Documenting Freedom

Duke graduate student Julia Gaffield received worldwide attention for her discovery of a long-lost copy of Haiti's Declaration of Independence. The find will shed light on a seldom-studied past and make Haiti's rich history come alive for a new generation.
June 1, 2010
Portrait by Brownie Harris
Eye on history: Gaffield examines reproduction of declaration. Credit: Brownie Harris.

Where to find national solace in the midst of national misery? Julia Gaffield has an answer: in history.

With word this spring that Gaffield had found the original official printed copy of Haiti’s Declaration of Independence—the only government-issued copy currently known to exist—there was suddenly a more nuanced, and hope-filled, narrative for earthquake-devastated Haiti.

Gaffield, a Duke graduate student whose doctoral dissertation will explore how early-nineteenth-century Haiti interacted with the international community, found the document, an eight-page pamphlet dated January 1, 1804, in London, at Britain’s National Archives. The first such declaration was the U.S. Declaration of Independence; this is the world’s second. And it was more than just an assertion of independence. It was the culmination of the only successful slave revolt in the history of the world—the conceiving of “a black republic,” Gaffield says, “at a time of colonialism and slavery.”

Right after it was announced in early April, Gaffield’s discovery received coverage in The New York Times, the Times of London, Toronto’s Globe and Mail, and newspapers in Puerto Rico, Austria, Finland, China, Guyana, and France. Gaffield was featured on a dozen radio shows, among them the BBC’s “The World,” the Canadian Broadcasting Company's "As It Happens," and the NPR station in Miami (which has a large Haitian population). A recent Google search yielded 48,000 hits for the phrase "Julia Gaffield Haiti."

From that encounter Gaffield was inspired to make her first trip to Haiti, the summer after her sophomore year, to work with the organization. It was the first time she had traveled anywhere but Canada or the U.S. “Julia came back full of questions about her experience and the history behind what she had seen and didn’t fully understand,” says Newton, who, with a colleague, later directed Gaffield in an independent study.

“All history is interesting,” says Newton. “But for many students, Caribbean history strikes a particular chord. It helps them understand their place in the world, including issues of social inequity.” The tradition of independence is as deep in Haiti as it is in France or the U.S., she adds. “The odds were stacked against Haiti from the beginning. Yet Haiti did endure in the face of great challenges and great crises, and the commitment of the Haitian people to their own sovereignty has also endured.”

Just a week after the news of Gaffield’s find broke, Newton was attending a conference on Haitian reconstruction at the
University of Ottawa. Photographs of the document discovered by Gaffield were being circulated among conference participants. “This has major implications for conversations happening right now,” Newton says, because it reinforces the need to understand Haiti’s fraught past in imagining Haiti’s post-earthquake future. “There could not possibly be a moment when Haitians needed this discovery more—or when the international community needed to be reminded of this more. The timing was so powerful and so poignant.”

Portrait of Julia Gaffield

Drawn to Haiti: A Caribbean survey course prompted Gaffield to switch majors from kinesiology to history. Credit: Brownie Harris 

