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York grad and alumna discovers Haiti's long-lost Declaration of Independence

York grad and alumna discovers Haiti's long-lost Declaration of Independence


When York grad Julia Gaffield (MA ’07) saw those words at the top of a document in a 200-year-old file at The National Archives in London, England, she knew immediately she had found something special and wanted to shout for joy – but one simply doesn’t do that sort of thing in the quiet of the reading room at “The NA”. She stifled her cry and carried on poring over the rest of the hidden treasures she had before her.

Julia GaffieldLeft: Gaffield with an image of the long-lost document in background

The find, an odd little eight-page pamphlet included in a collection of correspondence from a British colonial official, was an original copy of Haiti’s Declaration of Independence, printed by the new government three weeks after Independence Day, Jan. 1, 1804. It is the only known copy of the document, which scholars have been searching for since the 1950s, when the nation of descendants of slaves and free people of colour was making plans to celebrate its 150th anniversary of independence.

Since that day in February, the story of Gaffield's discovery has appeared in newspapers and on Web sites around the world and she has done dozens of interviews. Interest in the document prompted staff at The National Archives to post a copy of the declaration on its Web site.

Gaffield, now pursuing her doctorate at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, said she found a reference to the declaration in a letter she saw while doing research in Jamaica. That document was a copy of a letter from Edward Corbet, HM Agent for British Affairs in Santo Domingo, to Sir George Nugent, lieutenant-governor of Jamaica, on Jan. 25, 1804, regarding his negotiations with Jean Jacques Dessalines, governor general and first ruler of Haiti. Gaffield made a note of the reference to the declaration, which the writer said had just come off the press.

When she got to The National Archives in England and saw the same letter, Gaffield recalled it had mentioned the missing declaration. When she flipped the page, there was the document itself, with the text AU PORT-AU-PRINCE, De l’imprimerie du GOUVERNEMENT on the back, signifying that this was one of the original printed copies and not a later reproduction.

Haiti was only the second country in the new world to declare independence, the first being the United States of America, 28 years earlier.

Gaffield, whose father is a history professor at the University of Ottawa, almost never started on the career path that led to her discovery. As an undergraduate and basketball player at the University of Toronto, she had planned on studying physiotherapy. But her first foray into an archive convinced her to change those plans and she chose to come to York for graduate studies. “York is a great school and it’s booming at this moment,” she said. “I wanted to be in a place that was growing and not afraid to take chances.” Gaffield also noted York’s Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean as a factor in her decision.

After taking a survey course on Caribbean history, Gaffield went to Haiti to do some volunteer work. That was in 2004, the year that Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country’s first democratically elected president, was ousted in a rebellion.

Gaffield’s doctoral research focuses on the early years of Haiti’s independence and the different relationships it had with the international community. Those relationships, which helped the tiny nation sustain its independence, were surprising because Haiti was such a challenge to the economy of slavery, which wasn’t outlawed in Britain until 30 years later. It was another 31 years – and a civil war – before it was also outlawed in the US.

Her choice to continue her research at Duke University was based on working with her supervisor, Laurent Dubois, who was headed there to teach French and Caribbean history and culture.

The reaction to her discovery has brought Gaffield a flood of responses. “What’s really great are the messages on Facebook from Haitians and Haitian Americans expressing their joy,” she said. “It’s been amazing to hear that my research – and historical research in general – can have such an influence.”

To watch interviews with Gaffield and see a translation of the document, visit the Duke University news site.

By David Fuller, YFile contributing writer. Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.