For two decades, New Orleans was a town with about 400 riotous, irreligious, desperate individuals. Jean-Baptiste, Sieur de Bienville always hoped the French Empire would take more interest in the area—it was the gateway to wider America, the key to the continent’s greatest river, its richest soils, and a highway for the Indian trade. If only it actually had people in it!
Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 2005.
Ingersoll, Thomas. Mammon and Manon in Early New Orleans: The First Slave Society in the Deep South, 1716-1819. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press. 1999.
Anthony Comegna: Whatever King Louis might say, the Natchez Indians owned Louisiana. In their society, local leaders distributed personal property according to the commonwealth, the people’s needs, and local institutions developed rules for the use and exchange of that property. Again, the King of France might object, but the Natchez recognized these sorts of rights long before the Europeans came.
In 1729, [00:00:30] when a group of Natchez responded to French land grabs by murdering and enslaving several colonists, they did so with the basis of hundreds of years of their own customs. French colonial Governor Périer responded to them with relentless and cruel war to the very end of their people. He even burned a chief’s wife at the stake. So it’s no wonder that the Frenchmen’s slaves often wanted to join native resistance. This was North America’s first slave society, [00:01:00] and all people of color wanted a way out.
Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
New Orleans has always had a reputation for being a haven of the pursuit of pleasure and gain, and they’ve always fought that reputation, [00:01:30] but it’s a difficult thing to do when your city was founded almost exclusively as a military outpost on the fringes of a practically ungovernable empire. The Spanish and the French explored the area in the late 17th, early 18th centuries, but it was really the brainchild of a French Canadian named Pierre Le Moyne, the Sieur d’Iberville, and his younger brother, Jean-Baptiste, Sieur de Bienville. They were French Canadians, but they fancied themselves the agents of a broader empire.
Pierre [00:02:00] Le Moyne died during the War of Spanish Succession planning an attack on British South Carolina, and his brother’s settlers remained a small and extremely poor lot for a long time. Bienville’s main problem was preventing his own people from fleeing to live with the Indians. For decades, New Orleans was a town with only about 400 riotous, irreligious, desperate people. Bienville always hoped the French empire would take more interest in his area. He thought of it as a gateway to wider America, a key to the continent’s [00:02:30] greatest river, its richest soils, and a highway for the Indian trade. If only it actually had some people in it.
Louis XIV was really a horrible king. His major contributions to French history were warfare that never ended, warfare that he almost always lost, ridiculously expensive aristocratic luxury, and the exploitation of countless poor French peasants. Louis died at Versailles in 1714, and the throne went to his five-year-old grandson, Louis [00:03:00] XV. Peasants around the country privately celebrated his death, thanking God that they’d been delivered from such a tyrant. Now, though, he left behind the courtiers, the officeholders, and the schemers to really rule Versailles. The expansionists at court, including the Duke of Orléans, the Regent, radically re-imagined the Sun King’s continental empire as a global force, spreading one faith, one law, one king, and of course that king’s court, his corporations, [00:03:30] his bankers, his merchant marine, and every other interest group now accumulated at Versailles.
From the start, this idea was ill-conceived, and perpetuated with nothing better than empty paper promises. During his Regency, the Duke of Orléans employed a personal friend, Scots financier John Law. His job was to come up with a plan for colonial development. He came up with a pyramid scheme, which involved controlling a newly established national [00:04:00] bank, the creation of several colonial companies, and a propaganda campaign which was designed to convince investors that Mississippi was a rich tobacco colony merely awaiting development capital. The bank would inflate the currency, propping up stock prices, but the colony never actually produced enough to pay off the promised returns of investment. John Law’s disastrous bubble hurt French peasants the most, and he barely escaped Paris with [00:04:30] his life.
Law’s disastrous campaign was really the first event to put New Orleans and Mississippi on the mental map of the average European for the first time, and its reputation did not benefit from the connection. Over the three years that Law ran his pyramid scheme, almost 9,000 people arrived in Louisiana. A quarter of them were indentured servants with their families, about a fifth were African slaves, and almost a thousand were soldiers. 1,200 of them were so-called deportees, [00:05:00] people forcibly uprooted from Paris and other areas and transported peasant farmers and people the Crown called indigents. These were hardly the makings of a booming tobacco country, but it was North America’s first slave society.
