French Prejudice of Colour #4/6 Its Legal Expression (b)

tanlistwa, peinture,en forme de médaillon, portrait de trois-quart d'un jeune homme noir portant une boucle d'oreille en or

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This week, we continue the series on the prejudice of colour with episode 4. In the previous post, I mentioned the construction of the free people of colour as a legal group and I contextualized the legal inequalities that existed in the colonies in relation to the society of order that existed in the kingdom of France (to put it more simply, I explained why slaves, free people of colour and whites did not have the same sanctions for the same crime). Today, I am going to talk to you about the different measures taken against free people of colour who forced them in their daily lives in Martinique, which in André Taguieff’s model of racist systems (which we saw in the first episode) is racial discrimination.

Before we get to the measures, here is a very brief historical background…

Rulings, regulations, ordinances and other declarations constituting the prejudice of colour were enacted throughout the colonial period (until the 1830s, when legal colour bias was repealed); however, there was one before and one after the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). At the end of the war, France lost many of its colonies to England, which was a hard blow, among other things to its economy. It then tightened its colonial policy around the productivity of the sugar islands (especially Saint-Domingue but also Martinique and Guadeloupe). More slaves and more production were needed, which meant strengthening the colonial order to contain the mass of exploited black people.

This strengthening of the colonial order also resulted in a strengthening of the prejudice of colour against people who were free people of colour. This can be seen in the abundance of texts concerning them in the second half of the 18th century. We can also see it in the arguments that took shape in the King’s memoirs to the governors and intendants of the islands.

The turn of the 1760s, in legal matters, did not mark a sudden development of racist opinions, but rather the concretization of an ideology whose contours were becoming clearer: the prejudice of colour was perceived as necessary for the preservation of the colonial system and the safety of white settlers. It was above all the fear for the safety of the colonies and the disorders that could be caused by enslaved or free people of colour that motivated the discriminatory texts emanating from the king, his council or his representatives on the spot. However, even though policing was the focus of political discourse and subsequent action, this does not diminish the significance of the prejudice of colour as a racist system.

The Prejudice of Colour in the Code of Martinique

In Martinique, the legal texts in force under the Ancien Régime are for the most part listed in the Code de la Martinique de Durand-Molard. Some of the texts are also included in the work of Pierre-François R. Dessalles. These are the two main sources I have used. In total, there are about ninety texts that directly or indirectly concern the free people of colour in the Code de la Martinique from the beginning of colonization (1635) until 1794 (the date on which I limited my study for the dissertation*).

The various texts of the Code of Martinique can be classified into a few categories, depending on their content and what they allow us to understand about colour bias. The texts are broadly organized around four axes:

  1. to ensure the safety of white people,
    who after the census of 1664 are numerically inferior to the black people,
  2. to control the development of free people of colour,
    that just keep growing,
  3. segregating classes and discriminating against the free people of colour.
    These two points go hand in hand, since beyond separation, there is also often hierarchization.

The classification of the different measures is obviously somewhat arbitrary, as often a single text interweaves several objectives. Above all, the ranking makes it possible to analyse the main themes governing the content of the regulations. If you read French and you want the details of the texts and the knowledge related to other archives than the Code of Martinique, you can consult chapter 4 of the PhD thesis*, I also give some elements taken from the legislation in the other colonies. Here, I will only list the themes and develop what had marked me most in the Code of Martinique.

1. Keeping whites safe

When you build a system based on the violent and massive exploitation of women, men and children, there are obvious reasons to fear for your own safety! One of the concerns in the regulations was therefore to ensure the safety of white people. In 1778, there were 11,619 whites for 79,970 blacks, a ratio of 1 to 7. The measures taken were therefore an attempt to avoid situations that could have degenerated to the disadvantage of the white population. This was the case with the consumption of alcohol, which could quickly interfere with « good discipline », or the carrying of weapons (which was also a form of honour). Father Dutertre reports that in the past « there were negroes in Martinique, who by an intolerable abuse carried the sword; but they were obliged to take it away from them, because of the unfortunate consequences that this could have » [il y avait des nègres à la Martinique, qui par un abus intolérable portaient l’épée ; mais l’on a été obligé de leur ôter, à cause des fâcheuses suites que cela pouvait avoir ]. It was because of these « unfortunate consequences » that the ban was extended to free people of colour outside the times of obligatory service in the militia or the marshalsea. The gatherings were similarly a source of concern and were banned, both in the kingdom and in the colonies. Probably this was due to the fear of crowd movements, and the fear of conspiracies against the dominant classes, as well as the fear for the safety of goods and persons. At the end of the 1760s, because of fear of poisoning, access to activities where care was administered or remedies were distributed was prohibited: surgeons, apothecaries, druggists.

