"Free of Everything Save Independence": Property, Personhood and the Archive in Nineteenth-Century Haiti
- Author(s): Schneider, Winter Rae
- Advisor(s): Derby, Robin L
- et al.
Scholarship on slavery and emancipation in the Caribbean has wrestled with how to characterize freedom after slavery as it was experienced by freed populations. “Freedom” itself as a metric for understanding life after slavery has been effectively problematized as it represented the continuation of forms of control and violence—albeit in different terms—that racialized and marginalized freed populations even though they were free. More recent scholarship within this field has turned to material culture as a way to historicize freed people’s lives and agendas as the terms through which they understood and approached liberation from bondage. Haitian history after the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) represents a significant absence in this field, although it represents the first regional instance of neo-imperialism and racialization under national authority after slavery in the region. Premised on a perceived absence of archival documentation that can speak to Haiti’s internal struggles, the first half of the nineteenth century in the country has been understood through romanticized narratives of an idyllic, cooperative, rural society on the one hand, and a repressive militarized state on the other. With this dissertation, I ask the question of how to read freedom after slavery in Haiti through an examination of Haiti’s foundational period of state-building under President Jean-Pierre Boyer (1818-1843). This dissertation engages Haitian “independence” in the years surrounding the recognition of Haitian state sovereignty by France in 1825 as it was reflected through Haiti’s 1825 debt to France, in Haitian law surrounding property and personhood, and as it was reflected in rural projects of self-determination and belonging through land ownership. The research for this dissertation is drawn from Haitian nineteenth-century notarial documentation from the city of Gona�ves and the Artibonite Valley, Haitian civil registry records housed in the National Archives in Port-au-Prince, and the records of French colonists who owned property in Gona�ves and the Artibonite Valley held in France’s overseas and national and departmental archives. Additionally, this dissertation draws from oral history interviews and historical ethnography research in Gona�ves, conducted between 2013 and 2016. This dissertation engages the question of historicizing Haitian freedom theoretically through a focus on law and bureaucracy within neo-imperial and postcolonial contexts, and it traces its theoretical foundation to the fields of Black Geographies and landscape archaeology. Such a theoretical orientation allows this dissertation to critically engage the legal and bureaucratic structures of Haitian independence within historical landscapes shaped through both projects of national control and through the experiences of rural non-elite populations. Throughout, this dissertation engages the structures of Haitian independence as they also represent a fraught yet authoritative archive of the first decades of Haitian freedom after the revolution. This dissertation argues that the recognition of Haitian sovereignty by France was conditional on the recognition by Haiti, in turn, of racial privilege, construed as property rights, of Saint Domingue's former colonists. It also argues that Haitian state law and bureaucracy around property was itself a site of claims-making in rural areas. By structuring Haitian independence through a property discourse that stressed Haitian identity as the irrevocable right to own land, President Boyer instituted an ideology of inalienability and self-possession through property ownership that was taken up and used to dramatically different ends by both the state and by rural Haitian populations.