SLAVE CODES: SLAVERY LEGISLATION IN ENGLISH AND FRENCH EMPIRES

November 22, 2020

Also other states that were involved in the colonization adopted, as anticipated, special codes for slavery. At first, this need became particularly urgent in the Caribbean colonies owned by England and France, where the sugar revolution—which took place in the mid-seventeenth century—brought a significant increase of the number of slaves deported in these domains.

Regarding the British colonial experience, the creation of a large system of sugarcane plantations proved to be crucial for the emanation of the first exemplars of Black Codes. The circumstances in which English colonial authorities enacted the Act for the better ordering and governing of Negroes (1661), better known in historiography as Barbadian Code or Barbados Slave Code, are indicative in this sense.

When the colonization of Barbados began in the second decade of the seventeenth century [1625] , the economic system of the estate was based upon the cultivation and commercialization of tobacco, trying to emulate the economic model born in Virginia. In these early stages, the core of the workforce on the island was made up of indentured workers who were mainly recruited from the mother country. However, this plan of development failed to produce the expected results.

The tobacco produced in Barbados could not compete in price and quality with the abundant Virginian production that already at the end of the 1630s had exhausted the demand of the London markets.

In these conditions, a large part of the plantations on the Caribbean island were then converted to cotton and indigo but without obtaining better results. In order to overcome a growing economic recession, several landowners in Barbados then decided to experiment the extensive culture of sugarcane. As the cultivation of sugarcane spread over the island, white workers were more frequently replaced by African slaves, considered more suitable to support the hard work necessary to exploit the “white gold” plantations. The censuses of Barbados in the 1650s were the last in which the white population was larger than the Black population.

Between 1652 and 1661, when the number of black slaves grew significantly within the colony, the African subjugates began to be perceived as a threat by the governing bodies of the island: because of the harsh conditions in which they lived, riots and disorders were feared.

The creation of special rules for slavery, designed with the aim of maintaining public order in the colony, became a necessity at this point. It was for these reasons that the Barbadian Code was created. In the preamble of the Code, this latter need was clearly expressed by the legislators.

The authors of the legislative body pointed out that the various colonial governments that followed over the years had produced some good laws on slavery, but these regulations proved to be incomplete and incapable to deal with the new social conditions of the island. The ancient laws could not be applied to Atlantic slavery.

Like the other states that have been mentioned until now, England, at the time of the establishment of its ultramarine possessions, did not have a legal tradition in slave legislation. Notwithstanding this, the English who established in the first Atlantic colonies had within their legal background some jurisprudential categories that allowed them to organize the slave institution. Among these categories was the principle of absolute property.

According to the Common Law, for the English colonizers, the slave was, to all intents and purposes, a patrimonial property and therefore could be used by their master as he or she wished.

The classification of the slave as a patrimonial good was in fact sanctioned in the first lines of the preamble of the Barbadian Code together with the desire to protect, as property, the work force from any violence committed by its owners (“protect them as we do many other goods and chattels”). Beyond the statements in the prolog,

the Barbadian Code was a very rigorous slave code, which was not intended to protect slave labor. It focused, instead, on the punishment of the slaves, considered as a threat for the safety of the white population of the island.

Reading the articles of the Code emerges that

the British colonists considered the Africans as barbaric people (“brutish”). “The barbarism of Africans”—as Rugemer stated—“precluded them from the possession of rights as the English understood them.

Unlike contemporaneous Spanish American and Brazilian legislation based on the medieval Siete Partidas, or the French Code Noir that would follow in 1680, the 1661 Slave Act did not attribute any positive rights to slaves whatsoever”.

In short, the regulation of 1661 sanctioned almost all the prohibitions already present in the slave legislation discussed until now (prohibition to carry weapons, restrictions regarding the freedom of movement, etc.). However, unlike many of the slave codes promulgated by the other European powers, it did not provide any measure for the possible integration of the subjects within the society. There was a lack of clear regulations on slave liberation and religious life. With the exception of the master’s obligation to provide clothing to the slaves at least once a year, some of the fundamental rights of the slave that were recognized, at least formally, in the Spanish Ordenanzas and, as we will see, in the 1685 French Code Noir were not enshrined in the 1661 text: that is to say, the right to be freed and to be fed. What emerged from the articles of the Barbadian Code was, in conclusion, a system of regulation of slavery designed to control the entire workforce, built on the conviction that primitives and barbarian Africans were naturally destined to be slaves because of their inferiority from a cultural and racial point of view.

