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  • The Haitian Declaration of Independence: Creation, Context and Legacy ed. by Julia Gaffield
  • Johnhenry Gonzalez
The Haitian Declaration of Independence: Creation, Context and Legacy. Edited by Julia Gaffield ( Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016. 296 pp. $39.50).

The editor of this volume, Julia Gaffield, recently received considerable public attention for a remarkable antiquarian discovery. She found what might be the only two surviving original printed copies of the 1804 Haitian declaration of independence. This document (pictured on the cover of the volume and reproduced as an appendix) serves as the point of departure for a range of scholarly essays that constitute a broad and favorable representation of the subdiscipline of Haitian revolutionary studies. The essays in this volume collectively prove that well into the twenty-first century new and exciting documents from the era of the Haitian Revolution continue to come to light. By extension it suggests that still more remain to be discovered in a range of public and private archives in as many as a dozen different nations. This collection of essays showcases some of the most recent conceptual innovations in Haitian Revolution scholarship, as well as some of the more prominent ongoing debates among scholars of this era. As she does in her recent monograph, Gaffield lays out a kind of "Atlanticist" argument that emphasizes Haiti's interconnectedness with other regions and trading powers in opposition to longstanding narratives that have cast early Haiti as an isolated pariah nation. However, David Geggus cautions that Haiti scholars have sometimes fallen over themselves in an effort to integrate early Haitian history "within larger narratives of liberal democracy, Atlantic revolution, or emergent modernity" and have thereby overlooked both the despotic political character of early Haitian regimes, as well as certain particularly Haitian aspects of the revolutionary process. By exploring the society that emerged atop the ashes of colonial Saint-Domingue, more historians now focus on the systems of forced labor by which Haiti's founding leaders attempted to maintain plantation production. Debate over the radical egalitarianism and political universalism of the Haitian Revolution, as opposed to its many repressive [End Page 629] and tyrannical outgrowths, provides a kind of productive tension that runs throughout this volume.

The authors cannot be accused of having a facile or overly romantic conception of Haiti's founding revolution. Legal historian Malick Ghachem acknowledges two crucial aspects of the authoritarian designs of the early Haitian rulers: their attempts to preserve the plantation economy through instituting a generalized system of identification documents and their unfulfilled plans to reverse the decline of the island's laboring population by contracting to import African captives. Jeremy Popkin has long studied the most poignant and illustrative accounts written by white witnesses and survivors of the Haitian Revolution. His chapter on Dessalines' massacre of thousands of surviving French civilians is a significant contribution both because he skillfully takes up a politically charged topic that other authors have tended to elide and because he draws our attention to a valuable and previously obscure primary source.

This book considers ongoing debates over the significance of Haitian independence in light of a variety of recent archival discoveries. Gaffield's exploration of the Haitian correspondence of American merchant Archibald Kane demonstrates that early mercantile records will continue to offer novel insights into what have long remained the most obscure periods in Haitian history. David Garrigus' detailed exploration of the social origins of Louis Boisrond-Tonnnere and of his upbringing in France under the supervision of André Rigaud offers an insightful and beautifully researched window into the eighteenth century lives of the propertied upper echelons of the Domingan gens de couleur libres. For junior scholars considering exploring Haitian history, the works in this volume offer clues that might lead to many potentially productive avenues for new research.

While this volume showcases excellent archival research, it is certainly not empiricist or unidimensional. Deborah Jenson's essay will appeal to an interdisciplinary audience. Inventive as ever, Jenson combines literary scholarship with neuroscience and epistemology in her exploration of authorship and metaphor in the 1804 text. Casimir's reconsideration of Haiti's founding revolution is stark and provocative. It is no small compliment to say that...


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