Haitian history was not the expected academic path for Gaffield. A varsity basketball player (she’s five feet eight inches and played shooting guard in college), she had started in Toronto’s kinesiology program. But she was unhappy with her choice. “I just hated the program, and I was not doing well,” she says. “I came home at Christmas, and I sat down with my mom and dad and said, ‘I think I want to switch programs.’ And they asked, ‘Okay, what do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, maybe history? I really like that Caribbean history class that I’m taking.’”
It was her first happy exposure to history. All through high school, she had found history classes tedious, much to the consternation of her father, Chad Gaffield, who teaches Canadian history at the University of Ottawa and is the president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Her mother, Pam Gaffield, is a pharmacy technician; she co-authored a book with her husband, Consuming Canada. Gaffield adjusted her course program for her second semester and ended up with a history major and a minor in Caribbean studies.
From her first visit to Haiti, she was struck especially by the aesthetic richness in such a poor society. “I don’t study art in any formal way, but what I really appreciated about Haiti was the art,” says Gaffield. Even post earthquake, observers have noted with amazement that Haitians will only step onto public buses that are vividly painted: A good aesthetic sense contributes to a reputation for good driving. “Every house is painted in vibrant colors,” Gaffield says. “Everywhere you go, there are paintings or sculptures. It’s not what you think you'’ll see in a place where there is such immense poverty.
The aesthetics of the British archives, near Kew Gardens in London, where she made her discovery, are more Cool Britannica than quaint Old World. One guidebook describes it as “a rather nasty-looking beige and green premises.” Over a two-and-a-half week stretch in late January and early February, Gaffield found London’s winter to be, typically, bone-chilling cold—though tolerably so to Gaffield, a Canadian. But weather was hardly the factor that lured her indoors. She worked in the reading room, just beyond an exhibition gallery that regularly displays the Domesday Book, trial records of Charles I, the census return for Queen Victoria and the royal family in 1851, and a citizen’s petition to change his name to Elton John. Its eleven million records cover the Central Courts of Law from the twelfth century onward, the central and local governments, national maps and plans, the rolls of the military services, the cabinet and Home Office, and—most relevant to Gaffield’s search—the Foreign and Colonial Office, particularly the Colonial Office records for Jamaica.
Gaffield had “an eye out” for the document, she recalls. “We figured there was an original somewhere, but we didn’t know ifit still existed.” She says she recognized it immediately: LIBERTÉ OU LA MORT ran in big block letters across the top.
“The archives of this period in Haiti are very limited or scattered,” says Laurent Dubois, a Duke professor of Romance studies and history and one of Gaffield’s dissertation advisers. “Certainly the Haitian state didn’t really start collecting systematically that early in the nineteenth century.”
Gaffield had met Dubois during a visit in the fall of 2005 to Michigan State University, where he was teaching at the time.
He was on the verge of moving to Duke and talked with Gaffield about Duke’s growing strength in Caribbean history; both came to Duke in the fall of 2008. Dubois says that longtime Duke history professor (now emeritus) Peter Wood was one of the first to write about the Caribbean influences on the American South. “If you look at the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Caribbean is sort of the hub, and North America is on the edge—it’s not the center of the Atlantic. Duke was quite ahead of the pack in saying that you can’t really separate the Caribbean and the U.S. They’re part of the same field.”
Haiti declared its independence from France on January 1, 1804, about six weeks after Haitian forces decisively defeated the French army. The insurrection of Haiti’s black population had begun in 1791. Slavery was abolished in Haiti two years later, as a direct result of the slave insurrection; the French government quickly extended the policy throughout its empire.
In 1801, Haiti’s Toussaint Louverture published a constitution naming himself governor for life, and Napoleon sent a large French force under the command of his brother-in-law to invade the colony and re-establish control. Hostilities were heightened after the deportation and imprisonment of Louverture in the summer of 1802 and after news arrived of the re-establishment of slavery in some other French colonies.
Edward Corbet, a British government agent, traveled twice from Jamaica to Haiti, where he proposed greater trade of European manufactured goods for Haiti’s chief exports—coffee, sugar, cotton, and cocoa. Haitian leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines demanded arms and ammunition, but the British denied his request. After his second trip, Corbet wrote a letter to Governor George Nugent of Jamaica. The letter refers to a printed copy of Haiti’s Declaration of Independence, saying, “The copy I have now the honor of presenting to you had not been an hour from the press.”
Gaffield combed the archives in the National Library of Jamaica in Kingston but didn’t find that copy. She realized, though, that whatever was missing from the archives in Jamaica—at the time a British colony— probably would show up in Britain. “The Caribbean was such an international space,” says Gaffield. The British had tried to take advantage of the revolution to acquire the valuable colony for themselves; they occupied parts of Haiti for several years and reestablished slavery there. “They were very integrated into this situation,” Gaffield observes.
She was on the lookout for the document, then, when she began reviewing materials in Britain’s National Archives related to Haitian independence. “They have all the records bound in these big books for every colony. I had been flipping through the books, and I would take photos of documents that I knew were relevant,” Gaffield recalls. “I have a very good ability to scan pages looking for certain words.” The declaration was in “a packet of all sorts of documents” sent by Nugent, the governor of Jamaica, to Lord Robert Hobart, an adviser to the Crown, on March 10, 1804.
“I just kind of sat there and awkwardly smiled,” Gaffield says. “Of course, it was midday, and I couldn’t just leave because it’s an afternoon of research, right? I’m there for two weeks, and I have to maximize all this time. I couldn’t even get up and rush over to e-mail people, because you can’t send e-mails from the archives. So I just kind of said to myself, ‘Goal!’ and continued taking pictures.” 
Uprising: Louverture and supporters fight the French in Sain-Domingue, as pre-revolutionary Haiti was known