The political and economic model established on Barbados was very successful, and the profits made from the sugar trade during the seventeenth century were enormous.

In part, this exploit was attributed to the effectiveness of the slave legislation in force on the island. As a result, the Barbadian Code was rapidly exported both to the other colonies owned by the British in the Caribbean and to those located in North America. The principles in this statute, a bit like the provision of Columbus in the Spanish domains, will be a fundamental reference for every slave code born in the colonies of England and in the United States.

More than 20 years after the promulgation of the Barbadian Code, one of the best-known and most studied slave codes, the so-called Code noir Louis was issued in France (1685). The legislative body was drawn up at the behest of King Louis XIV and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister of the King of France and strong supporter of the importance of the colonies as an economic resource for continental France. In order to fully exploit the potentialities of the conquered territories, both the sovereign and the minister considered it fundamental to rationalize the employment of the slave workforce. That rationalization was crucial to support the economic system of some of the richest and most productive colonies of the French Empire. The creation of a regulation that intervened in an exhaustive way on these aspects became soon a diriment political issue. The complex and articulated slave code issued in 1685 was the result of this no longer delayable necessity. Its 60 articles examined in depth all practical aspects of the slave’s life within the colonies: from religion to marriage, from concubinage to imprisonment, from crimes to corporal punishment and pecuniary sanctions, and even the ways in which the slave achieved freedom.

Most of its provisions focused, as in the other examples of slave codes already mentioned, on questions of public order. To ensure security, the Louis regulation roughly imposed the well-known bans on the possession of weapons and on freedom of movement, which had already been widely discussed. Although punishments and deprivations are a fundamental part of the legislative body, this seems to open—more than other previous and contemporary exemplars—to the integration of African slaves in the French colonial society. The baptism and conversion of slaves to Catholicism, their participation in religious celebrations and their abstention from work on feast days were all measures conceived, maybe, with the intention of building a more cohesive and less conflictual colonial community.

One of the most innovative aspects of the Code was undoubtedly the various regulations protecting the [enslaved]. The legislator seemed to have a clear idea of the poor condition in which the slaves lived: submitted to the master’s will, they could be killed, tortured or left to die of hunger and thirst. Being aware of what was happening in the colonies, the editors of the Edict tried to impose a limit on the authority of the masters, by placing it under the control of the state. For the Code, [enslaved people] were movable goods, an extension of the legal personality of its owner, but the supreme government over them was a prerogative of the state authority.

The Louis regulations also contain provisions obliging the master to provide food and clothing for his slave workforce. By imposing such obligation, the legislators believed to reduce the percentage of captive Africans who die for hunger or who escape because of the lack of supplies.

Many of the measures enshrined in the 1685 Code Noir, like that issued in other slave code already mentioned, remained almost a dead letter. The paternalistic view of slavery that characterized several of its dispositions never rooted in French ultramarine possessions. The concessions made by the Code to [enslaved people] were considered by the ruling class to be too damaging for their own interests.

The reasons behind the non-application of many of the precepts contained in the Edict were not only economic.

There were also racial prejudices: the conviction that Blacks were inferior to whites was quite widespread in the colonies. There is no law that had the power to change that belief. Hence, despite the expressed prohibition imposed by the royal legislation, the [enslaved Africans] continued to be mutilated, massacred, killed or left to starve.

Their lives in the colonies continued for many decades to be marked by abuse and masterly arbitrariness, most frequently in the substantial indifference of the authorities. This situation would not change in a tangible way until the great revolution of Haiti.

Despite resistance displayed by the ruling class and its limited application, the Code was nevertheless a fundamental model for all the French slave legislation enacted between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although it was created to regulate slavery in the Caribbean possessions of France, the Code noir Louis became the main legal reference in the field of slavery also in other French domains, in North America (Louisiana) and in Africa (Mascarene), where the plantation economy was experimented. In these colonies, the precepts of the regulation issued in 1685 continued to exert their influence even when specific legislative bodies were promulgated for each of these colonial realities. The Codes issued in Louisiana (1724) and in the Mascarene Islands (1723) were, in fact, nothing more than a revision, or rather an adaptation to the characteristics of each colony, of the famous Code Noir promulgated at the end of the seventeenth century.

Source: Slavery and Slave Codes in Overseas Empires by Giuseppe Patisso and Fausto Ermete Carbone

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