George Breathett on the Code Noir of 1685!

Prominent African American historian on colonial slavery & religion (Roman Catholicism) in the French colony of Saint-Domingue Prof. George Breathett of Bennett College (Greensboro, North Carolina) was an excellent interpreter of the colonial system. I found him to be a fair, insightful, knowledgeable, well-balanced, rigorous, and amicable historian and writer.

Does anyone have a picture of him?

I do not think many Haitian scholars and historians who wrote about slavery and religion in the French colony of Saint-Domingue are familiar with his work–rarely do they interact with his writings. Of course, Professor Breathett published in the English language.

In his article on the Code Noir of 1685 (the Black Code), Breathett makes the following reasoning and observation:

“The Code Noir was one of the most significant humanitarian developments in the history of colonial Haiti. The benevolent outlook and practices of the Church and its continued agitation for concrete slave legislation, plus Christian piety and enlightenment, greatly influenced the Code’s passage. Had the existing status of the slave been maintained, it would have destroyed, in the long run, the effectiveness of the Church and the Church’s teachings…

Was the Code Noir effective and enforced? While there are evidences of cruelty toward slaves in Haiti, it can be that the Code gave the slave a form of constitutional protection, though unenforceable on a day-to-day basis. Vaissiere sates that notwithstanding some abuses, the more responsible colonists approved the Code. Although many writers have stated that the planters and merchants of Haiti were cruel to their slaves, it is difficult to believe that valuable economic property would be treated so carelessly on an extensive or mass scale. Such would have been economic folly; and if the burning, binding, and crippling of black slaves had been commonplace, Haiti could not have become the wealthiest colony in the French empire during this period. Certainly, the treatment of slaves in the French colonies was mild, compared to the severity of the English slavemaster, who held virtually unlimited power and sanctioned some of the most horrid enormities ever tolerated by law.

The promulgation of the Code Noir represented, legally at least, a triumph of Christian justice and humanitarianism. Its major provisions depicted the attitude of the Church and its missionaries toward slavery and paved the way for continued elevation of the status of the slave through the works of the Church and its Christianization efforts” (George Breathett, “Catholicism and the Code Noir in Haiti,” pp. 7, 10, 1988)

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