White people’s safety was first and foremost a concern of the colonies. Regulations on this subject emanated almost exclusively from the Sovereign Council or the Governor General and the Intendant, who thus tried to limit situations that put the dominant group at risk, or at least situations assumed to be so: drunkenness, weapons carrying, the possibility of conspiracy… The main concern was to combat anything that might weaken or affect the white dominant class and the colonial order, particularly from the 1760s onward, when the ratio of one white to six blacks was reached. However, it should not be forgotten that the texts present the main points of tension in the white collective imagination. The extent of the means used by Blacks to resist the colonial order could not be assessed in terms of the measures enacted and their recurrence. Thus, while poisoning is probably not the form of resistance most employed by enslaved people or free people of colour, it is the one that has most marked memories and the imagination, giving rise to abundant correspondence and the prohibition (not always applied) of access to medical activities.

Another important point, in order to ensure the security of the whites, was the control of the movement of enslaved and free people of colour within the colonial space, but even more so when it came to travelling within the kingdom of France. And here I would like to emphasize one point: institutional French racism was not only practiced in colonies around the world, « elsewhere », « over there »; French racism was also practiced in the kingdom of France in the 18th century with regard to 5,000 Blacks.

The monarchy was worried about the presence of Blacks in France (which was a consequence of HER colonization policy). Not only did the presence of Black slaves raise the question of the application of the French edict of 3 July 1315 prohibiting slavery on the land of the Kingdom of France, but it also raised fears that the colonial order would be called into question by the Blacks who had passed through France and then returned to the islands. It also disturbed the administrators’ idea of the social order in France.

tanlistwa, couverture de la Déclaration du Roi, pour la police des Noirs : donnée à Versailles le neuf août 1777

«  The negroes multiply every day in France by the great communication of America with the kingdom. Their marriages with the Europeans are encouraged, public houses are infected; the colours mingle, the blood fades. A prodigious quantity of slaves taken from the colonies were brought to France only to flatter their master’s vanity, and the same slaves, if they returned to America, brought back the spirit of freedom, independence and equality that they communicated to others; they destroyed the places of discipline and subordination, and thus prepared a revolution.  »
[ Les nègres se multiplient chaque jour en France par la grande communication de l’Amérique avec le royaume. On y favorise leurs mariages avec les Européens, les maisons publiques en sont infectées ; les couleurs se mêlent, le sang s’altère. Une prodigieuse quantité d’esclaves enlevés à la culture dans les colonies, ne sont amenés en France que pour flatter la vanité de leur maître, et des mêmes esclaves, s’ils retournent en Amérique, y rapportent l’esprit de liberté, d’indépendance et d’égalité qu’ils communiquent aux autres ; détruisent les lieux de la discipline, de la subordination, et préparent ainsi une révolution ].

Thus the head of the kingdom of France tried to ensure that the free or enslaved blacks would no longer set foot there. After some legislative hesitation from 1716, creating exceptions to the prohibition of slavery in the kingdom of France, the king’s declaration of 1777 for the « Black Police » [la police des Noirs] theoretically settled the problem of the presence of « Blacks, Mulattos and other coloured people » [Noirs, Mulâtres et autres Gens de couleur ] by establishing a racist regulation within the kingdom**. The « spirit of freedom, independence and equality » apparently did not suit everyone.

2. Control and circumscribe the numerical development of the group (a)

In the Caribbean, the second crucial axis was the control of the development of the free people of colour. The colonial project conceived the presence of Blacks only for the purpose of serving as a labour force to enable the production of foodstuffs to be exported in order to enrich the kingdom. The growing group of free people of colour did not fit into this objective. The colonial administrators therefore constantly tried to stem the expansion of the group; we have tirelessly, in the eighteenth century, a whole series of legal measures that tried in vain to control the flow of the new free people.

You may think that all they had to do was to ban emancipation; that seems to be the most pragmatic thing to do. In fact – as we shall see – there have been attempts to limit emancipation, but a total ban was difficult, if not impossible, to put in place. Emancipation was a valve mechanism, a sort of socially important reward, since it gave enslaved people the possibility of hoping for a form of promotion, their access to freedom. On the other hand, individual white settlers had difficulty accepting a restriction on their right to emancipation (as owners of a « good », they considered that the administration did not have to intervene to limit their use of that « good »).