Uprising: Louverture and supporters fight the French in Sain-Domingue, as pre-revolutionary Haiti was known. Credit: Bettman/CORBIS.


Written in French, the declaration has three parts. In the first two pages, the generals of the Haitian army sign their names to an oath swearing to renounce forever the French yoke or die rather than live under its domination: “It is not enough to have expelled the barbarians who have bloodied our land for two centuries.… We must, with one last act of national authority, forever assure the empire of liberty is the country of our birth.” Next, Dessalines addresses the citizens of Haiti in an impassioned defense of independence and the destiny of the nation. He calls on Haitians to “vow to ourselves, to posterity, to the entire universe, to forever renounce France, and to die rather than live under its domination; to fight until our last breath for the independence of our country.” On the final page, the generals proclaim Dessalines governor-general for life and swear to obey without question laws issued under his authority.

The document in the British archives is marked on the back with an official government stamp, which helped validate the assumption that it was an original and not a reprint. It was issued “at the end of an incredibly brutal war,” says Dubois. “In a way it was a total war by the French against the entire black population of the island. There’s a fury in the declaration, a rage that’s linked to this very specific context. The American revolutionaries rhetorically referred to the situation of slavery. But in Haiti it was real. This was a population that was largely enslaved on plantations. So they were refusing foreign control, refusing the control of other people over their bodies, their labor, their lives, their families. The Haitian declaration is a very passionate rejection of all that has come before.”

“While there’s a huge amount of work on the Haitian Revolution, the early period of Haitian national independence has not been studied that much,” Dubois continues. “Partly that’s because you don’t have a really big, well-organized archive and an easy-to-access location. So historians have tended to shy away from it.”

At the time it declared its independence, Haiti was the richest colony in the world, notes Deborah Jenson, professor of Romance studies at Duke. (Jenson came to Duke last year from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Shortly after she arrived, she met Gaffield, and the two of them went to Haiti together for an academic conference.) By the late eighteenth century, Saint-Domingue, as Haiti was known before the revolution, was producing about 40 percent of the sugar and 60 percent of the coffee consumed in Europe. “This is the big question that absorbs everyone: How could you go from the wealthiest colony in the world in the eighteenth century to what is now the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere?”

Jenson says that Haiti became economically and culturally marginalized shortly after independence. In the U.S., Southern politicians feared that diplomatic recognition of Haiti would undermine slave-based economies. “By the spring of 1806, the
tide of public sentiment was turning against international diplomatic relations and free ‘neutral’ commerce with the new
black nation.”

To ward off threats of future French military action, Haitian leaders agreed to indemnity payments to compensate for the seizure of French property. Those payments would amount to the equivalent today of $21.2 billion. “One can imagine that if
Haiti and the U.S. had set up enduring and open trade networks, everything might have worked out differently,” Jenson says.

Among the early obstacles to Haitian prosperity was Dessalines’ continuing effort to eradicate small remaining groups of
French landholders in Haiti; he saw in them the threat of the re-establishment of French dominion in Haiti. Dessalines, a former slave, “was a brilliant military leader and activist for black freedom and autonomy,” as Jenson describes him, “but he was no Gandhi.”

“This whole period of conflict was extremely brutal, with both sides ultimately carrying out a series of atrocities,” says Dubois. “This process actually began under Louverture’s leadership, when the French troops arrived, and famously included the use of attack dogs by the French. The casualties from this period were staggering, as was the destruction of towns. All of this,
of course, played a role in shaping the tone and anger of the 1804 proclamation.” After independence, Dessalines showed himself to be no George Washington, as well: He was inspired by Napoleon’s example to proclaim himself emperor.

