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.

1803DOIHaiti

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.

Though I can find no evidence that the Courier reprinted or reported on the January Declaration of Independence, interest in Bombay about newly independent Haiti does not seem to have waned in the following years. In January 1805, for example, the proprietors of the Courier editorialized that Haiti’s ability to challenge British commerce and export trade in the Caribbean would be much diminished compared to when the island was governed by the French. While disparaging the ability of Haitians to rule themselves, they did however acknowledge that its freedom was likely permanent in nature:

“That Colony having now assumed an independent form, and shaken off the authority of the French, the strength of the internal parts of the island, the numerous and hardy population, and the nature of the climate, will probably prevent its ever again returning under the dominion of any transatlantic power. If we may judge from what is past, the inhabitants of Hayti have a long career of atrocity and barbarism to run, ere they can claim a place in the rank of civilized nations.”  Bombay Courier: January 29, 1805

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[1] The printer of the Courier, Moroba Damotherjee, is identified as “Prabhoa” [Prabhu] then one of the most important communities of scribal and administrative professionals in coastal Western India.

About Mitch Fraas

Mitch Fraas is a curator at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries.
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One Response to Reporting Haiti’s Independence in British India

  1. Pingback: Translations of the HaitiDOI | Haiti and the Atlantic World

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