French Prejudice of Colour #5/6 Its legal expression (c)

tanlistwa, peinture, portrait d'une femme noire de côté, portant une chemise blanche à bouton fermé au cou par une broche sombre, elle porte une coiffe de tissus

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This week, we continue the series on the prejudice of colour with episode 5*. In the previous post, I started to talk about the different measures taken against free people of colour that constrained them in their daily lives. In particular, I mentioned the measures taken to ensure the safety of white people. Today, I will continue on the measures that seek to control the development of the group of free people of colour and those that segregated and discriminated against them.

  1. Control and circumscribe the group’s economic and social development (b)

I finished the previous post on attempts to limit the numerical growth of free people of colour in Martinique. But if you thought that controlling the group was just about curbing its numerical growth, you were wrong. The administrators also attacked the economic and social development of the group. In 1726, a king’s declaration forbade whites from making donations or legacies to free people of colour.

Other measures were not primarily intended to limit the economic development of the Free people of colour. They were more motivated by the questionable probity assigned to the class, but the result was that they slowed and limited the economic development of free people of colour. Thus, only whites could sell their goods themselves at the Saint-Pierre market (in the parish of Le Mouillage), the Free People of Colour were forbidden to use baskets of « goods for sale, from house to house and in the burgs (…). However, let us allow all coloured people, free or slaves, to bring to the market in the burgs » [marchandises à vendre, d’habitation en habitation et dans les bourgs (…). Permettons cependant à tous les gens de couleur, libres ou esclaves, de porter au marché des bourgs ] or again, in 1768, the free people of colour were forbidden to sell bread.

To a lesser extent, even capitation (a tax that takes the form of a per person tax) was a means of slowing down their development. In 1788 and 1789, the capitation for free people of colour was increased from 15 to 25 pounds, while whites Creols were exempt and non-Creol whites were taxed at 6 pounds. The prejudice of colour is thus reflected in this particular taxation imposed on free people of colour, denying them all privileges and, after the Seven Years’ War, imposing a particularly heavy tax burden on them, even though they were on average poorer than whites.

Finally, the last form of control of the free people of colour group tends to restrict social ascension. This is a point that I’m going to develop a little because it takes on different more or less subtle aspects that form a pervasive whole in the daily lives of Blacks. On the one hand, it stigmatizes the class by distinguishing it; on the other hand, it restricts the recognition of the ties that unite free people of color and whites. Thus, the good colonial order is also established through a way of thinking about the good social order.

In the first instance, it was clothing considered to be outrageous that was targeted. This is not peculiar to the colonies, in 18th century France, « the imitation of the masters’ clothing by the servants makes usurpation of ranks cry out » as historian Olivier Chaline explains. The same was true in colonial society, where sumptuary law restricted what slaves and free people of colour could wear, in consideration of the expected simplicity of their condition. Clothing is a sign of distinction, the means of recognizing an individual’s social status.

Public offices were another source of social ascension denied to the free people of colour. In 1765, a decision of the Sovereign Council of Martinique forbids « all clerks, notaries, prosecutors and bailiffs to employ coloured people for the fact of their profession » [ à tous greffiers, notaires, procureurs et huissiers, d’employer des gens de couleur, pour le fait de leur profession]. The King’s brief of 1777 declared them incapable of holding any public office; it is certain that illegitimacy was an aggravating factor that blocked access to charges; colour added a depreciating element.

In the same way, other limitations to social ascension, similar to a restriction of honours, took place in the second half of the 18th century: separation of classes in some cemeteries, limitation in access to the benches in churches, different places in theatres… In 1781, an ordinance of the Sovereign Council went even further; it prohibited people of any colour from wearing the distinction of « sieur » or « dame », a distinction usually reserved for white people; instead, they were stigmatised by the mention of « le nommé » or « la nommé ». Their state of social inferiority was thus further marked by denying them this dignity.

