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York grad finds Haiti's lost Declaration of Independence

York grad finds Haiti's lost Declaration of Independence

Sitting at a quiet table in the National Archives in London earlier this year, Canadian graduate student Julia Gaffield (MA ’07) opened a bound book of documents from 1804 and unearthed the only known printed copy of Haiti’s Declaration of Independence, wrote The Globe and Mail April 2:

“I was surrounded by complete strangers who were all very wrapped up in their own work,” the 26-year-old said yesterday. “Inside I was bursting with excitement, but I’m not sure if anyone else in there would have been interested."

But her discovery, which comes more than 200 years after the document was signed and ends decades of historical sleuthing intent on its recovery, could not come at a more poignant moment for the nation of Haiti, still reeling from the latest blow to its national identity. Struck by a devastating earthquake in January, the country is struggling to rebuild, and historians say the document will serve as a much-needed reminder of what has already been overcome.

Haiti was the first slave colony to win independence when it fought off its French colonial rulers, culminating with its revolutionary leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, declaring independence on Jan. 1, 1804. In the weeks that followed, his statement and the Deed of Independence were printed in an eight-page brochure under the title “Liberté ou la Mort”. But while the documents were widely distributed at the time, no copy was known to have survived until Gaffield’s discovery in February.

Gaffield did her master’s degree at York University and is now in the third year of her PhD research at Duke University in North Carolina.

Republished courtesy of YFile – York University’s daily e-bulletin.