The 1723 Letters Patent better known as the Black Code of the islands of France and Bourbon

In 1723, France had a vast colonial empire. Little by little, in the Caribbean, Louisiana and on the Mascarene islands, plantation societies and economies, aimed at producing crops such as sugar and coffee, gradually developed. Necessitating a large work-force, these agricultural activities led to the institutionalisation of slavery and the slave-trade.

During the reign of Louis XIV, the 1685 Royal Letters Patent, inspired by Colbert (Secretary of State for the Navy from 1669 to 1683) were addressed to the Caribbean islands, the first to be concerned by the system. They were handed down to posterity under the title of Code Noir des îles françaises d’Amérique (Black Code for French islands in America), the aim being to define and regulate the status of slaves. The royalty wished to assert itself in the colonies and to have a say in the relations between slaves and masters, limiting the arbitrary character of the actions of the latter.

On Bourbon, slavery was already a reality and certain provisions of the Caribbean Black Code were already applied in practice. However, it was not until the French occupied the Île de France and following an official request issued by the East India Company that in December 1723, that the Letters Patent were issued to define the workings of slavery in the Mascarene islands: this was the Black Code for the Mascarene islands, followed in 1724 by the equivalent for Louisiana.

These different texts were all based on common principles: the slave may only practise the Catholic religion (he or she must be baptised) and he or she may not own property. Defined as being transferable ‘mobile goods’, he or she remained, however, legally responsible for his or her actions and could be punished for the latter.

The Black Code for the Mascarene islands was registered on Bourbon island on 18th September 1724 and on the Île de France in May 1726. Amended in part, it remained applicable on Bourbon until slavery was abolished in 1848.

The original parchment copy transmitted is retained at the Reunion Departmental Archives.

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