Another limitation to the social ascent of the free people of colour was the restriction of the manifestation of the ties that united them to the white class because of the mixed race. The free people of colour who took the name of their natural white father inscribed their kinship or link with the dominant group, even though the administrative and political policy of the time tried to limit all contact between the two groups and to inscribe an impenetrable barrier of colour between whites and others, with the idea of maintaining the good colonial order…. Thus, in 1773, an order from the governor general and the intendant prohibited people of colour from using the white surname. This was followed in 1774 by a second ordinance that forced those who had been given the name of a white person to change it. It was also clearly intended to keep the free people of colour in their inferior state, never failing to stigmatise their colour. Thus, it was asked « to all priests, clerks, notaries, prosecutors, bailiffs and other public persons, to be attentive in the acts that they will pass, to add to the new names that the coloured people will have taken (…), the qualification of coloured people, under penalty of a 10 l. fine » [à tous curés, greffiers, notaires, procureurs, huissiers et autres personnes publiques, d’être attentifs dans les actes qu’ils passeront, d’y ajouter aux nouveaux noms que les gens de couleur auront pris (…), la qualification de gens de couleur, à peine de 10 l. d’amende].

Limiting the numerical and economic growth of the free people of colour was a way of ensuring control and preserving the established colonial order. At the societal level, the ruling class agreed that the free people of colour should not be allowed to grow. At the individual level, however, the masters continued to regard their slaves as private property to be fully enjoyed. In other words, they felt that they were not supposed to be accountable for this. A myriad of circumventions of the law were put in place to continue the illegal emancipation of slaves. The government’s inability to contain the emancipation made the freedom of the free people of colour more precarious. Even though the sentence was not necessarily enforced in practice, the free people of colour still feared that they could lose their status. All these attempts at control did not necessarily prove to be effective, as the free people of colour increased in number and wealth in society, and it was then their social ascension that the legislature attacked in an attempt to assign the group to a position of intermediary.

tanlistwa, peinture, "Mulâtre", par Pierre Alexis Lesage, 1906, Crédits photos (C) A. GUILLARD
« Mulâtre », par Pierre Alexis Lesage, 1906, Crédits photos (C) A. GUILLARD
  1. Segregate the classes and discriminate against those of the free people of color.

The last important axis in the legal expression of colour prejudice is that of segregating and discriminating against free people of colour. The one rarely goes without the other; on the one hand, the free person of color was debased, his condition degraded, on the other hand, he was more and more subordinated to white authority.

In Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue, interracial marriage was socially rejected, but was still legal in the 18th century. Nevertheless, matrimonial union, supported in the Black Code of 1685, was primarily to respond to the religious morality that condemned concubinage. In practice, the mixing of blood was nonetheless discouraged because, along with emancipation, it was one of the major contradictions of the socioracial system set up in the colonies. While unions were admitted in the 18th century, interracial alliances were legally recognized mesalliances; the men who had been mixed were stripped of their original state and could not claim to be reintegrated into the group of whites.

On the one hand, the colonial administration limited the link of free people of colour with the white class; on the other hand, it made a connection with servile origin. There was a tendency to consider them as equal to enslaved people, through points of detail: punishment for an offence that was in line with that of slaves rather than that of whites, separation of a plot of land for the cemetery between whites on the one hand and free people of colour and enslaved people on the other.

The free people of colour were also required to be available and, unlike the whites, were obliged to be present for tasks that were assimilated to forms of chores: fireman in case of fire, service in the militia (especially picket duty, which was considered degrading), service in the maréchaussée (chasing runaways, arresting a guilty party, taking them to prison, stamping out revolts or assemblies of enslaved, night patrols, and so on.)

Finally, the last point in the segregationist and discriminatory policy that I wanted to develop was mainly implemented in the second half of the 18th century; it had to do with measures that subordinated the free people of color to white authority. It is obviously found in situations of command: in the militia, for example, where the free men of colour had a purely executory role. So, yes, here and there you will sometimes find at a given time or in a given territory a counter-example, of a person who could have done otherwise; but for the most part, command was for whites. We also find this type of subordination, for example, in island to island cabotage. In 1785, the governor general and the intendant gave instructions that « command of vessels coasting from island to island would be given only to known whites or former seamen established in the colonies, and would not be employed as masters, no  free men. » [ne sera donné de commandement pour les bâtiments caboteurs d’île en île, qu’à des blancs connus, ou d’anciens marins établis dans les colonies ; et il ne sera employé pour maîtres, aucuns libres]

Among the measures that subordinated the free people of color to white authority, the one that has marked me the most is the period when the colonial administration reinforced the authority of the white class by delegating power to all white individuals in the civil sphere.

