Le code noir

Le code noir ou recueil des règlements rendus jusqu'à présent: concernant le gouvernement, l'administration de la justice, la police, la discipline & le commerce des nègres dans les colonies françoises et les conseils et compagnies établis à ce sujet (The Black Code or collection of rules that have been passed so far: regarding government, administration of justice, police, the discipline & trade of Negros in the French colonies and the councils and companies established for these matters), 1742, published by Prault, Paris, Collection Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin—Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, installation view, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke

Called the most monstrous legal document of modern times (Louis Sala-Molins), the Code Noir was passed by Louis XIV in 1685 in Versailles to define the conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire. In sixty articles, the decree restricted the activities of slaves, commanded that Roman Catholicism be the exclusively-practiced religion, and expelled Jews from the colonies in order to assert France’s sovereignty in the colonies and secure its prosperous business in the violent sugar plantation economy. A version of the decree was ratified in 1724 in Louisiana.

Facing Emil Ludwig Grimm’s painting The Moor’s Baptism (1841), both works testify to the crucial role Christianity played as the religious arm and arms of European colonialism. Salvation, education, and development were offered as the moral alibi of Christian missionaries that served as conduits into societies that were to be colonized, as legitimizers of the violent colonial enterprise, and as suppressors of resistance by the colonized against political and cultural imperialism.

The Code Noir condemned slaves to legal and political nonexistence in order to ensure obedience and to prevent revolts. Attempts at protecting slaves were never strictly enforced, and law-breaking masters were rarely prosecuted. The Code was added to Napoléon Bonaparte’s Code Civil in 1803 following the successful Haitian revolt seeking independence and the official abolition of slavery. The Code remained in force until 1848. Philosophers of the Enlightenment never pushed for an immediate abolition of the law, but suggested a hierarchized model for the slaves’ “development out of degeneration” towards human dignity.

The Code’s effects are still apparent to this day; its coordinates seeped deeply into the former colonies’ political, social, economic, and cultural sediments and thus still define today’s racial hierarchies and their violence.

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