Inspired in part by Roman law, the Code Noir adopted in the Lesser Antilles in 1685 authorized manumission, the act of a slaveholder freeing an enslaved person. It granted freedpeople the status of French naturals (subjects of the King of France) without requiring letters of naturalization. On one hand, the edict affirmed that freedpeople benefited from the same liberties or civil rights as French naturals born free; on the other hand, it required them to show deference to their former enslavers and punished especially severely those who aided enslaved people seeking freedom. Above all, the text reflected the debate that had developed early on regarding the racial status of children born from unions between a slaveholder and an enslaved woman. Borrowed from the Spanish, categories of racial identification proliferated, although “mulatto” was long the only term used to describe individuals with any degree of multiracial ancestry. The significance of racial categories, that is to say the forms of discrimination and violence experienced by people placed in each category, was in continual flux.
 
Freedpeople and their descendents were most often referred to as “free blacks” or “free mulattos.” The expression “free people of color” was not in widespread use until after 1763, when political debates about the group’s status gained new vigor. Historical actors understood this category to be either more or less expansive, restricting it, or not, to people considered to be multiracial. However, historians use the term “free people of color” to refer to all freedpeople and their descendants who were born free whether their ancestry is African or mutiracial. 
 
The authorities quickly sought to control or limit manumissions. They prohibited enslaved people from purchasing their own freedom, although this did not stop the practice from developing. They also required slaveholders to obtain prior authorization from the governor and the intendant (a high-ranking colonial official) and, in the Antilles after 1745, to pay a tax. But many slaveholders liberated enslaved people without following this protocol. This led to the creation of a group who were “de facto free,” living in a legal limbo.
 
The population of free people of color in the Antilles grew throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but remained quite low in French Louisiana. In 1789, free people of color represented 5.9% of the total population in Martinique, 5.2% in Saint-Domingue, and 2.8% in Guadeloupe. This growth was the result of manumissions and, especially, the natural increase of freedpeople and their descendents. The interpersonal relationships that urban slavery fostered led to manumissions being more frequent in towns than on plantations. A large portion of those freed were enslaved concubines and the children born of these multiracial relationships. The urban economy also facilitated the accumulation of savings and therefore the purchasing of one’s own freedom. A final path to liberty, this time reserved for men, was through militia service.
 
In the Lesser Antilles, a large portion of free people of color lived in towns and rural villages, while in Saint-Dominque their numbers were equally large among coffee planters. Above all, they came to constitute a non-negligible economic force, especially in towns, thanks to their involvement in the crafts, transportation, services, and commerce. This very real upward social mobility, including for free women of color, contrasted with an increasingly segregationist juridical-administrative policy.  
 
In time, particularly after 1763, legal discrimination against free people of color might have varied from one colony to the next but tended to coalesce around several broad themes: legal treatment, poll taxes, inheritance from White people, militia service, the exercise of certain trades, the use of last names and racial identifications, or even the governance of public space (segregation in churches, cemeteries, or theaters). These measures were not, however, always respected in practice. Others were never sanctioned by law (interracial marriages were not outlawed in Louisiana until 1724), but were socially imposed (interracial marriages all but disappeared in the second half of the 18th century everywhere except in the south of Saint-Domingue.) In the towns of Saint-Domingue, attacks by free people of color against Whites resulted in criminal proceedings, as opposed to civil cases when it came to Whites attacking free people of color. It is therefore not surprising that the rights of free people of color were the subject of significant legal debates at the beginning of the revolutionary period and again in the 19th century after slavery was reestablished.

 

Published in may 2021