It was an historic discovery. You can touch it, even turn its pages. But only with white cotton gloves. Yet the eight-page, yellowed, pamphlet feels so precious, sacred even that I leave it to my host and its keeper, James Cronan, a Diplomatic and Colonial records Specialist in Britain’s National Archives in Kew.
“It’s a gem, and I am sure there are more in here,” he says, staring down at the large weathered leather-bound volume of hand-written correspondence into which it is tightly bound. “Ironically we had catalogued the volume before this one and the volume after. But not the most crucial one.”
The document in question is the most important in Haiti’s history and one of the most significant in the modern world: the only extant original printed copy of Haiti’s Declaration of Independence. Until February 2, 2010 it had remained hidden for more than 200 years amongst the papers and correspondence of Sir George Nugent, the Governor of Jamaica during some of the span of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804).
That was when Julia Gaffield, a Canadian Duke University graduate student researching Haiti’s transition to independence in early nineteenth century for her doctorate, was studying the 200-year old documents bound into volume CO 137/111, folios 113-117. “I wasn’t specifically looking for it, but I had an eye out because I knew it was missing,” Julia says. “We figured out there was an original somewhere, but did not know if it still existed.”
The clue had been a reference to the document in the National Archives of Jamaica that Julia had read. It was in a letter dated January 25 1804 in the spidery, now faded scrawl of one Edward Corbet, in Haiti with the official title HM Agent for British Affairs: unofficial title, trade negotiator, entrepreneur and eyes and ears of the British Empire in one of the most turbulent fiefdoms of its sworn enemy, France.
“He made reference in this letter to the enclosed Declaration of Independence, saying it was not more than one hour off the press,” says Julia. But the only thing she had been able to find in Jamaica was a handwritten copy of the Declaration. No original printed version which Corbet said he had “presented” with the letter.
Hence to London. Despite having all the knowledge and background to immediately realize the significance of her discovery, Julia did not scream “Eureka!” in the rarified atmosphere of Kew. “The Archives are not the place to make a big scene,” says Julia in her somewhat understated way. “But I did take a photo. Luckily they allow you do that in Britain.”
In fact, Julia continued her research until the end of the day, returned the leather-bound volume to the miles of shelves and did not even notify her supervisors at Duke University in North Carolina until she got home that evening – and then only by email. “Actually, I did not even have my phone in London!”
Julia Gaffield’s discovery was the end of a long search and a huge fillip to a country languishing in the immediate aftermath of the devastation of the January 12 earthquake. One of Julia’s academic advisers, Laurent Dubois, noted that in 1952, in preparation for the 150th anniversary of Haitian independence, Haitian intellectual Edmond Mangones had been asked to find an original copy of the document to put on public display.
He searched everywhere – in vain. “It is really beyond belief that not one printed version has been found in France, England or the United States,” he wrote in exasperation.
In fact, the eight-page, five-inch by nine-inch pamphlet discovered in London is three distinct documents.
In the first two pages, headlined Liberte ou La Mort, the Haitian generals and their senior officers sign an oath pledging their commitment to “the well defined project of independence.” All of them swear “to posterity, to the entire world, never to give up to France, and to die rather than to live under its domination.”
The next five pages are an impassioned address by the Liberation Army’s General in Chief, Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Entitled Au Peuple d’Hayti, but in fact destined as much for an audience in the world beyond as that at home, it is an impassioned defence of the right to independence and of Haitians right to define their own destiny.
The final page makes clear to the nation and the world who is the new ruler of Haiti — who citizens and foreign powers alike should be dealing with. The Haitian Army Generals proclaim Jean-Jacques Dessalines Governor General for Life and swear to obey without question laws issued under his authority.
Recorded by Boisrond Tonnerre, the Army Secretary, it seems clear that the document did not come off the printing presses until weeks after January 1st 1804 when Dessalines’ speech declaring Haiti independent was actually made.
“I don’t think they even had real control of the country’s presses at the time of his speech,” says James Cronan. “Later, say in 1807 when Christophe’s constitution was published – which we also have a copy of –-they turned things around very quickly. By then the revolutionary government had consolidated its position.”
In fact, as his reference to the 1807 constitution makes clear the Declaration of Independence pamphlet is only the most important of many Haitian items the National Archives boasts. One highly-prized item is a huge folded poster headlined LIBERTE et INDEPENDENCE proclaiming the arrival of the new constitution as the beginning of new era in Haitian history.
Yet almost as fascinating are the documents that relate to the little known British intervention in Haiti starting in 1793 when Britain and France went to war. This was initially designed to exploit the turmoil in the colony after the revolution in France but as the Haitian revolution gained momentum, such intervention became more of an effort to reestablish the regional order, the revolt being a huge potential menace to British slave colonies in the region.
The documents from this period include copies of 11 letters from Toussaint L’Ouverture, the revolution’s leader and commander in chief before his capture by the French in 1803. “They all date from between November 1798 and April 1799 and were captured by British forces,” explains James Cronan.
Julia Gaffield says that many such letters were, in fact, actually sent to representatives of imperial powers like Britain as part of a quest for legitimacy. “Haitian leaders wanted recognition, wanted status, wanted equal treatment,” says Gaffield. “For instance, in June 1803, Dessalines [Touissaint’s successor] wrote to Nugent proposing free trade, saying Haitian ports were now open to British merchant traders.”
The problem was that Britain had already been stung by revolutionary fervor in North America and was having great difficulty in adjusting to the possibility of another new kid on the block. In 1803, the United States was effectively just 20 years old. With the Louisiana purchase from France that same year – a sale that marked the formal abandonment of Napoleon’s regional ambitions – Washington would really begin to assert itself as a Caribbean Basin power.
London only wanted to conduct any trade with Haiti on its own terms. It was terrified of Haitians leaving Haiti to spread the gospel of liberation from slavery and freedom from imperial rule beyond their own borders, especially in the slave colony of Jamaica, Nugent’s patch.
More than 200 years on, one is tempted to ask what has changed. Haitians setting sail in the direction of the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos Islands and even the Florida coast are still key targets of British and U.S. naval patrols in the Caribbean today. “Haitians stay where you are. Help is on the way,” as President Obama implored from the White House in the immediate aftermath of the January earthquake.
There are many other fascinating Haitian war documents in Britain’s National Archives. James Cronan points out ledgers of the expenses incurred by the “Legion Britannique” – the British expeditionary force of 1793-94; a wonderfully detailed, scaled plan of the “Ville de Leogane et de ses environs” with lines of fire plotted by British naval engineers during the town’s 1796 bombardment; enrollment and payment records for Haitians, who despite London’s worst fears, did get to Jamaica and enlist in the British army.
Leogane survived the British bombardment more than 200 years ago but not the January 12, 2010 earthquake. In reporting the recent disaster, some of the international press recorded that the last major quakes in Haiti had been in the middle of the 18th century. These too are recorded in letters preserved in the Archive, one from about 1751 and the other dated June 6 1770.
The last describes the damage and casualties in some detail. “Tremors continue. Port-au-Prince no longer exists,” it concludes. Another strange echo of Haiti’s riveting past, resonating today.
Download a pdf version of the document here.
© Haiti Support Group