Before independence, the labor for Haiti’s plantations was provided by an estimated 790,000 African slaves—accounting for a third of the entire Atlantic slave trade. That aspect of its history is at the root of Haiti’s “hugely traumatic legacies,” as Jenson puts it. “These were people who had come from many different parts of Africa. They came from different religious backgrounds, different linguistic backgrounds. So in the end they were facing extraordinary obstacles, and they have continued to.”

Haiti’s leaders probably printed copies of the Declaration of Independence like the one Gaffield found to mail to other governments and international newspapers, says Jenson, who has studied the U.S. publication of Haitian documents. “I was really stunned when I began working with digital newspaper archives to realize that the text was published in virtually every small town and large city on the Eastern Seaboard. I had always had the assumption that the U.S.was hostile to Haiti. What I found is that initially there was considerable interest—there were editorials saying that no one can contest the right of the Haitians to declare their independence.”

The process of drafting the declaration remains murky to historians. So does its authorship, though Jenson considers Dessalines the most likely candidate. “Dessalines was not literate, but that does not mean that he was not tremendously canny about the production of documents. In the political and military area, very few people were writing their own documents by hand; someone like Napoleon would have been dictating his correspondence. This was the model that the Haitian revolutionary generals were exposed to—sort of a team preparation of documents. But I came to feel that there is an effective authorship here that is uncontestable, that you can hear Dessalines’ thinking. It doesn’t mean that he wasn’t in dialogue with his fellow generals. It does mean that he was crafting something fundamental about what Haitian independence meant and how it would be presented to the broader world.”

In Jenson’s view, Dessalines—who reclaimed the indigenous name of “Hayti” (Mountainous Country, in the language spoken by the indigenous Taino inhabitants) for the new nation—was particularly interested in targeting his message to the U.S., as part of “a legacy of cultural intertwining between close neighbors.” That legacy, she notes, includes Haitians fighting in the American Revolution, along with ongoing commercial ties through shipping. It also includes the Louisiana Purchase: The defeat of the French at the hands of the Haitians was a key reason behind Napoleon’s decision to sell the Louisiana territory to the U.S. The reconstruction of Saint-Domingue had been the centerpiece of Napoleon’s plans for the Americas. Once he lost the colony, Louisiana became far less valuable to him.

Multiple copies of the Haitian declaration were undoubtedly printed, with some sent to newspapers. Unfortunately, Jenson says, newspapers, unlike governments, don’t consider themselves archiving institutions, and there’s no known newspaper archive that includes Haiti’s printed declaration.

Still, at the time, editorial opinion was broadly supportive. An editorial in the Aurora General Advertiser of Philadelphia presented Haitian independence as fundamentally parallel to that of the U.S.: It called the right to proclaim independence “unquestionably inherent in the people of that island,” adding that “there is not a doubt but that the colonial system, pursued since the assumption of the supreme authority of France by Bonaparte, provoked the severance at an earlier period than it would otherwise have taken place.”

Despite its avid interest in Haiti’s shifting status, the U.S. did not recognize Haitian independence until 1862, under Abraham Lincoln. In a message to Congress, Lincoln said, “If any good reason exists why we should persevere longer in withholding our recognition of the independence and sovereignty of Hayti …, I am unable to discern it.” He went on to point to “important commercial advantages” that might be secured by “favorable commercial treaties with them.”

France had officially recognized its former colony in 1825. “Some in the U.S. realized that there was some commonality in the struggle for freedom,” Dubois says. “But ultimately those who were deeply embedded in the slave culture saw this mainly as slaves rising up and killing their masters. And that obviously made them uncomfortable.”

Researchers had long searched for a printed version of the declaration. “It’s tremendously surprising, even confounding” that no original printed document turned up earlier, Jenson says.

In December 1952, the Haitian intellectual Edmond Mangonès wrote to his country’s Commission of Social Sciences on the 150th anniversary of independence to report on what he thought had happened to the original printed version: “All searches to date have been in vain, as we know.” The presumed custodians of Haiti’s culture had not concerned themselves with the fate of printed copies “from the original time period,” he added. “It is really beyond belief that not even a copy of the original printed version has been found in France, or in England, or in the United States.”