Reporting Haiti’s Independence in British India

As many of the writers for this blog have noted, news of Dessalines’ victory over French forces in November 1803, and the formal Declaration of Independence in January 1804 made newspapers across the Americas and Europe. As a historian of British India, I’m always eager to show how the “Atlantic World” was not always confined to the Atlantic. Commercial, imperial, and family networks linked the Atlantic and Indian Ocean world together from the beginnings of European imperialism and it should be no surprise that readers in British India were kept well-informed of events in Saint-Domingue and then Haiti.


ColophonBombayCourier Supplement to the Bombay Courier  June 2, 1804 (British Library Newspapers)

Copies of early newspapers from South Asia are scarce, but Adam Matthew has digitized a large run of microfilmed issues of The Bombay Courier held at the British Library. In these issues one can see how reports from English and American newspapers about the Caribbean trickled into circulation in India. Most relevantly for this blog, in June 1804, the Courier dedicated nearly an entire page of its “Supplement” to reprinting correspondence relating to the capitulation of Rochambeau’s forces the previous November. To close its coverage, the Courier reproduced the November 29th declaration of independence issued at Fort Dauphin. I’m especially taken by this reprinting as it shows nicely the interconnectedness of the early nineteenth-century world – that is, a proclamation of independence issued by an army of African ex-slaves and people of color in French, translated into English, and printed for a reading public thousands of miles away by a Prabhu [1] printer.

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Post-independence Cancellation of Plantation Leases

This is another broadside cataloged (TNA, MFQ 1/184) with the Declaration of Independence and I’m not exactly sure what it means. Dessalines cancels all baux-à-ferme (which I think translates as “fixed-term leases” but I’m not completely sure) on plantations. I suspect that this might have been part of a larger move by the state to acquire plantations formerly owned by white French colonists. Although the decree doesn’t explicitly say that the state would confiscate the properties, it eliminates any potential legal challenges to this move. Any other possible interpretations of this decree?


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English Translation of the HaitiDOI

I found this translation of the Haitian Declaration of Independence in the Admiralty Records from the Jamaica Station (ADM 1/254) (it was next to the paper that noted that the broadside copy had been removed and recataloged). I think it’s interesting to read translations like this because it reveals how contemporaries interpreted the text. One interesting translation is of the word “lugubre” that Dessalines and Boisrond-Tonnerre use as a verb in the Declaration of Independence. This translator uses the word “overclouds” although historians have used “haunts,” “overshadows,” or “darkens” (and I’m sure other variations too). Here is the first page along with my transcription of the text.


I Have Avenged America

The Haitian Declaration of Independence is characterized by violent rhetoric that brands the French as the eternal enemies of the Haiti. The Declaration also signals that the war against the French is not over since the “the name French overclouds our Country.” To help remedy this barrier obstructing the development of the new nation, Dessalines initiated a series of public massacres that targeted white French citizens. The well-known “I have avenged America” speech followed these massacres and justified the events. This is a printed copy of the document from The National Archives of the United Kingdom (CO 137-111) and a transcription of a translation of the text from the Connecticut Herald.


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