A New Look at Haiti’s Struggle for International Recognition


The following is an excerpt from Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution (UNC Press, 2015), the wonderful new book from Georgia State historian Julia Gaffield. Gaffield looks at the tumultuous path charted by Haitians as they sought formal (as well as informal) recognition from other nations and empires in the wake of an unprecedented slave rebellion that sent shockwaves through the Atlantic World. The author also happens to be the discoverer of the only extant (and heretofore unknown) original copy of the Haitian Declaration of Independence (the subject of her forthcoming edited collection from University of Virginia Press).  No big deal.

To study the historical evidence of the connections between Haiti and the rest of the Atlantic World, my research took me from Haiti and France to Jamaica, England, the United States, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Through their dealings with Haiti and their internal debates about the question of trade with the new nation, each of these states and their former colonies produced a rich archive of correspondence, as well as a diversity of other primary sources, which, taken together, not only enhance our understanding of why France was unable to enforce its rejection of Haiti’s independence but also reveal an intense interest in engagement with Haiti throughout the Atlantic World after the Haitian Declaration of Independence. Specifically, parliamentary and congressional debates as well as diplomatic correspondence shed light on official state policies and how local and metropolitan representatives viewed the benefits and drawbacks of a relationship with Haiti. Furthermore, they expose the conflicts, disagreements, and resolutions that eventually led to official diplomatic, economic, and legal policies. Merchant correspondence, often catalogued with court and state documents, reveals the extent to which the economic interests of individuals and companies influenced and shaped diplomatic and legal decisions. Merchants directly and indirectly informed (often intentionally) how local and metropolitan officials reacted to news of events in Saint Domingue/Haiti. As trustworthy sources of information for officials and as powerful influences on state governance, their letters describe the day-to-day connections between Haitians and the international Atlantic community as well as the processes by which officials settled on policies and procedures. For their part, court records reveal the interpretations and implementation of state policy both in the courtroom and on the high seas. The testimonies of merchants and captains as well as the rulings of judges indicate how state policy affected the actual connections between foreign individuals and Haitians after 1804, including how individuals were able to manipulate the vagaries of these policies in order to pursue their own interests and ambitions.

In examining for the first time in an integrated way the rich archival sources related to Haiti held in diverse locations, it becomes clear that the obstacles that Haiti faced after the Declaration of Independence were not unique. Only decades earlier, the United States had experienced similar problems of unequal power relationships with foreign governments. The American Revolution began an international discussion about the integration of new states into the community of nations in the Atlantic World, and the discussion would continue as Haiti and then almost all of Spain’s American colonies declared their independence in the early nineteenth century. In the final decades of the eighteenth century, the new United States of America was sometimes able to form relationships with its Atlantic neighbors as equals but was often forced into a hierarchical relationship. Inclusion “among the powers of the earth” was something that the new republic had to work for, and the process was not immediate. Indeed, participation in the Atlantic community rested on a concept that historian Eliga Gould describes as “treaty-worthiness.” Gould reveals that this was a hierarchical concept, but that after the American Revolution Americans sought to achieve treaty-worthiness equal to the powers of the Atlantic. This status would have integrated the new nation into the system of rights and duties that governed foreign relations in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Atlantic World. Treaty-worthiness was an extremely valuable and fickle possession, and the international community could revoke these privileges as easily as it could give them. The United States only formally joined the community of nations in the Atlantic World after it entered into a Treaty of Alliance in 1778 with France, but the new country’s struggle for full equality on the international stage continued into the early nineteenth century. The American precedent made clear that new states would have to earn this status, and Haitian leaders similarly advocated for their own inclusion in the community of nations and empires in the Atlantic World.

The American Declaration of Independence sparked a broader debate about the rights of new states, and this debate would deepen in the early nineteenth century as Saint Domingue and then Haiti gained more and more autonomy. Much of the discussion surrounding Haiti’s right to declare independence paralleled the discussion that had occurred decades earlier with respect to the United States, and many observers and government leaders even made direct connections between the two. According to Haitian historian Dantès Bellegarde, the Declaration of Independence “marked both the birth of the second independent nation in America (after the United States) and the entrance of a Negro people into the society of civilized nations. It was also an eloquent affirmation of human liberty and of the equality of race.” While these statements may have been the intended results of the proclamation, outside nations had to ratify Haitian independence and the new country’s participation in the “society of civilized nations” or “treaty-worthy nations.” The Haitian government hoped to be treated as the leadership of an independent and sovereign territory, but foreign governments had to decide whether they would recognize this claim to national independence.

Foreign recognition of Haitian independence, however, was complicated, in part due to the confusing terms under which the French army left the island. Foreign governments found it difficult to decide whether they should follow the de jure sovereignty of the island—still claimed by France—or the de facto sovereignty—clearly secured by Dessalines and his army. Marcus Rainsford, the early nineteenth-century British chronicler of the Haitian Revolution, emphasized that the Haitian army had indeed secured de facto independence, and he supported British recognition of the new nation. “Their reduction to their former situation is impossible,” he argued in 1805, “and though Europe waste her armies, and exhaust her navies in the endeavor, the blacks of St. Domingo will be unsubdued.” In his opinion, 1804 marked the end of French colonialism on Hispaniola.

