Complexities of Imagining Haiti: A Study of National Constitutions, 1801-1807

By Gaffield, Julia | Journal of Social History, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Complexities of Imagining Haiti: A Study of National Constitutions, 1801-1807


Gaffield, Julia, Journal of Social History


The first four national constitutions in Haiti (1801-1807) reflect a complex and contested dialogue among different factions, each trying to define Haiti in their own cultural terms. These constitutions emerged within the context of power struggles between old and new elites who viewed a unified sense of nation as an important goal following Haiti's independence. While studies of early nineteenth century Haiti have emphasized the significance of colour in dividing a perceived mixed-race ancient libres caste from a black nouveau libres caste, the early constitutions point to a much more turbulent period during which political leaders struggled to define an "imagined community" that could underpin the development of the colony as an independent nation.

The first constitution in 1801 was an attempt by the revolutionary leader, Toussaint Louverture, along with President Borgela and others, to enhance sovereignty while also maintaining links to France. (1) Following the declaration of independence on January 1, 1804, the 1805 Constitution was written under the rule of Jean Jacques Dessalines and signed by Dessalines and Henri Christophe (later King of the northern half of Haiti) along with other supporters. (2) Alexandre Petion, who ruled the Republic covering the south and west portions of Haiti, largely wrote the 1806 Constitution, and it was co-signed by numerous others. (3) Then, the 1807 Constitution was created under the direction of Henri Christophe and applied to the northern portion of Haiti.

Researchers have characteristically studied the constitutions between 1801 and 1807 primarily as legal documents. Their studies have analyzed the major obstacles facing political leaders during this revolutionary period including the limits they faced in applying each constitution across Haiti. This research approach has been most successfully and comprehensively used by Sibylle Fischer who has focused on the question of citizenship in Haiti's early constitutions by examining "the extraordinary challenges the new state was facing in a world where slaveholding was the rule and where colonialist designs were just beginning to extend into Africa and Asia." (4) But these early constitutions reveal more than failed attempts to exercise state power if we consider them as efforts to express what Benedict Anderson has called an 'imagined community'. Anderson's insight can be built upon to suggest that the constitutions were not only legal documents, but also ideological texts that articulated national projects. Indeed, systematic study of the articles in each constitution reveals successive attempts to unify the country internally and to secure its place on the international stage. In significantly different ways, these attempts manifested themselves in the changing definitions of Haiti as a homogeneous symbol of black power and freedom. The multiple articulations of the claim of common racial identification were designed to realize Haiti's declared cultural and political distinctiveness in a tumultuous historical context.

The previous studies of early Haitian society have focused on internal social divisions, mainly concerning colour conflicts and class hierarchies, in a rapidly changing demographic environment. The scholarly emphasis on divisions is certainly supported by contemporary efforts to describe the Haitian population during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when leaders were attempting to articulate a common identity for Haiti. For example, Histoire Politique et Statistique de L'Ile D'Hayti, Saint Domingue, written in 1826 by Sir James Barskett and M. Placide-Justin, offers population statistics from 1789 and 1826 that are organized into two sets of racialized categories. According to Barskett and Placide-Justin, the population of Haiti was 523,803 in 1789 and was divided into three categories:

Blancs [Whites]                                       30,826
Mulatres et noirs libres [Mulattos and Free Blacks]   27,548
Esclaves [Slaves]                                    465,429 (5)

The population figures they give for 1826 had changed dramatically:

Noirs [Blacks]                                              605,500
Gens de couleur de tout degre [People of colour of all       84,000
  shades]
Blancs, qui ont droit de cite dans l'ile [Whites, who have      500
  the right to live on the island]
Etrangers domicilies [Resident Foreigners]                   10,000 (6)

Based on historical evidence such as this description of Haitian society, scholars have emphasized the racially fragmented character of Haiti, both before and after the revolution. …

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