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  • The Haitian Declaration of Independence: Creation, Context, and Legacy ed. by Julia Gaffield
  • Anne Eller (bio)
The Haitian Declaration of Independence: Creation, Context, and Legacy Edited by Julia Gaffield Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015 280 pp.

In The Haitian Declaration of Independence: Creation, Context, and Legacy, Julia Gaffield has gathered a diverse collection of essays that both engage with extant historiography on the Haitian Revolution and, crucially, push discussions forward into state making after 1804. Few Atlantic scholars are unaware of the flourishing scholarship on the course and impact of the revolutionary fighting itself, which has become rich and transnational. This scholarship has influenced and transformed other fields in turn, not only provoking a surge in interest in the revolution’s impact on nearby slave societies but also bringing the fighting into comparative and integrated frames with North Atlantic revolutions and independence movements throughout the hemisphere. Treatment of the early Haitian state(s) after the fighting ended in 1804 has to this moment, especially in English-language scholarship, been less developed. The scholars gathered in this anthology join those working through the revolution’s putative “unthinkability” in the minds of contemporary elites toward elaborating popular perspectives, specifics of postrevolution state making, and reassessment of the independent nation’s economic and diplomatic interactions. The anthology represents a signal contribution to this valuable and growing dialogue.

The organizing motif of the collection is the January 1804 Declaration of Independence, a document that authors and signatories intended to announce the independent state of Haiti after more than a decade of fighting. As a post facto proclamation, the independence statement is distinct in its genre, as introduction coauthor David Armitage and other contributors point out. The document’s authors grappled with the predicament of how to narrate and project the normative unity of a new nation in the wake of the “overlapping wars” and imperial interventions that made up the revolutionary fighting. That the new polity was culturally and linguistically heterogeneous, devastated by war, and still confronting a constant threat of French aggression made consolidation a degree more difficult, although not exceptional, as the scholars in the collection rightfully caution. [End Page 223] Contributors to the book’s first part pay special attention to the crafting and dissemination of the independence proclamation itself and an antecessor of several months prior, to great effect. For example, John Garrigus’s essay, in which he seeks to reconstruct some of the familial and political milieu of one of the document’s principal authors, benefits from the author’s decades-long engagement with Saint-Domingue’s notarial archive and highlights how such detailed expertise can furnish valuable context in the absence of direct biographical information. Other contributors to this part do similar careful legwork amid sparse and hostile sources. Deborah Jenson concludes the first part with a creative and willfully theoretical intervention on cognition in which she offers a reflection about the revolutionary—and popular—province of poetic metaphor. The entry sets the tone for interdisciplinary exploration and hypothesis in following analyses.

The authors of the second part, “Haitian Independence and the Atlantic,” are responding to a well-developed historiography, and their more pointedly revisionist entries highlight expanding debates of recent years. “If any group is to be held responsible for introducing the practice of racially motivated mass killing into Saint-Domingue, it is certainly the whites,” Jeremy Popkin concludes, in a piece that ideally topples a historiographical albatross, scholarly preoccupation with violence in the last years of fighting (118). Philippe Girard’s entry asks of the reader a fair amount of contortion to minimize the revolutionaries’ direct regional impact, which he argues principally from the reasoning that the small new administration did not launch regional antislavery invasions. Yet that Haitian leaders’ pragmatism in foreign policy existed simultaneously with emancipation, as a survival fight still raged, is a mark of the magnitude of the struggle, not its limits. Nor does it seem logical to conclude that that revolution was a “one-off event” as a result, unless the definition of revolutionary struggle (or parameters for success) are so limited as not to include the very massive and concrete expansion of revolutionary imagination and...


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pp. 223-227
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