“New Narratives of Haiti” at H-Haiti

By Bryan A. Banks

Haiti is popular in academia right now. Consistently, the most viewed posts on our site are those that deal with the colony (St. Domingue) and/or country (Haiti). Erica Johnson covered Catholic priests and their role in slave insurrections. Rob Taber discussed marriage and the legal origins of the Haitian Revolution. Marlene Daut wrote a stirring post on the “genocidal” musings that coincided with abolition. Erin Zavitz explored the memory of Haiti’s “founding fathers” in the recent Presidential elections. Most recently, Christopher Taylor’s assessment of C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins broke site records. Our site’s fascination and experience with the Haitian Revolution should be seen as a litmus for much wider interest in Haiti.

It is with great interest then to note that H-Haiti launched this past month. The advisory board along with the editors, Marlene Daut and Julia Gaffield, breathed life into this site, creating a digital space for “scholars, artists, and activists to explore and discuss Haitian history, art, politics, and culture through a lens beyond that of fear, repression, failure, and dependency.” The goal of H-Haiti to script “new narratives of Haiti” is admirable and needed. They want to explore the ways in which Haitians “made the modern world-system.” As such, H-Haiti is a valuable addition to H-Net world, which includes other sites of interest like H-French Colonial and H-Caribbean. 

A one stop shop for your Haitian historical, literary, and cultural needs, H-Haiti fosters conversations on their discussion board as well as in their new H-Haiti BlogThere is already a lengthy list of podcasts and other recordings related to Haitian studies on the site for visitors to explore. Soon we’ll see a #HaitiSyllabus. Reviews and other resources are coming soon too.

May also witnessed the creation of the Haitian Studies Institute (HSI) at Brooklyn College. Brooklyn is home to the largest concentration of people of Haitian descent in New York State. The Institute’s goal is to become a leading international research institute, capable of supporting scholars and reaching out to the community in order to shape “policies that affect the lives of Haitian-Americans and Haiti.” 

What follows is a segment of the H-Haiti Blog’s inaugural post. 

“Haiti’s Revolutionary Calendar”

By Erin Zavitz, University of Montana Western

Prominently placed on the title page of Louis-Félix Boisrond-Tonnerre’s memoir is the following phrase: “An 1er de l’indépendance” (the first year of independence). The phrase is the first publication date to appear. It is only on the last line that the reader finds 1804, a helpful reference for those less familiar with Haiti’s independence chronology.

Title page of Dessalines' Memoirs.
Boisrond-Tonnerre, Mémoires pour servir a l’histoire d’Hayti (Dessalines, 1804); digitized by Harvard University Library

Until recently, scholars relied upon a later edition of the memoir edited by Haitian historian Joseph Saint-Rémy that did not include the Haitian dating system of years of independence. Literary scholar Jean Jonassaint, who located the 1804 text in the Harvard University Library, notes that Boisrond-Tonnerre’s date placed the narrative within the revolutionary and official discourses of the era. Boisrond-Tonnerre was a secretary for Haiti’s first head of state, the former slave Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Months earlier, he composed Haiti’s founding document, the declaration of independence, which also included this new dating system.

A rejection of the French revolutionary calendar used throughout much of the Haitian Revolution, the declaration, Boisrond-Tonnerre’s memoir, and government publications established a new Haitian calendar that commemorated the end of slavery and colonial domination. A radical break with the colonial power’s dating system, the organization of Haitian time also redefined the Gregorian calendar to include black liberation. In Haiti, at least, Gregorian years co-existed with years of independence. Furthermore, these parallel systems did not end after a set number of years or even after the first U.S. occupation (1915-1934). Instead, official correspondence, constitutions, even newspapers continue the Haitian calendar and memorialize the country’s independence.

A Beginning

Haiti’s calendar became the subject of a lively twitter exchange back in August between Julia Gaffield, Mary Lewis, Adam Lebovitz, and myself.  A tentative conclusion drawn from the exchange was that the official use of “x years of independence” was exceptional, in particular because it appeared to continue to the present day. Moreover, although we had a very small sample size, four Twitter users, we knew little about this remarkable commemorative condition. This post is a start, and I welcome comments and additional leads to better understand Haiti’s revolutionary calendar.

It only seems fitting to begin a network determined to uncover “new narratives of Haiti” by exploring the new chronologies Haitians invented for themselves following independence. To read more of Erin Zavitz’s post on Haiti’s revolutionary calendar click here.

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