Despite these haphazard, even somewhat disastrous origins, Louisiana quickly became a stable, strong, planter military network. New Orleans’ first brick building, after all, was the city jail, a permanent [00:05:30] fixture of state power. Military installations and churches also dominated the cityscape for the first many decades. Hardly an irreligious people, Catholic worship was mandated by law, and Jews and infidels were forbidden from the colony. The slave code mandated planter respect for their slaves’ spiritual wellbeing. The Black Code, or Code Noir, compiled by Bienville in 1724, regulated relationships between the races, and in effect controlled the behavior [00:06:00] of every single citizen, whether white, black, or red.
Speaker 2: Black Code of Louisiana, 1724. “Six. We forbid our white subjects of both sexes to marry with the blacks under the penalty of being fined and subjected to some other arbitrary punishment. We forbid all curates, priests, or missionaries of our secular or regular [00:06:30] clergy and even our chaplains in our navy to sanction such marriages. We also forbid all our white subjects and even the manumitted or freeborn blacks to live in a state of concubinage with blacks. Should there be any issue from this kind of intercourse, it is our will that the person so offending and the master of the slave should pay each a fine of 300 livres. Should said issue be the result of the concubinage of the master with his slave, said master shall be deprived of the slave and of the children, who [00:07:00] shall be forever incapable of being set free.
“Seven. Proper marriage ceremonies shall be observed both with regard to free persons and to slaves, but the consent of the father and mother of the slave is not necessary. That of the master shall be the only one required.
“Eight. We forbid all curates to proceed to effects marriages between slaves without proof of the consent of their masters, and we also forbid all masters to force their slaves into any marriage against their will.
” [00:07:30] Nine. Children issued from the marriage of slaves shall follow the condition of their parents and shall belong to the master of the wife and not of the husband, if the husband and wife have different masters.
“Ten. If the husband be a slave and the wife a free woman, it is our will that their children of whatever sex they may be shall share the condition of their mother and be as free as she, notwithstanding the servitude of their father. And if the father be free and the mother a slave, the children [00:08:00] shall all be slaves.
“Eleven. Masters shall have their Christian slaves buried in consecrated ground.
“Twelve. We forbid slaves to carry offensive weapons or heavy sticks under the penalty of being whipped and of having said weapons confiscated for the benefit of the person seizing the same. An exception is made in favor of those slaves who are sent to hunting or shooting by their masters and who carry with them a written permission to that effect or are designated by some known mark or badge.
” [00:08:30] Thirteen. We forbid slaves belonging to different masters to gather in crowds either by day or by night under the pretext of a wedding or for any other cause, either at the dwelling or on the grounds of one of their masters, or elsewhere, and much less on the highways or in secluded places, under the penalty of corporal punishment, which shall not be less than the whip. In case of frequent offenses of the kind, the offender shall be branded with the mark of the flower-de-luce, and should there be aggravating circumstances, capital punishment [00:09:00] may be applied at the discretion of our judges. We command all our subjects, be they officers or not, to seize all such offenders, to arrest and conduct them to prison, although there should be no judgment against them
“Fourteen. Masters who shall be convicted of having permitted or tolerated such gatherings as aforesaid composed of other slaves than their own shall be sentenced individually to indemnify their neighbors for the damages occasioned by said gatherings and to pay for the first [00:09:30] time a fine of 30 livres, and double that sum on the repetition of the offense.
“Fifteen. We forbid Negros to sell any commodities, provisions, or produce of any kind without the written permission of their masters or without wearing the known marks or badges.”
Anthony Comegna: White indentured servants and impressed farmers were a distinct minority, though. They were surrounded by hostile Indians, bordered by Spanish Texas, and all around them was a vastly disproportionate [00:10:00] number of slaves. There were only a few white Louisianans who were actually poor, and they took comfort in the fact that they lived in a homogenous Catholic culture, in a military city specifically designed to protect their lives.
