Starting with the establishment of the first permanent colonial settlements in the Americas at the beginning of the 17th century, the French engaged in slavery. In 1315, King Louis X prohibited the institution of slavery in the royal kingdom. In 1576, the legal expert Jean Bodin reiterated in les Six livres de la République the principle of free French soil, according to which any enslaved person stepping foot in the realm would become free. But the French participated in the Crusades between Christian and Muslim nations with captives being held for ransom or pressed into slavery as oarsmen in galleys. Moreover, the Spanish who preceded them in the New World had developed a slave trade early on, enslaving both Indigenous and African people. 
The French crown’s support for the development of the transatlantic slave trade corresponded to the period in the 1660s when it decided to increase its control over its American colonies, most of which had, up to that time, been governed autonomously by companies or high-ranking nobles. The aim was to claim the profits of the colonial and slave economy for the metropole by imposing an exclusionary system which restricted trade within imperial borders and levied taxes on exchanges between the metropole, trade posts, and colonies. In 1674, the islands became part of the royal domain.
The State also supported the development of slavery through its legislative actions. Local ordinances were published in the Lesser Antilles in 1664. In the 1680s, Jean-Baptiste Colbert consulted with colonial authorities to draft a general code defining the status of enslaved people and regulating relations between slaveholders and those they enslaved. The result was the royal edict later known as the Code Noir, which was enacted in Martinique and Guadeloupe in 1685. The French empire thus became the only empire before the second half of the 18th century in which specific legislation on colonial slavery emanated from the metropole. The Code Noir was later applied in each of the French colonies, including Louisiana which adopted a partially modified version in 1724. Canada was the exception, but the king authorized the importation of enslaved Africans there in 1689 and legalized the enslavement of Indigenous Peoples in 1709.
Although the Crown gave all of its colonies the legal means to practice slavery, the phenomenon did not carry the same weight from one part of the empire to the next. Canada was a slave society, but enslaved people there were comparatively few in number and did not play a primary role in the systems of production. The colonial authorities and colonists in Canada did bring enslaved Africans from the Antilles, but the fur trade that supplied the principal goods for export relied on the cooperation of Indigenous peoples. The enslavement of Indigenous peoples nonetheless played a role in the negotiation of geopolitical relations with First Nations, as it enabled a differentiation between those who participated in or were excluded from the French-Indigenous alliances without which the French would not have been able to remain in North America.
In the 18th century, the center of slavery in the French Atlantic empire was located in the greater Caribbean, including the Antilles, Guyana, and, until 1769, Louisiana. In the islands, the French immediately sought to develop plantation economies, but they initially employed European workers alongside enslaved Africans and Indigenous peoples. The shift from tobacco to sugar cane in the last quarter of the 17th century accelerated the transition to a system of slavery in Martinique and Guadeloupe at a time when the French slave trade was taking off. The phenomenon occurred later in Saint-Domingue, but that colony took the lead in the first quarter of the 18th century. Enslaved people came to represent between 80 and 90 percent of the total population in the 1780s. Their living and working conditions differed between towns and plantations and, on plantations, according to whether the crops cultivated were sugar cane, coffee, or indigo.     
In 1789 Saint-Domingue, the wealthiest colony in the world, was powering much of France’s colonial and external trade when the French and Haitian Revolutions broke out. After initial abolition in 1794, slavery was reestablished in France’s remaining American colonies in 1802. It would take until 1848 for enslaved people to definitively obtain emancipation.


Published in may 2021