The many meanings of the Haitian declaration of independence

The many meanings of the Haitian declaration of independence

OUPblog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Philippe R. Girard, Associate Professor of History
McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana

Two hundred and ten years ago, on 1 January 1804, Haiti formally declared its independence from France at the end of a bitter war against forces sent by Napoléon Bonaparte. This was only the second time, after the United States in 1776, that an American colony had declared independence, so the event called for pomp and circumstance. Haiti’s generals, led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, gathered in the western city of Gonaïves, where they listened to a public reading of the Declaration by the mixed-race secretary Louis Boisrond-Tonnerre. A handwritten original has yet to be found, but early imprints and manuscript copies have survived.

The declaration is well known to Haitians, who celebrate its passage every year on 1 January, Haiti’s national holiday. They mostly remember it for its fiery defiance. According the Haitian historian Thomas Madiou, its author Boisrond-Tonnerre got the assignment after promising Dessalines that he would use “the skin of a white man” as parchment, its “skull” as inkwell, and its “blood” as ink. “What do we have in common with this people of executioners [the French]?” he asked in the Declaration. “They are not our brothers, and never will be.”

But the Declaration, which historians are just beginning to study in depth, was actually a layered text whose multiple meanings were tailored for six different audiences: the French, Creoles, Anglo-Americans, Latin Americans, mixed-race Haitians, and black Haitians…

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