In 1766, the New Orleans civilian population included 385 slave-holding households to only 241 without a slave at all. Most people owned only a few slaves, but a sizable number of them aspired to be great planters, [00:10:30] and they owned several dozen. The great planters owned hundreds. The law was written specifically to be racially exclusive, to ensure a path to greater power for those it favored, the white settlers, and completely exclude those it opposed, the black slaves.
It was not enough for the law to restrict slaves’ sexual behavior and family life. It had to completely dehumanize them and transform them into mere property as much as possible. [00:11:00] Slaves were forbidden to own property of their own or trade it on their own authority. And though whites could be punished for penalizing their slaves with excessive violence, there is no evidence that they were ever punished for mistreatment of their slaves.
Speaker 2: “Twenty-two. We declare that slaves can have no right to any kind of property, and that all that they acquire shall be the full property of their masters, and the children of said slaves, their fathers and mothers, their kindred [00:11:30] or other relations either free or slaves shall have no pretensions or claims thereto. Slaves are deemed incapable of disposing of anything and of participating to any contract.
“Twenty-three. Masters shall be responsible for what their slaves have done by their command, and also for what transactions they have permitted their slaves to do in their shops.
“Twenty-four. Slaves shall be incapable of all public functions and of being constituted agents for any other person than [00:12:00] their own masters, or of providing testimony in court.
“Twenty-five. Slaves shall never be parties to civil suits, either as plaintiffs or defendants, nor shall be allowed to appear as complainants in criminal cases, but their masters shall have the right to act for them in civil matters and in criminal ones, to demand punishment and reparation for such outrages and excesses as their slaves may have suffered from.
“Twenty-six. Slaves may be prosecuted criminally without their masters [00:12:30] being made parties to the trial, except they should be indicted as accomplices, and said slaves shall be tried at first by the judges or ordinary jurisdiction with the same rules, formalities, and proceedings observed for free persons, save the exceptions mentioned hereafter.
“Twenty-seven. The slave who, having struck his master, his mistress, or their families, shall suffer capital punishment.
“Twenty-eight. With regard to outrages or acts of violence committed by slaves against free persons, [00:13:00] it is our will that they be punished with severity, and even with death should the case require it.
“Thirty-one. In cases of thefts committed or damages done by their slaves, masters shall be bound to make amends for the injuries resulting from the acts of said slaves, unless they prefer abandoning them to the sufferer.
“Thirty-two. The runaway slave, gone for a month, shall have his ears cut off and shall be branded with the flower-de-luce on the shoulder, and [00:13:30] on a second offense he shall be hamstrung and be marked with the flower-de-luce on the other shoulder. On the third offense, he shall suffer death.
“Thirty-four. Freed or freeborn Negros and all other free persons who shall have afforded refuge in their houses to fugitive slaves shall be sentenced to pay to the masters of said slaves per day, or may be re-enslaved to cover the debts.
“Thirty-five. We permit our subjects in this colony who may have slaves concealed in any place [00:14:00] whatever to have them sought after by such persons, and in such a way as they may deem proper.
“Thirty-seven. We forbid all the officers to take any fees or receive any perquisites in criminal suits against slaves under the penalty in doing so of being dealt with as guilty of extortion.
“Thirty-eight. We also forbid all our subjects in this colony, whatever their condition or rank may be, to apply on their own private authority the rack to their slaves under any [00:14:30] pretense whatever, and to mutilate said slaves in any one of their limbs or in any part of their bodies, under the penalty of the confiscation of said slaves and possible criminal prosecution. We only permit masters, when they shall think that the case requires it, to put their slaves in irons and to have them whipped with rods or ropes.
“Thirty-nine. We command our officers of justice in this colony to institute criminal process against masters and overseers who shall have killed or mutilated [00:15:00] their slaves when in their power and under their supervision, and to punish said murderer according to the atrocity of the circumstances, and in case the offense shall be a pardonable one, we permit them to pardon said masters and overseers.
