where crushed sugar cane was used for fuel, molasses, sugar, and the base for rum.  Work in the fields, as well as in the sugar cane processing plants, was dangerous and harsh, with long hours and few moments to rest. The plantation owners profited from the sale of their sugar cane-based products, but often the largest profits came from the slave trade itself. The slave ships and their voyages were financed by investors who often received enormous profits, although there could be risk, such as disease, shipwreck, or slave uprising, which give some indication of the horrific conditions during the “Middle Passage” – where the deeply unfortunate Africans were chained down in the lower decks of aging, borderline-unseaworthy boats. 

Le Code Noir in the Caribbean and in Louisiana

Called the most monstrous document of modern times (Sala-Molins, 2006), the Code Noir (Black Code) was passed in 1685 by Louis XIV in Versailles. Drafted by Controller General of Finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683),  Le Code Noir contained 60 articles that specifically addressed the way that slaves were to be treated. Immediately implemented, the document was used throughout the French colonial empire. 

A later version of it, applying specifically to Louisiana, was passed in 1724 after a large number of slaves were transported to New Orleans as a part of the disastrous “Mississippi Scheme” investment bubble, described at length in Charles Mackay’s book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841).  Napoleon Bonaparte’s Code Civil (1803) incorporated it in response to the Haitian revolution that led to independence and the abolition of slavery in that country. 

The Code reflects Governor Bienville’s fear that the quickly growing population of slaves who were brought in to provide labor might overwhelm the non-slaves. He wanted to control a rapidly growing slave population. 

Le Code Noir (The Black Code)

Le Code Noir goes a long way in explaining the deeply implanted ideas, attitudes, and beliefs that still exist in the American South. After all, the Code was a Code of Law and as such, enforceable by pain of legal punishment.  It governed the way that whites and blacks must interact with each other and set out very rigid and explicit limits.  

Le Code Noir also helps us disavow ourselves of any illusions that slavery was anything but a cruel, dehumanizing practice.  It is common to hear the argument that slavery was tantamount to a paternalistic social welfare system.  If one has no contact with facts, it might be possible to believe that fairy tale.  But all one has to do is to read a few of the 60 articles to gain an appreciation of how nefariously cruel it was. Not only did it incorporate physical brutality into its law, it created and hardened toxic, inhuman ideas about fellow human beings. Those ideas persist into today’s world. 

A quick review of some of the sixty articles give us a sense of how all-encompassing they were and also how they reflected the values of the time and also set them in place for the future. 

Overview of the Articles in Le Code Noir

Articles I-VI:  This part of the Code Noir focuses on the Roman Catholic religion. The first article states that any Jews who may be living on the island must leave.  It does not say why, so we must enter into a bit of conjecture. No other religions except Roman Catholicism are allowed, and all slaves must be baptized and instructed into the faith. This edict provides insight into why and when the religious beliefs they carried from Africa would have been blended into and potentially disguised or cloaked by a veneer of Catholicism.  This seems very similar to what happened in Peru and other parts of Latin America, in a process of syncretism. 

The Moor’s Baptism.  Ludwig Emil Grimm (1841)

Articles VII – XIII: These articles rigidly control the relationships between slaves and non-slaves, and they set out complex rules and punishments for having relationships, attempting to marry, having children, and more.  These articles are profoundly dehumanizing and invasive of something that would ordinarily be considered to be very private and personal. 

Articles XIV – XXVII:  Slaves are not allowed to carry anything that could be used as a weapon. These articles describe the kinds of punishment to be meted out in response to different behaviors. They are incredibly cruel. Slaves are not allowed to engage in commerce or to have money. 

There are numerous articles that describe how and when a slave can be punishable by death.  Slaves could be put to death for something as harmless as slapping one in the face. It was also perfectly legal to beat slaves with straps whenever the master thought it was warranted. 

These are just a few of the sixty separate articles. Reading them makes the 21st century reader feel a sense of horrified astonishment, and it’s extremely hard to imagine how and why such behavior was justified. 

Louisiana’s Code Noir (1724) was based on Louis XIV’s law, and it made it illegal for blacks and whites to marry. Centuries of institutionalized racism, and the reinforcement through the judicial system, probably make people unaware of their own deep biases. 

The Person behind Le Code Noir

Jean-Baptiste Colbert is credited for designing and carrying out a program of economic reconstruction that made France the dominant power in Europe.  That economic reconstruction included increased tribute and taxation in the countryside, expanded slave trade, expanded commerce with the colonies, and an expansion into the Caribbean. The provisions in Le Code Noir are law, but they are also crimes against humanity. It is important to note that although Jean-Baptiste Colbert drafted the Code, he was by no means an outlier.  His views were widely held by individuals who owned the plantations, mills, and equipment. There is a sculpted bust of Jean-Baptiste Colbert in the Louvre Museum in Paris. 

Portrait of Jean-Baptist Colbert

Le Code Noir and Literature

The laws surrounding the treatment, conditions, and interactions of slaves permeated all aspects of southern life.  Many works of literature incorporated the code and depicted the impact on individuals who were living their lives. 

One contemporary example written in Louisiana while the impact of the Code.  Louisiana resident Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby,” a short story published in 1893, depicts the anguish of a woman of uncertain origin who has married one of the most prominent members of the parish. In the story, Armand Aubigny, the owner of L’Abri plantation, marries Desiree, who was foundling of unknown origin, who was raised by the compassionate Madame Valmont. In this story, the baby that Desiree has with her husband, is absolutely adored by both. 

However, one day, doubt is cast into the race of the baby.  Desiree is accused of being of mixed parentage.  Grief stricken, she leaves with her baby, possibly to never return.  Her husband watches her leave. Then he assembles all the old letters and other correspondence he can find. As he goes through the documents, he happens upon a letter from his mother to his father.  In it, she expresses gratitude to her husband and to the fact that their son will never know the fact that he has African blood.


Grimm, Ludwig Emil. Die Mohnrentaufe (The Moor’s baptism)

Mackay, C. (1841). Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Project Gutenberg.

Sala-Molins, Louis. (2006). Dark Side of the Light: Slavery and the French Enlightenment, translated by John Conteh-Morgan, University of Minnesota Press.

Slavery and Remembrance. (2020). The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.