French claims to title of the island after the Haitian Declaration of Independence nevertheless left foreign governments in a bind. There was no legal document conceding France’s defeat and the granting to Haiti of its independence and sovereignty, as had been the case with the Treaty of Paris in 1783, through which the British Empire had acknowledged the independence of the United States of America. On the other hand, Dessalines proclaimed and published the Haitian Declaration of Independence in the midst of a long and violent war between France and Great Britain. Haiti’s independence, therefore, provided an opportunity for the British to land a blow to France’s war efforts. The centrality of war, in the end, trumped any kind of allegiance among European empires. Even Spain, France’s ally in 1804, was reluctant to invest resources in helping France reclaim their colony; some individuals in Cuba, however, capitalized on the situation by allowing French privateers to process and condemn ships caught trading with Haiti in their admiralty courts—in doing so, they received part of the profits.

Warfare also proved to be more important than the fears of white planters and government officials in the British Caribbean that the revolution might spread to the other Caribbean colonies. Military strategy, in fact, encouraged the British to provide aid to Dessalines’s forces at the end of the 1803 and to withhold aid from the French forces. Support to Dessalines’s army against the French, however, did not necessarily mean that they would also accept Haiti as a sovereign nation and as an equal. The Haitian Declaration of Independence, therefore, posed a series of new questions to which military victory by itself did not necessarily demand answers. Haitian leaders, however, took the initiative and demanded recognition of their sovereignty and equality by explicitly affirming their break from France in a public statement, as the United States had done just under three decades earlier.

In doing so, Haitian leaders sought to integrate their new country into the system of laws—explicit and implicit, documented in treaties, theorized by philosophers, and established over time through custom—that governed the relationships between Atlantic nations. The debates about whether to include Haiti in this system of international diplomacy focused on evolving theories of the law of nations and centered primarily on the work of political and legal theorist Emer de Vattel and his guidelines for the incorporation of new polities into existing codes of international conduct. Vattel emphasized that states possessed natural rights to independence and equality, but, as historian David Armitage shows, “the means by which new states might acquire that right, if they had not previously possessed it, became a central topic of international legal argument only in the late eighteenth century, partly in response to the issues of recognition raised by the [U.S.] Declaration of Independence itself.” In the discussions among foreign officials regarding Haitian independence and sovereignty, it is clear that the two concepts were closely related and that the relationship between the two concepts was a product of the American Revolution and the U.S. Declaration of Independence close to three decades earlier. Armitage argues that the Americans, by successfully creating an independent state, applied “Vattel’s conception of independence [as] the touchstone of external sovereignty.”

In declaring independence from France, Dessalines and his generals did not explicitly address the issue of national sovereignty; the word “sovereignty” (souverainté) does not appear in the text of the Declaration. Instead of “sovereignty,” the Haitian Declaration of Independence referenced the “liberty” (liberté) that they sought to secure from the “dominion” of France. This liberty could only be achieved by national independence. In the Declaration, Dessalines described Haiti as “a nation proud of having recovered its liberty” and referred to himself as “the protector of the liberty which the nation enjoys.” While these references to liberty may have referred to freedom from individual enslavement—which had been abolished in the colony in 1793—it is more likely that these references to liberty referred to the metaphorical or political slavery of colonialism. American revolutionaries had deployed the language of slavery in their battle against the “tyranny” of the British Empire, and Dessalines similarly sought to affirm and secure Haiti’s “liberty” from France’s dominion. The emphasis on liberty stresses the central goal of the Declaration of Independence—or, as Armitage shows, any declaration of independence—the achievement of the country’s “international legal sovereignty.” By “living free and independent,” Haitians could secure their “place on the list of free nations” or, as the United States’ Declaration argued, “among the powers of the earth.” The Haitian Declaration of Independence, therefore, united independence and sovereignty (or liberty).

Just as the context and content of the Haitian Declaration of Independence drew on the experiences of the United States just three decades earlier, international actors also returned to the incorporation of the United States into the community of recognized nations when they considered how to apply the various theories, customs, and laws relating to independence and sovereignty to the case of Haiti. But, while this experience characteristically framed their discussion in important ways, Haiti was also viewed as exceptional. The fact that the majority of the population in Haiti was not white and that most Haitian citizens had formerly been enslaved meant that the debate about Haiti’s participation in the international community of recognized nations had a racial dimension that was unique, not only in comparison to the United States but also in comparison to later independence movements throughout Latin America. Could Haiti be considered within the customary practices of the law of nations? Or would the situation require a new set of guidelines that accounted for the socio-racial hierarchy enforced by the powers of the Atlantic World? The overt challenge that Haiti represented to the economic investments of European empires in the Americas and to slave owners in the United States meant that foreign observers saw the Haitian Declaration of Independence as qualitatively different from its precursor in the United States. At the time, understandably, no political theorist had written guidelines that could account for the particular nature of the Haitian Revolution and the Haitian Declaration of Independence. Foreign officials, therefore, combined the customary practices of the law of nations with racial and colonial ideologies and theories in order to justify the policies that they ultimately adopted—or tried to adopt—in engaging Haiti for their own political, military, and economic interests.

From HAITIAN CONNECTIONS IN THE ATLANTIC WORLD: RECOGNITION AFTER REVOLUTION by Julia Gaffield. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu

Julia Gaffield is a historian of the early-modern Atlantic World and assistant professor of History at Georgia State University. She completed her Ph.D. in the Department of History at Duke University in 2012. Her research focuses on the early independence period in Haiti and seeks to understand the connections between Haiti and other Atlantic colonies, countries, and empires in the early 19th century. You can follow her on Twitter at @JuliaGaffield.


  1. thank you… I know about the history of haitian now…

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