Duke News & Communications

The Document's Origins

For more than a century, scholars and researchers searched for a printed version of Haiti's Declaration of Independence. 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 happened to the original printed version.

"You have asked me -- and many others similarly preoccupied by the mystery of the original of our national Declaration of Independence -- what I have concluded about its disappearance. .... All searches to date have been in vain, as we know. .... Our writers and intellectuals like Ardouin, Madiou, and St. Remy did not concern themselves with the fate of an original, ... or even with a printed copy from the original time period. ... 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."

And so the mystery remained until this past February, when Duke graduate student Julia Gaffield found the declaration -- only the second such document in the world after the U.S. Declaration of Independence -- while conducting research for her doctoral dissertation.

How did this copy end up in the British Archives? It apparently arrived there after a stop in Jamaica.

Haiti declared its independence from France on Jan. 1, 1804. The British, then at war with France, used Haiti's independence as leverage to jockey for power in the Caribbean. Edward Corbet, a British government agent, traveled twice from the British colony of Jamaica to Haiti to propose greater trade of European manufactured goods for Haiti's chief exports -- coffee, sugar, cotton and cocoa. Haitian leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines also demanded arms and ammunition, but the British denied his request.

After Corbet's second trip, he wrote a letter to then-Gov. George Nugent of Jamaica. Enclosed in his letter, now at the National Library of Jamaica, was a handwritten version of Haiti's Declaration of Independence. The letter also refers to a printed copy of the declaration, saying "The copy I have now the honor of presenting to you had not been an hour from the press."

Corbet was apparently referring to a printed pamphlet of the document, although no such copy is known to exist today in Jamaica's archives. Haiti's leaders probably produced the pamphlet to mail to other governments and international newspapers, says Deborah Jenson, a Duke professor who has studied the U.S. publication of Haitian documents. Unfortunately, Jenson says, newspapers in the early 19th century did not generally keep good records. Indeed, poor record keeping during the first 50 years of Haiti's independence makes this era of the nation's history difficult to reconstruct.

The eight-page pamphlet contained three parts. The first is an introduction, the second is the actual declaration and the third – signed by several government officials – is a letter nominating Dessalines to be governor-general of Haiti for life.

The emotionally charged declaration is an indictment of the French "barbarians"; Gaffield calls it "a call to arms, a rejection of the colonial order."

It reads, in part:

Everything revives the memories of the cruelties of this barbarous people: our laws, our manners, our cities, everything still bears the stamp of the French. Indeed! There are still Frenchmen in our island, and yet you believe yourself free and independent of that republic, which, it is true, has fought all nations, but which has never defeated those who wished to be free.

The document, written in the first-person, speaks directly to the Haitian people, asking them to make a vow to live free or die. The incendiary text, produced after a period of brutal war against the French, is a virulent denunciation of the former colonizers. Dessalines later ordered the mass execution of most of the hundreds of remaining French whites living on the island, though other whites were spared and indeed granted Haitian citizenship.

According to 19th-century Haitian historian Beaubrun Ardouin, the author of the declaration is Louis Boisrond-Tonnerre, chosen by the reportedly illiterate Dessalines when he heard Boisrond-Tonnerre say the declaration "should be written with the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for a desk, his blood for ink and a bayonet for a pen."

However, there is evidence Dessalines may have had more influence over the language in the declaration than previously thought, Jenson says.

"The Haitian tradition says it was authored by a secretary of his, but all of the major independence documents produced by different secretaries share a distinctive authorial voice that rivals the originality of other major thinkers of the African diasporan tradition," Jenson says.

In any case, Gaffield knew from Corbet's correspondence, which she had read in Jamaica's archives, that he had sent a copy of the pamphlet to Nugent. So she was on the lookout for it when she began reviewing related materials in the British National Archives.

Sure enough, she found it hiding in plain view in a leather-bound volume there. It was bound in a series of documents forwarded on March 10, 1804, from Nugent to Lord Robert Hobart in London. More than two centuries would pass before Gaffield discovered it anew.

About this site   |   Duke.edu   |   Duke Today   |   News