Duke scholar uncovers Haitian history

Document spells freedom

Staff WriterApril 1, 2010 

— When Julia Gaffield made her once-in-a-lifetime discovery, she couldn't scream, laugh or even pump her fists in triumph.

Visitors to the British National Archives just don't behave that way.

On Feb. 2, while thumbing through early 19th-century documents, the Duke University graduate student, 26, stumbled upon what is thought to be the only known, printed copy of Haiti's Declaration of Independence.

A document that had eluded historians for two centuries was at her fingertips, an eight-page pamphlet in French declaring the former slave colony's intentions to be free.

"It was an odd moment," said Gaffield, a doctoral student in history. "I'm smiling to myself and bursting with excitement but at the same time trying to keep my composure."

Gaffield's discovery, which Duke will announce formally today, has created a buzz among scholars of Haiti, the Caribbean and rare documents. The document, dated Jan. 1, 1804, is a strident statement of freedom from a new nation that would struggle for years for recognition from world powers.

Many copies were likely printed, but none was known to have survived until Gaffield's discovery while researching Haitian independence. It was an unlikely find; the document was in a book of correspondence between Jamaica and Great Britain. Jamaica was a British colony at the time, and when the Haitians printed the document, a copy was likely given to Jamaican authorities, who then sent it to Great Britain.

The discovery comes on the heels of the devastating earthquake in Haiti that focused worldwide interest on the island nation.

"I suspect there will be immense interest in this discovery," said Ian E. Wilson, president of the International Council on Archives. "To bring this document to light in Haiti's darkest hour may be seen as a symbol of renewal and rejuvenation, helpingHaiti rebuild its national spirit following the recent earthquake."

Haiti has often lacked the infrastructure and political will to invest in historical documents, said Ted Widmer, who directs Brown University's John Carter Brown Library, a rare-books archive with an extensive Haiti collection.

"Haiti's a tough country to direct a library in," he said. "You've got natural disasters all the time, and heat and humidity, which isn't good for paper. The challenges have been immense."

The contents of Haiti's declaration have long been known because of hand-written transcriptions. The value of Gaffield's discovery lies in the symbolism of a nation regaining an important artifact.

"The document is a veryfiery denunciation of French rule on the island," said Laurent Dubois, Gaffield's adviser at Duke.

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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