On Feb. 2, Julia Gaffield made a once-in-a-lifetime discovery when, while thumbing through some correspondence in the British National Archives, she discovered a copy of Haiti's Declaration of Independence.
Here's the thing: Nobody's actually seen a copy of this document in generations. Centuries, even.
Written Jan. 1, 1804, the printed copies of the document were all thought lost to the winds of time. Enter Gaffield, a doctoral student studying the early years of Haitian independence.
Oddly enough, she found the document within correspondence between Jamaica and Great Britain, which makes sense, historians say, because Jamaica and Haiti are neighbors and Jamaica, being a British colony at the time, corresponded regularly with the British monarchy.
This week, the 26-year-old, who grew up in Canada and got her bachelor's and master's degrees there before coming to Duke, spoke to the News & Observer.
Here are excerpts.
How did you end up in London?
The London research trip was a follow-up. I'd done a research trip to Jamaica and seen a series of documents related to Haiti.
I study early independence in Haiti. Sources for this period, there aren't many in Haiti. A lot of my research takes me out of Haiti. I knew there had been negotiations going on between the first leader of Haiti and the governor of Jamaica.
There was correspondence between Haiti and Jamaica and saw a hand-written transcription of this document. The printed version was nowhere to be found. And so I was following up on this and some other leads and wanted to go to London to get some more of the story.
So you go to London, to the archives. You knew of the missing declaration.
It's known, and hand-written transcriptions are known, from the time. But what's unique is that this one is a government issued, printed document. Issued by the government printing press.
So tell me about the discovery.
It's an odd moment. Archives are very formal places. I'm sitting at a desk looking through big, bound letter books. I came across a series of documents sent from Jamaica. It was a package sent by the governor. Then I saw it. It's a famous document, so it's easily recognizable. However, I'm in a quiet reading room. I'm surrounded by other researchers who I don't know. It was an odd moment. I'm smiling to myself and bursting with excitement but at the same time trying to keep my composure.
You're not allowed to email in the archives. And i couldn't waste a day of research, so I had to continue my work and keep my excitement bottled so at the end of the day I could rush home and tell my advisors.
So nobody has ever seen this document?
I'm not sure nobody has seen this document. But few people have researched this time period, and if they saw this document, they may not have known the significance. It's the only known copy.
And you had to leave it there.
You're allowed to photograph documents in the archives, so I took photographs. But at the end of the day you have to close the book and give it back.
So after the initial shock, does it still reverberate?
It's still exciting because this is something we can share with the public. It's a great opportunity for people to learn about Haiti. It's such a powerful document.
How might this give a boost to the people of Haiti, particularly following the devastating earthquake?
It is an opportunity for them to regain something. I think in the context of the earthquake, it's like having something put back into their archival record. I think it's also a reminder of their amazing and strong history.
Where does your interest in Haiti come from?
I was taking an intro to Caribbean history at the University of Toronto. I just loved the class. I found it just totally fascinating. This was in 2004 when Haiti was in the news because of the ousting of Jean-Bertrande Aristide. So at the same time I was learning about the history of the country I was learning about contemporary political situations.
And that summer I did some volunteer in Port-Au-Prince. I learned a lot and I just found the history so exciting. I've been studying it ever since.
Did you tell the archives about the discovery right away?
I didn't notify them initially. But we've notified them since my return. They were excited for the discovery. Archivists and librarians, this is the type of thing that is exciting for them.
It was found in London. Does that make sense?
In a way, it totally does. The Caribbean and the Atlantic world at the time were very connected through trade and communication networks. For early Haitian leaders, this was news they wanted everyone to know about. It's printed in pamphlet form; it was meant to be mailed. It was meant to be sent to an international community. These documents were sent throughout the Caribbean.
There was a British agent who went to Haiti to try to negotiate a trade agreement and he returned to Jamaica with the document. He gave it to the governor of Jamaica, who sent it in a big package of documents to London. What's interesting is you can trace patterns of communication.