A graduate student studying history at Duke University may have found the only surviving copy of Haiti’s declaration of independence in London, England.
Julia Gaffield came across the alleged founding document in February during her time at the British National Archives. She found the pamphlet while rifling through early 19th-century correspondences.
Haiti’s government has been trying to recover the document since the country declared its independence from France in 1804. The declaration abolished slavery and, in doing so, created the world’s first black-dominated republic. Leaders of the Haitian Revolution sent out copies of the declaration to other governments, but original copies have been missing since that time.
According to the Associated Press, Wilfrid Bertrand, Director General of Haiti’s National Archives, said that he traveled abroad looking for surviving copies, but was not aware that any originals existed. Bertrand said the government in Port-au-Prince does not possess a copy.
Historians believe that the preservation of the island’s declaration was not a high priority at the time of the country’s violent beginning. The copy discovered in the British archives is allegedly the copy sent to Jamaica’s colonial governor.
Bertrand said that if Gaffield’s copy proves to be authentic, it should be returned to Haiti on account of its historical significance.
“It is a very important document for our country,” Bertrand told the Associated Press. “It has every bit the same importance as the American Declaration of Independence.”
Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Raymond Joseph, said that the return of the declaration could help lift the country’s morale. The country recently lost 230,000 citizens in January’s massive earthquake.
Gaffield said that the document’s current location made sense historically.
There have been questions as to whether or not the copy found in London is from the original print run.
“What appears to be unique is that it is a Haitian government-issued copy of the official document,” Deborah Jenson, a Duke French studies professor and faculty advisor to Gaffield, said. “We know that they created this document, they printed it and they were distributing it.”
Mel Hide, a spokeswoman at the National Archives, said that the museum houses many government correspondences and records. She said that future discoveries of documents of historical value are likely to occur.