Are you familiar with the crime of irreverence? In the second half of the 18th century, with the strengthening of the prejudice of colour, the singular respect that the freedman had to show to his former master, mentioned in article 58 of the Black Code of 1685, was transformed into a rule of class relations: the Free people of colour owed respect « to the white blood ». This was the institutionalization of the crime of irreverence. As early as 1767, this abusive interpretation of Article 58 took place in Saint-Domingue, in a ruling handed down by the Superior Council of Port-au-Prince. A « free mulatto » was condemned to be whipped, branded and sold for the benefit of the king, for having beaten a white cantor. In Martinique, the crime of irreverence also took hold. This is what the ruling of March 4, 1777 teaches us. It condemns the free « mulattoes », Lami Julien and his brother Jeanjean, to one hour of straitjacket, two days, in the squares of the town of Saint-Pierre, with a sign stating « free mulatto who has put his hand on a white man » [mulâtre libre qui a mis la main sur un Blanc]. Whatever the motive, a free person of colour owes respect to the white man. It is likely that the death penalty, provided for in article XXXIII of the 1685 edict, was not carried out. Nevertheless, there is nothing here to indicate that there was bloodshed; a simple aggressive gesture may have been the cause of this humiliating sentence. Thus, in the 18th century, jurisprudence established the authority of the white class to the detriment of people of free colour and favoured a situation of dependence. White people became untouchable on principle. It is likely that some free people of colour were thus discouraged from making claims against whites, especially for violence and elements affecting the quality and honour of individuals for fear of falling under the crime of irreverence.

More anecdotal, but just as revealing, in 1777, the governor general and the intendant were obliged to take measures on the use of public fountains to guarantee water quality. The measures concerned the entire population, whether free or enslaved, white or coloured. However, the text gave the necessary authority « to all whites to arrest slaves and other people of colour who find themselves in contravention of this ordinance, and to take them or have them taken to the public prosecutor’s office » [ à tous les Blancs d’arrêter les esclaves et autres gens de couleur qui se trouveront en contravention de la présente ordonnance, et de les conduire ou faire conduire chez le procureur du Roi ]. Here again, it is the white man, and the white man alone, who is given authority in the civil context

Conclusions on the legal expression of the prejudice of colour

That’s it for the overview of colour bias in its legal aspects. Free people of colour were legally free; they were not owned by anyone, certainly. They could buy, sell and own property, yes. But they did not have equality with white people in their freedom, because of their constantly rehashed origins.

The end of the Seven Years’ War marked an important passage in the treatment of the free people of colour class. Rather than being placed on an equal footing with whites, the free people of colour were increasingly strongly associated with their servile origins. It was the choice of a firmer subordination that was sought. The measures which aimed at ensuring the security of the white class, but also those which throughout the century precariously secured the freedom of the class, prove this. After all, even though the penalty that deprived freedom was not often applied, it did put a sword of Damocles on the class. It was, after all, a safeguard to preserve subordination. While the free people of colour, like everyone else, tried on an individual level to make a more comfortable place for themselves in this society, the colonial administration aimed to preserve what could still be preserved from the distance of the ruling class.

So certainly, for all of these texts, we know that measures have been circumvented by both Whites and the Free Peoples of Colour, whether for personal interest or as a form of struggle and resistance. We know that the threat of a sanction in the text of the law did not necessarily mean its application. We know that, even when they were registered, some of these texts were hardly applicable or applied and that others quickly fell into disuse. But in any case, this legal support for the prejudice of colour says a lot about the state of mind of the drafters and the model of society they wanted to build!

All posts:

(coming up)

French Prejudice of Colour #/6 In People’s Lives


** 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 chapter 4 (pp. 78-85) and the annex containing the list of analytical titles of the texts of the Code of Martinique (p. 343).
Researchers’ quotes in the note are translated from French and may therefore differ from works also published in English.


  • Olivier Chaline, La France au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Belin, 2005.


  • Dessalles Pierre-François-Régis, Les annales du Conseil souverain de la Martinique, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1995
  • Durand-Molard, Code de la Martinique, Saint-Pierre, Martinique, J.-B. Thounens, 1807.


  • Wikipédia, Jeune Africaine, par Fernand Cormon, fin XIXe siècle, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Pau.
  • Base de données Joconde, « Mulâtre », par Pierre Alexis Lesage, 1906, Crédits photos (C) A. GUILLARD

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