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Student uncovers Haiti founding document

Historians say a graduate student has found what could be the only copy left of a pamphlet declaring Haiti's founders had thrown off their colonial masters and created the world's first black republic.
Image: Julia Gaffield
Duke University graduate student Julia Gaffield found what is believed to be the only surviving printed copy of Haiti's Declaration of Independence.Gerry Broome / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For years, Haiti's government has sought out the pamphlets on which the country's founders declared that they had thrown off their colonial masters, ended slavery and created the world's first black republic. Now historians say a graduate student has found what could be the only copy left.

The leaders of Haiti's revolution sent their Declaration of Independence to other governments in the days after the island country's 1804 birth. But copies from that original printing have been lost in the centuries since, and the country's national archivist said he's traveled abroad looking for any that might have survived.

Duke University said Thursday a graduate history student found what could be the only surviving copy. Julia Gaffield made the discovery in February while combing through early 19th Century correspondence collected in Great Britain's National Archives in London, the archives and Duke said.

The director-general of Haiti's National Archives, Wilfrid Bertrand, said that he was not aware of any surviving official originals of the declaration, not even in the possession of the government in Port-au-Prince. An original copy had been rumored to exist in London, Bertrand said, but he could not find it when he went looking himself about 10 years ago.

Could return to Haiti
If the document proves to be authentic, Bertrand said he would like to see it returned to Haiti.

"It is a very important document for our country," said Bertrand, who first learned about the find on Thursday. "It has every bit the same importance as the American Declaration of Independence."

This undated image released by the Great Britain National Archives shows what historians say is a rare original print of Haiti's Declaration of Independence. Duke University said Thursday, April 1, 2010 that 26-year-old history student Julia Gaffield discovered the yellowing document in February while combing through papers in the National Archives in London. (AP Photo/National Archives)Great Britain National Archives

Raymond Joseph, Haiti's ambassador in Washington, said that if the document found by Gaffield turns out to be authentic, it would provide the country with a boost at a desperate time, weeks after the earthquake that killed about 230,000 Haitians,

"It will help to build their pride," Joseph said in an interview with The Associated Press. "When people have pride in themselves and their country, they do great things."

Historians believe that in the aftermath of Haiti's violent birth, preserving copies of the declaration was low on the list of priorities. Its leaders were busy worrying about the possibility of new invasions and internal unrest. Copies were sent to governments elsewhere, including the one that went to Jamaica's colonial governor and ended up in the British archives.

"It's in a place that in a way makes a lot of sense, but if someone might have come across it they might not have realized it" as a rare document, said Gaffield.

One Haitian official questioned whether Gaffield had found the only surviving copy from the original print run. The official at the Haitian Embassy in Paris said the embassy and the Haitian government each had original copies of the Jan. 1, 1804 independence declaration dating from the period. The person spoke on condition of anonymity in line with embassy policy.

With letter in UK archives
But Deborah Jenson, a Duke French Studies professor who is one of Gaffield's faculty advisors, responded that reproductions were made in the years after Haiti declared independence, but one printed by the country's founders had eluded scholars.

"What appears to be unique is that it is a Haitian government-issued copy of the official document. We know that they created this document, they printed it, and they were distributing it," Jenson said.

The printed declaration accompanied a letter Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first ruler of the new Haitian republic, sent Sir George Nugent, Britain's colonial governor in nearby Jamaica, three weeks after the country's independence day. The declaration is on an eight-page printed pamphlet, each smaller than a notebook page so that it could be mailed easily.

Nugent sent the letter and the declaration to his superiors in London. The declaration was bound in a volume of period documents concerning Jamaica and filed with about 11 million British government documents saved at the National Archives, spokeswoman Mel Hide said.

"As the repository of government records, we do have an awful lot of correspondence from a lot of countries," Hide said. "We have miles upon miles of files. Ultimately, there's so much here, and with the richness of those files I'm sure there will be more discoveries that will come to our attention."

The declaration opens with Haitian generals promising to resist the French or to die rather than to live under foreign domination. Then, Dessalines urges the new republic's citizens to defend the nation's independence.

"They are obviously reaching out and hoping that some people would recognize the legitimacy of their independence. They know that the French are going to have one version of what happened," said Duke history professor Laurent Dubois, another Gaffield advisers. "They want to make sure that their own words are known and acknowledged."