The 1685 Code Noir set out flexible handling procedures. The free unmarried man who legitimately married a slave allowed « the said slave, freed by this means, and the children made free and legitimate » [ladite esclave, affranchie par ce moyen, et les enfants rendus libres et légitimes] (Article IX). « Masters aged 20 years old could free their slaves by any act inter vivos or by death » [ Les maîtres âgés de 20 ans pourront affranchir leurs esclaves par tous actes entre vifs ou à cause de mort] (article LV). « Slaves who have been made universal legatees by their masters, or appointed executors of their wills, or guardians of their children, shall also be freed » [Les esclaves qui auront été faits légataires universels par leurs maîtres, ou nommés exécuteurs testamentaires, ou tuteurs de leurs enfants] (article LVI).

However, since 1713, the colonial administration intervened to reduce the possibilities of emancipation. No manumission, from this date on, was valid without the written agreement of the governor and the intendant. The problem with the introduction of administrative validation of freed slaves was that enslaved persons freed de facto by their masters without having obtained the agreement of the administration (which you will find in the French archives under the expressions « soi-disant libre », « libre de fait », « libre de savanes ») were then placed in an ambiguous and precarious situation; at any time, they and their descendants risked having their freedom challenged, risked a return to slavery.

Then, several measures sought to verify and trace the liberty of free people of colour (verification of titles by the administration, injunctions to priests to verify the liberties of mothers of colour when they registered a baptismal certificate). It was not a great success. In spite of the regulations, there was a clear increase in the free people of colour, even though they were only a minority of the total population in the 18th century. In Martinique, the ratio of 1 free person of colour for every 12 white people in 1738 rose from 1:6 in 1763 to 1:2 in 1785. While the white population hovered around 11,000 people, the free people of colour numbered 1295, 2018, and 4,552 in the given years.

The administration also tried to make the freedom of the free people of colour more precarious. It was not only a matter of precarising freedom for freed slaves outside the administrative framework; the loss of freedom also became a possible punishment for violations of local regulations. In the Code of Martinique, since 1705, no less than seventeen texts, some of which are a reminder of a precedent, thus stipulate the possibility of reducing a free person of colour to the status of a slave . It was thus, without scruple, that an ordinance of the general took up in 1778 a sanction prescribed « by the edict of 1736, which states that the children of slaves baptised as freed, should be confiscated and sold for the benefit of the King » [par l’édit de 1736, qui veut que les enfants des esclaves baptisés comme libres, soient saisis et vendus au profit du Roi ] or that, in 1784, a decision of the Sovereign Council proposed that foundlings, free of colour, should be sold for the benefit of the King (as slaves, therefore!). When people talk about the 18th century as the « Age of Enlightenment », it is not on the state level that it was shining.

All posts:

** The first 5 posts devoted to this series on the prejudice of colour are a reworking of the writings taken from my French dissertation defended in June 2015. You can download it here Les Libres de couleur face au préjugé… if you wish to read more about the subject or to get precise references. For this episode, see in particular chapter 4 (p. 85 and following) and the annex containing the list of analytical titles of the texts of the Code of Martinique (p. 343).

** For French reader, if you are interested in the question of racism in the police in France from a historical point of view, I suggest you start by reading the article Aux racines du racisme systémique de la police by Grégory Pierrot, written in the light of current events. The perpetuation of racism and brutality in the police is also documented by the archives of the Second World War. By searching a little online, you can still find studies on colonial police and of course studies on contemporary racism in the police.

French Archives

  • Archives nationales outre-mer, F/1B/3 dossier VI, f °379. Conseil des dépêches, polices des Noirs. 9 (?) 1777
    consultable aussi en ligne sur Manioc par exemple : Déclaration du Roi, pour la police des Noirs : donnée à Versailles le neuf août 1777
  • Bibliothèque nationale de France, Durand-Molard, Code de la Martinique, Saint-Pierre, Martinique, J.-B. Thounens, 1807.
  • Bibliothèque universitaire du Campus de Schœlcher, Dessalles Pierre-François-Régis, Les annales du Conseil souverain de la Martinique, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1995


  • Base de données Joconde, Portrait d’un jeune Noir, par Maurice La Tour, 1741, Crédits photos Orléans Musée des Beaux-Arts © cliché François LAUGINIEB

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