The Joy of Museums

Finding Meaning in Art & History

Code Noir

National Museum of African American History and Culture - Joy of Museums - Code Noir

The Code Noir (French: Black Code) was a decree passed by France’s King Louis XIV in 1685, that defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire.  The code detailed the “acceptable” conditions for enslavement. It legitimised slave ownership and at the same time allowed slaves certain rights. The Code Noir also restricted the activities of free Negroes, forbade the exercise of any religion other than Roman Catholicism and ordered all Jews out of France’s colonies.

The Code Noir has 60 articles, below is a sample of some the articles:

  • Religion
    • Slaves must be baptized in the Roman Catholic Church
    • Public exercise of any religion other than Roman Catholicism was prohibited
    • Jews could not reside in the French colonies
  • Prohibitions
    • Slaves must not carry weapons except under permission of their masters for hunting purposes
    • Slaves belonging to different masters must not gather at any time under any circumstance
    • Masters must give food and clothes to their slaves, even to those who were sick or old
    • A slave who struck his or her master, his wife, mistress or children would be executed
    • A slave husband and wife and their prepubescent children under the same master were not to be sold separately
  • Punishments
    • Fugitive slaves absent for a month should have their ears cut off and be branded.
    • For another month their hamstring would be cut and they would be branded again. A third time they would be executed
  • Freedoms
    • Slave masters 20 years of age may free their slaves
    • Freed slaves were French subjects, even if born elsewhere
    • Freed slaves had the same rights as French colonial subjects

The Code Noir resulted in a far higher percentage of blacks being free people of colour compared to non-French colonies. They were on average more literate, with a significant number of them owning businesses, properties and even slaves.

Essential Facts:

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“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Abraham Lincoln

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Photo Credit: By GordonMakryllos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons