Reflections on the Code Noir, and Denunciation of an Atrocious Crime Committed in Saint-Domingue: Addressed to the National Assembly by the Society of the Friends of Blacks Paris, August 1790

The Code Noir, passed more than a century before the publication of these Reflections, extensively regulated the conditions of slaves throughout the French empire, as well as the lives of free people of color and others.[1] In this address, given by the Society of the Friends of Blacks in Paris, the speakers condemn both slavery and the Code Noir through a gruesome anecdote of a French colonist who mortally abused one of his slaves and gravely injured several more. The story highlights breaches in human rights, outlined only the year before in France’s groundbreaking Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789).[2]

The Reflections challenge the National Assembly’s stance on slavery and, more generally the entire Code Noir, by questioning the inequities between master and slave and highlighting the significant favor the court grants white Frenchmen in written law. The Society implores the Assembly to abolish the slave trade in its entirety, but not slavery itself, which they see as a given. They push for severely reforming laws that would ameliorate slave conditions and ban abuses, and promote the idea that slaves should gradually be led toward raising themselves to the level of whites in order to be free. Unlike other arguments made for the fair treatment of slaves that rely on economic premises, this address relies strictly on tragic testimony and sensational rhetoric that seeks to touch the Assembly’s sentiments, conveying the sense of terror slaves dealt with daily in colonial Saint-Domingue.

[1] The Code Noir features 60 articles in total on subjects from marriage to religion, as well as extensive explanations about how slave society was to be regulated. For further reading on the Code Noir and its implications, see: Niort, Jean-François, Le Code noir: Idées recues sur un texte symbolique (Paris: Cavalier bleu, 2015) and Ghachem,Malick, The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[2] After the Assembly finished the Declaration, it began work on a constitution. It is during these deliberations (1789-1791) that the Society is appealing to the Assembly to change the Code Noir.

(Réflexions sur le Code noir, et dénonciation d’un crime affreux commis à Saint-Domingue)

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You will not believe the atrocious crime we are going to describe to you. It belongs to the most barbaric centuries; it belongs to the Cannibals.[3] And yet it was committed by a free and civilized man – by a Frenchman! He dishonored the dawn of liberty of the brightest revolution. But what level of abuses are not supported by the habits of tyranny!

We have not ceased to repeat in the various works published by [the] Society [of the Friends of Blacks] that slavery has two terrible consequences – it debases the slave and makes the master barbaric. But the inhumanity of the master surpasses the lowliness of the oppressed; it has no breaking point or basis in law. The terrible event, that is so painful for us to have to recount to you, offers proof of this.

There happened to be a rather inhumane, atrocious man – not simply for excessive beating, not simply for mutilating his slaves, but for roasting them slowly, for carrying out himself and for having others carry out the placement of red-hot irons and brands on the trembling limbs of these pour souls! For tearing them apart with his teeth! …You shudder! You push away the light of knowledge! It seems to you that it has never shone on such a heinous crime! Perhaps it is a false, distorted story; perhaps our intelligence is dubious. Would to God that it were so, then we would not have a monster to tell you about! But here is the court’s decision. It confirms all of these crimes; it declares this Mainguy duly tried and convicted of having beaten his slaves with a stick, of having wounded them with scissors and with a weapon commonly called a machete; of having torn them up with his teeth, and of having pressed either red-hot irons or burning coals on different parts of their bodies.

One of these slaves could not resist these agonies, and death delivered him from his master. Five others were mutilated, and their mutilations are irreparable.

Perhaps you will decide, Sirs, that there was no torture cruel enough to punish this excess of barbarity. Perhaps you think that death liberated the earth from this monster? No. He lives, he is free, perhaps he breathes the fresh air of France! He was forbidden from owning slaves. He was banned from the scene of his crime, as though perhaps it was not worth it to confine him to the place where remorse is the most harrowing, most pervasive, because all of the objects whet the tip. As though it were permissible to export such a dangerous tiger to another country. Finally, he was sentenced to a 10,000 livre fine to be paid to the King. And the martyrs of his brutalities and the unfortunate family of the one he sacrificed have received no compensation!

Oh! Who can peacefully regard this monstrous iniquity, this collusion between justice and tyrants? Eh! How do we not see that atrocities multiply when justice, far from punishing them, either complacently closes its eyes or punishes them only lightly?

We have been told that the judges’ reasoning was well-grounded, that they ruled in compliance with the code: Well then, the code is barbaric. We must reform it – we must rush to reform it.

And what! Can an assembly that demonstrated such great respect for the rights of man let stand a law in a part of the French Empire that authorizes, that encourages, the most revolting cruelties? Can it still tolerate this law that stipulates that a slave who strikes the face of his master’s child be punished by death? And this other law, that grants the master the ability to beat them to his fancy with rods or ropes, and which only sentences him to confiscation if he mutilates and tortures them? And this other law, that sets the most terrible sentences for all of the slaves’ supposed offences, whereas it does not pronounce a single one against the masters’ offences. Where it allows the highest freedom to the judge, who –as a white, as a friend of whites, and as a slave owner himself – is almost always judge and jury? And this other law, that rejects the testimony of slaves in all cases, that bans drawing any conjecture, speculation, or presumption from it. As though they had sworn not to punish the offenses to which only slaves were witnesses! As though they said to the barbaric masters: Be cruel, but hide your cruelties. Let only your worthless slaves be witnesses, since their voices will never be heard. Eh! We are astonished once again that these debased blacks, tortured in so many different ways, are wretched, and that their masters are often inhumane![4] Does the law not obviously favor their inhumanity? Does it not favor it, when it orders cutting the hollow of their knees when they seek to recover their liberty by fleeing? Does it not favor it when it declares furniture, that is to say, inanimate objects, to be above these beasts that one can break or mutilate at will?

No, Sirs, such horrors cannot be adorned with the seal of the law, when this seal is now in the hands of the representatives of a free people. They form too violent a contrast with your principles. The abuse and the tyranny must give way before your principles, or your principles must give way, in which case your constitution would collapse.

When your work on the constitution reaches its end, when reforming the major abuses allows you to turn toward other abuses; when, setting your sights on the colonies, you reform there the police, the laws, and the courts, we beg you to tear apart the pages of this Code Noir, so frequently stained with blood, and to replace its atrocious provisions with gentle and moderate laws that reconcile the interests of the masters with the principles of justice and equity; with laws that attach slaves to the empire, which prepare them to gradually raise themselves to the level of their brothers, the whites.[5]

May Heaven grant that these laws will be more respected by the masters, all those whose goal was to enshrine their despotism to this day! May Heaven grant that their self-interest not lead them to continuously violate these laws! Perhaps the spirit of liberty that is spreading over the islands will bring about this same metamorphosis in them. Perhaps it will lead them to be guided by calculations other than those that have previously guided the management of their slaves.

But the best law to prevent the return of these inhumanities, we do not cease to repeat, will be the abolition of the slave trade. Because the master only infuriates or kills slaves because of the ease of replacing them. Remove this ease, and his interest will force him to feed them well, to treat them well, and to boost their population.

We must thus continuously turn the eyes of our legislators toward this law. The abolition of the slave trade will make both the free Africans and the black slaves happy.[6]

If political considerations prevent you from striking a blow against the slave trade, at least hasten yourselves, by a few regulations, to soften these bloody laws. Hasten yourselves to frighten off any monsters who would be tempted to imitate Mainguy.

It is a distressing thought, but the history of what is happening today in these islands only offers too much evidence. The spirit of freedom that is unfolding there has only served to tighten the slaves’ chains, only to exercise arbitrary cruelties in the name of the law.

Perhaps our prayers, our pleas, will yet again be powerless. Perhaps minds are not open to principle. Terror is not perhaps banished from souls; we still perhaps fear being human!

Our own conscience has not listened to these calculations. A heinous crime was revealed to us. Our duty is to inform you of it, to place this court decision before your eyes, to leave it before the tribunal of the public. There will undoubtedly come a moment when the voice of humanity will make itself heard. And this monument of blood will be filed against the Code Noir.

Printed by the order of the Society of the Friends of Blacks on August 6, 1790.

Signed, Pétion, President; J.P. Brissot, Secretary.

[3] This is in reference to European colonial accounts that the indigenous peoples of the Americas ate human flesh. French writers and travelers such as Jean de Léry and Montaigne famously wrote about Amerindians of Brazil, helping establish the literary trope of cannibalism.

[4] These acts are part of a genealogy of torture of black bodies in the Caribbean, for more see: Fick, Carolyn, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1990), Ghachem,Malick, The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and Johnson, Sara, The Fear of French Negroes: Transcolonial Collaboration in the Revolutionary Americas (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2012).

[5] This proposition is a classic example of the Society of the Friends of Black’s attempts to end the slave trade and eliminate the worst abuses, while imagining a future abolition that would be phased in gradually.

[6]Rendre heureux” is a specific term from Enlightenment discourse in the late 18th c. used in discussing how to make the lives of oppressed populations better.  The assumption here is that slaves will be happier when the slave trade is banned.