In trying to grasp the significance of the University of Toronto’s Caribbean Studies program, look no further than Julia Gaffield.
A year ago, the Duke University doctoral candidate unearthed what is believed to be the only known original printed copy of Haiti’s Declaration of Independence in the British National Archives while thumbing through letter books of Jamaican colonial records from the beginning of the 19th Century.
This declaration was made by the generals of the victorious slave armies in the first weeks of 1804 and dispatched to representatives of the foreign powers.
Gaffield’s much publicized discovery came just six years after she began studying history in her second year at U of T.
“A friend suggested I take a course and I took the chance,” Gaffield said in the opening address at the third annual Diaspora Voices, Caribbean Connections: Studying the Caribbean in Toronto student conference last Saturday. “It was at the U of T that I learned about the Caribbean region which is something that was not included in my high school curriculum. I knew nothing about Caribbean people, the geography and history and frankly I did not care much for history period because I thought it was really boring.”
Gaffield’s first history teacher was Barbadian-born Dr. Melanie Newton who specializes in the social and cultural history of the Caribbean and the history of slavery, gender and emancipation in the Atlantic World.
“That year that I took my first history course, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted from power in Haiti,” recalled Gaffield. “Melanie integrated this contemporary event into our class material and held a public forum with academia and community members so that people could come together and share their thoughts and stories.
“This caught my attention. On the one hand, I was learning about the Haitian Revolution in class and then I was learning about the complexity of international diplomacy and intervention in Haiti in the 21st Century.”
The year she took her first history course in 2004, Gaffield traveled to Haiti with a student organization on a trip designed to help Haitian youth in Port-au-Prince become active members of society.
“It was my first trip outside North America and I was not really sure what to expect, but the continuity I felt between history and contemporary society was visibly represented in the country’s capital,” she said. “I saw large statues of the revolutionary heroes and streets named after people I had read about in CLR James’ The Black Jacobins. I also connected on a personal level with people in a country that had previously felt very distant and different.”
The York University Masters graduate is researching early 19th Century Haiti for her doctoral dissertation. She expects to complete her thesis next year.
Gaffield says the research she has so far completed on negotiations between the Haitian and British government in 1804 suggests that the international response to the Haitian Declaration of Independence was diverse and based on a complex network of factors ranging from international warfare and manufacturing trends in Europe to theories of national difference in French society.
“The early 19th Century Atlantic World was a pivotal moment in history,” she said. “It’s the complexity of this moment that I think captured contemporary audiences when news of my archival discovery hit newsstands on April 1, 2010. “One of the things I enjoy most about talking to reporters was that I was able to share some of what I have learned about Haiti’s incredible history which is one that inspires pride.”
While doing research at the National Library of Jamaica two years ago, Gaffield found papers belonging to then Jamaica governor George Nugent, which included original signed correspondence from Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the leader of the Haitian Revolution and the country’s first leader after independence.
“There was this one particular letter from a British agent (Edward Corbet) who had gone to Haiti after independence and he was reporting back to the governor and he said, ‘here is the Declaration of Independence and when I got it, it had not been but an hour from the press’,” Gaffield said.
“What I saw in Jamaica was a hand-written transcription and so I knew there was something missing because the cover letter said press, but then this document was a transcription. That was what led me to London and the British National Archives where, while looking in the colonial records for Jamaica, I saw additional material that the governor was sending back namely to the Secretary of State for War in the Colonies. And so in March of 1804, the governor of Jamaica sent a whole package of documents back to Lord Robert Hobart and included in this was the Declaration of Independence…It was there and it was just a case of me being in the right place looking for the right thing.”
Prior to Gaffield’s discovery, scholars had searched in vain for the official version of just the second declaration of its kind after the U.S. declaration in 1776.
Newton conceived the idea for the conference and undergraduate students helped to execute it.
“You need to understand Caribbean history, whether you are from the region or some other place,” said Newton. “It’s very important that everyone think of this as history we all share. You don’t have to be from the Caribbean to shape the world that you live in.”
Students also presented papers at the conference that was dedicated to the memory of Toronto Haiti Action Committee member Glenn Davis who died suddenly in Toronto last month.
His son, Ivan Roberts-Davis, is a member of the conference’s organizing committee.
The U of T Caribbean Studies Program offers an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the complexity of issues pertaining to Caribbean history, politics, culture and society, and to Caribbean peoples and their descendants in their second diasporic presences in North America, Europe and elsewhere.