The “Code Noir” issued by Louis XIV to establish governance in relation to African slaves in French colonial possessions was far more humane than what came before. Slaves had no rights at all under Roman law, Old Testament law only distinguished between Hebrew and non-Hebrew slaves, and the New Testament only spoke of the obedience of slaves to their masters. Further, most saw none if any difference between serfs and slaves, and used the terms interchangeably. Above all, the African was not alone in slavery as the term “slave” has its origins in the Slavic regions of Eastern Europe. Slavs were taken into slavery by Spanish Muslims during the Ninth Century A.D.; the texts of Islam, Judaism and Christianity all recognize slavery, and the Aztec and Mayan cultures kept slaves. In Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans, several kingdoms and societies kept their own brethren as slaves.
Jesuits and the Code Noir
“The Jesuits were the first missionary order to settle in the French West Indies, coming to Martinique in 1640. It was Jesuits who started the first sugar plantation on Martinique, and by 1650 they had become the second largest slaveholder on the island.
Given that the Church in France had long supported itself with the labor of slaves and serfs, it is not surprising that religious orders in France’s Caribbean colonies used slave labor to support their activities. Father Labat, a Dominican priest who directed a slave plantation in Martinique, did not seem at all embarrassed at being a slave owner, but he became extremely upset when people accused him of dabbling in commerce.
The earliest draft of the Code Noir, submitted by the governor of France’s Caribbean colonies on May 20, 1682, dealt with issues of slave subsistence, policing, judgments, and punishment, but did not mention religion at all. Later that year the Jesuits of Martinique submitted a memorandum to King Louis XIV warning him about the harmful religious influences that Jews and Protestants were exerting on slaves in the islands.
The Jews, the Jesuits charged, “have in their own homes a great number of slaves whom they introduce to Judaism, or at least divert from Christianity.” As for the Protestants, the Jesuits urged, “they should not be allowed to practice their religion in any way.”
When the Code Noir was issued by Louis XIV in March 1685, its religious emphasis was obvious. The preamble specified that its primary purpose was “to maintain the discipline of the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church . . .” [and] required that all slaves should be baptized and given instruction in the Catholic religion . . . and ordered all subjects to observe all Catholic holidays.
The Jesuits saw the Code Noir as a humanitarian document that curbed some of the worst abuses of slaveholders. It set minimum food and clothing rations for slaves, forbade masters from murdering their slaves, and made provision for their manumission. At the same time, however . . . it [declared] the slaves moveable property and stating that any personal property possessed by the slave belonged to his or her master.
(The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade, Robert Harms, Basic Books, 2002, excerpts pp. 25-26)