News / Americas

Haiti's Declaration of Independence Found in British Archives

The only known copy of Haiti's Declaration of Independence has been discovered by a Canadian graduate student in Britain's National Archives. In the 1950s historians tried and failed to find the declaration for Haiti's 150th anniversary.

On January 1, 1804, former slaves proclaimed the independence of their country Saint-Domingue from France, declaring the new nation be named Haïti. Though it was known that documents declaring the country's emancipation were printed, none had ever been found.

That's until a Canadian graduate student tracked it down recently, tucked away in Britain's National Archives.

Duke University graduate student Julia Gaffield was doing research in France and in Haiti, and found reference to a printed declaration in a Jamaican library. Jamaica was then a British Colony, so she came here to London, to search the British archives.

"I didn't quite expect to find it because, you know, obviously there have been no copies anywhere else, but I knew there was a chance and I guess I was just hoping," she said.

When she turned the pages in the bound letter book that held documents from 1804 she found a cover letter from the governor of Jamaica and Haiti's Declaration of Independence.

"I was slightly surprised by what it looked like because it was in pamphlet form rather than a large proclamation that would be posted up in a public space, so you know it's this very grandiose and spectacular document, but the presentation of it was kind of underwhelming I guess," she said.

Historian Alex von Tunzelmann says the discovery is important because it gives a look into  the only country in the Western Hemisphere where slaves successfully revolted to gain national independence.

"This was a slave colony that had risen up and defeated the white colonial rule and then become independent, the first real successful really slave revolt in history," he explained.

Gaffield says it set a precedent. "It is the second declaration of independence ever issued and in a way set the standard for what would come," she said. "The American declaration was the first, but since Haiti followed suit it then became the typical thing you do when you become independent, you issue an official declaration of independence."

The seven-page document is in French and starts with the words Liberty or Death, echoing the battle cry of the American Revolution, "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death." It concludes by asking the people of Haiti to take an oath to "live free or die, to uphold the independence of Haiti until their last breaths."

While historians had already known the contents of the document, Gaffield says it was still moving.

"It's an emotional document, it's a poetic document," she stated. "I often think of it as a call to arms and an expression of the fact that the fight for independence was not over yet."

Gaffield says one measure of success of that fight is that Haiti exists today. In the wake of the country's devastating earthquake In January, she says finding this document is even more special.

"So much has been lost in Haiti right now and it's a wonderful feeling to be able give something back," she said. "And to remind Haitians and the world that Haiti has a pretty great history that was very powerful and world changing."

Gaffield is a couple of years from finishing her doctoral dissertation that led her to find Haiti's Declaration of Independence. She says there could still be a lot of documents about the country's history yet to be found.

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