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African Diaspora Newsletter No.9

   Graduate Students Reports

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Thor Burnham (Ph.D. Candidate) Field Work: Haiti


I have been conducting research in Port-au-Prince, Haiti since June, 2002 where I have been pursuing documentation relating to a number of topics. Although my dissertation research has been my primary focus, I have also had the opportunity to be involved in several other projects on behalf of the Tubman Centre at York University.

In July of 2002 I was able to cross the frontier into the Dominican Republic and spend time in Santiago, one of the oldest colonial cities in the Americas. Santiago is known for its post-secondary institutions and houses two important archives: the General Archives in Santiago and the library at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica Madre y Maestra-PUCMM. I spent three productive weeks there consulting their respective holdings relating to slavery, the slave trade and Dominican-Haitian history.

In Port-au-Prince I have divided my time principally between two archives: La Bibliothèque Haïtienne des Pères du St.-Esprit (BHPSE), and the St. Louis de Gonzague library. The Bibliothèque Nationale in Port-au-Prince also houses a large collection of Haitiana, but much of its holdings can also be found in the other two libraries. A final possibility for research is
the National Archives, but it is still in the process of organization, making much of the material I am seeking currently inaccessible.

One of the pleasures of my research has been working at the Bibliothèque Haïtienne located at Le Petit Seminaire St. Martial. Not widely known in Haiti, the Caribbean or elsewhere, it may contain one of the finest pre-1850 collections of original holdings in the Caribbean. Of particular
interest is the library's slavery and abolition collection, which is in both English and French, and is quite extensive.

As for my own research, I have found a number of books and documents-particularly first-person narratives-that speak to the issue of African American emigration to Haiti, its successes and failures and, interestingly, the subsequent debate on what freedom meant for the descendants of enslaved people in Haiti.

Other pursuits while in Haiti have included work on behalf of the Katherine Dunham foundation for the preservation of the famous Habitation Leclerc and its fifty- acre mature coastal forest, a rarity in Haiti. The current project involves work with the University of Chicago to re-establish a botanic garden on the site, a first for the small, impoverished country. Currently, the Organization of American States is interested in assisting the development of the area as a demonstration community.

I have also had the opportunity to attend a number of cultural events while in country. Haiti has a strong tradition of troubador singing, which is alive and vibrant at the current time, and I've had the chance to attend a number of small "djazz" orchestras at several different venues. As well, I have attended the Thursday night performances of the roots/Vodou band RAM at the famous Hotel Oloffson.
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Besides these activities I have also had the chance to attend a number of pre-carnival celebrations that take place every Sunday evening leading up to Carnival in early March. Probably of most significance has been my good fortune to attend several Vodou ceremonies in a series of different contexts and locales. What must be remarked upon is the vitality and strength of Vodou as the foundation of Haitian culture.

Department of History, York University,  Toronto, Canada
Email: nigerian@yorku.ca
Fax: (416) 650-8173