“Forty-three. Husbands and wives shall not be seized and sold separately when belonging to the same master, and their children when under 14 years of age shall not be separated from their parents, and such seizures and sales shall be null and void.
” [00:15:30] Fifty. Masters when 25 years old shall have the power to manumit their slaves after obtaining permission from the superior council.
“Fifty-one. However, should slaves be appointed by their masters tutors to their children, said slaves shall be held and regarded as being thereby set free to all intents and purposes.
“Fifty-three. We command all manumitted slaves to show their profoundest respect to their former masters, to their widows and children.
” [00:16:00] Fifty-four. We grant to manumitted slaves the same rights, privileges, and immunities which are enjoyed by freeborn persons. It is our pleasure that their merit in having acquired their freedom shall produce in their favor, not only with regard to their persons but also to their property, the same effects which our other subjects derive from the happy circumstances of their having been born free.”
Anthony Comegna: Theoretically, the Code Noir joined with the French Civil [00:16:30] Code to create the fundamental legal orders of Louisiana, but the practices of daily life rarely followed the letter of the law. Ask any of the city’s biracial Creole population. Every one of them was living proof that laws don’t really govern our world. African slaves constantly practiced rebellion. In New Orleans’ first decade, the major threat to the colony really came from runaway slaves joining Natchez Indians. Sieur de Bienville reached peace with the [00:17:00] indigenous peoples by securing promises to return all runaways, dead or alive. White New Orleans citizens feared joint rebellion by Natchez Indians and African slaves perhaps above all else, and this inspired Governor Périer’s War of Extermination against all of the Natchez. For their part, New Orleans’ white population lived pretty fat and happy. The white minority had no interest in class rebellion. Their new world of race unity suited them very well.
[00:17:30] Meanwhile, the black majority regularly escaped to more equal societies. Everywhere and always, the daily practice of slavery was a socially negotiated process. The masters, of course, still held official power over their slaves, but the slaves never relinquished their own agency. The slaves’ most common violation of the Code Noir was a practice called petty Marronage, escaping away from the plantation for a few days [00:18:00] at a time and then returning later. Perhaps most slaves were petty Maroons at one point or another, but this was really something the masters simply had to tolerate. If they prosecuted every case, if they took it upon themselves to torture and kill every petty Maroon that they owned, the masters quickly would have no more slaves. Whatever the law said, the planters had to accept a certain degree of black liberty in practice.
In French Louisiana’s entire history, there were fewer than 100 cases [00:18:30] of Maroonage, and only one in four were petty Maroons. The real danger remained the grand Maroons, those permanent refugees from slavery sculpting their own Creole life ways and societies in the swamps and bayous. The grand Maroons were never actually a military threat, but they were scary. They were out there, never intending to return home, making their own world.
The Code Noir was really no different when you come down to [00:19:00] it than John Law’s paper money. It was a promise to pay a certain amount of privilege to the white population at the expense of the black population. But just as John Law’s paper notes failed to actually produce anything of value to pay shareholders, the Code Noir’s paper law failed to actually restrain the black majority’s behavior before the fact. The law does not actually control behavior. You do. The law even implicitly and explicitly recognized the slave’s humanity, [00:19:30] their spiritual equality. So how could Louisiana’s white residents really expect the law to actually prevent slave rebellion or revolution? No dictates from Paris, no paper law code could really prevent that. No amount of paper promises or privileges would save them from wave after wave of bloody rebellion.
The white population could not actually control their slaves’ behavior, and they knew it, so they doubled down [00:20:00] and they formed their own new sort of society, specifically organized to counter slave rebellion and to quash it if it ever reared its head. The slave-holding coalition lived alongside their Creoles through decades of upheaval, revolution, and change. Over a century-and-a-half, planters great and small retained commitments to racial hierarchy, and that slave production never faltered. There is no indication that New Orleans had a larger biracial [00:20:30] population than other colonial contexts, and the Creole society there we love so much today emerged out of separation and terrorism, not peaceful combination and coexistence.
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