In continuing to honor Black History Month, I’d like to discuss a part of Louisiana’s past so important that its existence can be viewed as the framework for every aspect of Louisiana life, culture and religion expressed today. Though it is rarely discussed beyond the walls of universities, it was a time in our history that must be recognized and confronted.
French historian Tyler Stovall described the “Code Noir” as “one of the most extensive official documents on race, slavery, and freedom ever drawn up in Europe." It was first put into effect by Louis XIV in 1685 for his possessions in the Antilles, then introduced in Louisiana in 1724. This code was the only comprehensive legislation which applied to the whole population, both black and white. (Source)
“In these colonies where slaves vastly outnumbered Europeans and slave labor was the engine of the economy as well as its greatest capital investment, the Code was a law affecting social, religious and property relationships between all classes,” Vernon Palmer writes in his article “The Origins and Authors of the Code Noir”. (Source)
In Palmer’s article, we learn that The “Code Noir” and other documents of its nature such as Spain’s “Siete Partidas” were written with Roman law acting as a guide. Differences in implementation are important to note, however. While France had further developed Roman laws of mainly benefiting slave owners, Spanish law built upon and expanded the rules and notions of Roman slave law favoring the well-being and the ultimate freedom of slaves: peculium (property), self-purchase and judicial protection. (Source)
The laws put in place in Louisiana were wholly unique in the United States. Paris adopted non-racist rules of an ancient society that held slaves of many nationalities and extended these rules overseas to a white supremacist society holding African slaves. (Source)
Consequently, the “Code Noir” resulted in a far higher percentage of blacks being free people of colour (13.2 percent in Louisiana compared to 0.8 percent in Mississippi). They were on average exceptionally literate, with a significant number of them owning businesses, properties and even slaves. (Source)
Palmer further explains that, “The Code was also an important sociological portrait, for no legislation better revealed the belief system of European society including its fears, values and moral blind spots. No legislation was more frequently amended and regularly adapted to adjust to France's evolving experience with slavery. Furthermore, perhaps no aspect of the Code-whether one refers to its motives and aims, compares it to other slave systems, or questions its enforcement-is free of contemporary controversy.” (Source)
There is no better way to convey the weight this document holds than to share what I found to be some of the most relevant decrees. Upon reading it, you get a greater understanding of what life was like in Louisiana for black people. With every aspect of your traditions, customs and religion stripped from you and all of your actions observed under hyper-vigilant eyes, you find a way to adapt, thrive and survive.
III. We forbid any public exercise of any religion other than the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman; we wish that the offenders be punished as rebels and disobedient to our orders.
VIII. We declare our subjects who are not of the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman religion incapable in the future of contracting a valid marriage. We declare bastards the children born of such unions which we desire to be held and considered, we hold and we consider to be truly concubinage.
We forbid priests to officiate at the marriages of slaves unless they can show the consent of
their masters. We also forbid masters to use any means to constrain their slaves to marry
[them?] against their will.
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.
XVI. In the same way we forbid slaves belonging to different masters to gather in the day or night whether claiming for wedding or otherwise, whether on their master's property or elsewhere, and still less in the main roads or faraway places, on pain of corporal punishment, which will not be less than the whip and the fleur de lys [branding with the symbol of the kings of France; this was a punishment for deserters and habitual criminals in France] and which in cases of frequent violations and other aggravating circumstances can be punished with death: this we leave to the decision of judges. We charge all our subjects to approach the offenders, to arrest them and take them to prison, even if they are not officers and there is not yet any decree against them
XXXIII. The slave who will have struck his master or the wife of his master, his mistress or their children to bring blood, or in the face, will be punished with death.
The Code can be read in its entirety here.
When I echo the saying that our existence is resistance, I am referring to a legacy combatting a system designed precisely to uphold our oppression. When black people say that racism is systematic, the existence of this code further validates those claims. Louisiana as a whole is still staunchly Catholic and over-policed while racism thrives.
How can you deny that white supremacy was the basis of this country’s foundation when the economic profit from slavery made the U.S the global power it is today? You can not. To this day, our educational systems will continue to deny this fact, but if you are interested in bettering your life, your community and even the world, you will find that you must first stare systematic injustice in the face and reject it. There is no better weapon to arm yourself with than knowledge, and no better way to move forward than to learn from the past. Let us honor those who came before us.