In an interview with a Miami-based Haitian radio station 3 years ago, the director of Haiti’s National Archives, Jean Wilfrid Bertrand, nonchalantly admitted that he did not have Haiti’s original Declaration of Independence, an acknowledgement that highlighted the deficient structure of the state and the pilfering of our national patrimony by unscrupulous bureaucrats and foreign collectors. Pressed further by the interviewer, Mr. Bertrand admitted that the National Archives has only a copy of the highly relevant historical document in its possession. Shocking as the admission was, no inquiry has ever been made to ascertain where the priceless document might be or who should be held responsible for its unknown whereabouts.
A friend of mine, a former archivist at the Nixon Library, recently sent me a link to a website operated by a certain Prof. Corbett, a private collector who has been selling his extensive library on Haiti. Lo and behold, the man advertizes proudly on the website that he is in possession of the original copy of the December 23rd 1839 Treaty between Great Britain and Haiti for the effective suppression of the slave trade, which the two nations had undertaken to eliminate. In Haiti where nothing is sacred and the looting of anything belonging to the state is considered a badge of honor, one can fairly assume Mr. Corbett’s copy originates from that country. Because slavery was an affront to decency, it has remained a matter of crucial importance to the Negroid race, particularly in this age of neo-colonialism. The document is therefore part of the world patrimony, and should be returned to the Haitian state, its legitimate owner.
Moreover because any original copy of a treaty between two nations belongs to their respective National Archives, Prof Corbett, as a citizen of neither country, may be in possession of a stolen property as per the “1970 Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property”. I brought the subject to the attention of Haiti’s Embassy at Washington in the form of an email but did not get any reply. As for Mr. Corbett, whom I have contacted, he responded by backtracking on his claim that the document was “the original”. He added almost apologetically that he had acquired it from a dealer of old books in England and none of his postings were rare Haitian artifacts. Was Mr. Corbett admitting that he was in reality a swindler or trying to extract himself from a potentially embarrassing situation? Whatever the case may be, this episode brings to light a topic that has too long been ignored: the systematic pillage of Haiti’s patrimony by unscrupulous foreign collectors.
To paraphrase Yale’s University professor David Brion Davis “The Haitian revolution was indeed a major turning point in history. Like the Hiroshima bomb, its meaning could be rationalized or repressed but never really forgotten”. Aptly, the truth could only be told through these documents which remain living testaments to an era long gone. They must be preserved at all costs and those that were stolen or acquired through illegitimate transactions must be returned to the guardianship of the Haitian state. Complicating matters, no Haitian archivist, not even Mr. Bertrand, knows for sure how many of these treasured historical documents had disappeared from the guardianship of the Haitian state. Since many bibliophiles are known to have a pathological attachment to their collections, some of these documents may be considered irretrievably lost as these collectors would rather keep them out of the public view instead of returning them to their legitimate owners. Whether Mr. Corbett is now telling the truth about this particular document he had previously claimed to be the original, the fact remains that Haiti’s declaration of independence, the forerunner to the destruction of slavery as an economic system, is missing. No less than the keeper of our heritage, Mr. Wilfrid Bertrand said so.
In fairness, Mr. Bertrand shouldn’t be held responsible for the two centuries of neglect and systematic pillage of our national heritage. He is an innovator and has conceived some grand plans for Haiti’s National Archives, among them the digitization of its contents in an effort to save what could be saved of our national patrimony. The lack of funding unfortunately has impeded his efforts. In the aftermath of the January 12th earthquake, his predicament could only get worse while at the same time thieves, some of them masqueraded as rescuers, could be doing their nefarious work unimpeded. While more pressing problems such as rebuilding Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, feeding and finding descent housing for the more than a million of homeless deserve priority, saving our national patrimony however should not be overlooked.
It took Germany, a leading industrial nation, 60 years to restore the Frauenkirche or Church of our Lady, the 18th century Baroque-style church destroyed by the allies during the firebombing of Dresden in the waning months of WWII. Analogically, no one expects poor Haiti to restore to their originality much of the historic buildings that was destroyed in the January 12 earthquake. Since these documents remain the only window to our rather tormented but glorious past, the Haitian government, with the assistance of UNESCO, should fund a brigade of inspectors that deals exclusively with preventing the robbing and recovering the country’s stolen artifacts and documents.