State News

Duke scholar uncovers Haitian history

Posted April 1, 2010 8:52 a.m. EDT
Updated April 1, 2010 9:17 a.m. EDT

 Duke University

— A Duke University graduate student has found what historians think is the only surviving printed copy of Haiti's Declaration of Independence.

The university said Thursday that 26-year-old history student Julia Gaffield discovered the yellowing document in February while combing through papers in Great Britain's National Archives.

"I wasn’t specifically looking for it, but I had an eye out for it because I knew it was missing," Gaffield said. "We figured there was an original somewhere, but didn’t know if it still existed."

Haiti's revolutionary leaders issued the declaration on Jan. 1, 1804, as they were fighting to overthrow French colonial rule and slavery and to become the world's first black republic. The declaration proclaimed that the colony's residents would "live independent or die."

Despite decades of searching by scholars, Haiti had lacked its own official copy of the declaration, which existed only in handwritten duplicates or in newspapers.

Patrick Tardieu, chief conservator at one of Haiti's oldest libraries and a Brown University fellow, helped confirm the document's authenticity.

"I was so happy to find out it was true," Tardieu said. "Its discovery is important news for Haiti's scholarly community, and more broadly for the people of Haiti."

The discovery was welcomed by historians rebuilding Haiti's archives after the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated the country.

"To bring this document to light in Haiti's darkest hour may be seen as a symbol of renewal and rejuvenation, helping Haiti rebuild its national spirit," said Ian E. Wilson, president of the International Council on Archives.