The Problem and Early Responses
In the early seventeenth century the French Caribbean colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint Christophe imported indentured servants from France to raise crops like tobacco, which could be fanned in small plots by only a few fieldworkers. Some colonists did well by these and other ventures, increased their landholdings, and began to invest in a labor-intensive but potentially more lucrative product: sugar. 1 To meet the increased demand for labor that accompanied sugar production in the West Indies, Louis XIV's minister Colbert granted the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales ( 1664) and its successors, the Compagnie du Sénégal ( 1674), and the Compagnie de Guinée ( 1683), exclusive permission to transport slaves from Africa to the French colonies. 2 By 1685, the French government had found it necessary to establish rules that would regulate the relationship between masters and slaves for all the French colonies. These were set out in 1685 in an elaborate royal decree known as the Code Noir. 3
None of the laws regulating slavery or the slave trade, however, specified what should happen if a colonial slave made his or her way to France. When the king and his ministers granted slave-trading privileges to the Senegal and Guinea Companies, they were thinking of the financial revenues that would cross the Atlantic, not the transportation of institution of slavery into the nation's bosom. The Code Noir, subtitled "the police of the islands of America," was designed to bring Catholicism to the heathen and curb the abuses of cruel masters across the sea.