Julia Gaffield, a graduate student at Duke University, has found an official government-issued copy of Haiti’s Declaration of Independence in the National Archives in London. It’s the only known original copy of the eight-page pamphlet declaring the creation of the world’s first black republic.
Haiti itself doesn’t even have an original, just handwritten copies and newspaper prints. Not for lack of searching.
Indeed, decades ago, Haiti’s leaders went hunting for a declaration they could call their own for the country’s 150th anniversary. Researchers combed Haiti’s libraries. Newspapers in the United States, which printed full versions of the declaration when it was made, were also considered a possible source.
But the originals seemed to have been thrown out or destroyed. In December 1952, the Haitian intellectual Edmond Mangonès wrote to his country’s Commission of Social Sciences to report that “the mystery of the original of our national Declaration of Independence” had not been solved. “All searches to date have been in vain,” he said.
There never was a fancy manuscript version with signatures like the American Declaration of Independence. The text was first delivered as a speech by revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines on January 1, 1804, then the government printed it up in pamphlet form over the next few months. Unfortunately they were fending off French troops at the time, so preserving the founding document for future generations was not a top government priority.
Julia Gaffield, fascinated by the history of Haitian independence, was doing some research at the National Archives of Jamaica in Kingston when she came across a letter from a British official to the governor referring to an enclosed copy of the declaration as “one hour from the press.” The declaration wasn’t in the archives with the letter, however, so Julia followed the correspondence trail to London.
In a book of Jamaican records from 1804, she found the magic header: “Liberté ou La Mort,” (Liberty or Death) and even more magical footer: “De l’Imprimerie du Gouvernement” (From the Government Press). Her Ph.D. advisers at Duke freaked the hell out, needless to say, as did she, albeit under her breath because you can’t w00t in the National Archives.
Haiti is hoping the document will be donated back to the country. They could use the boost right now in the wake of the devastating February earthquake.
Read a scan of the full document on the National Archives here (pdf).