Title page of Sketches of Hayti written by former Queens’ student, William Woodis Harvey.

We are extremely grateful to the Friends of the National Libraries for their generous contribution towards our recent purchase of Sketches of Hayti [Y.1.8] by former Queens’ member William Woodis Harvey (1798-1864). Written up by Harvey whilst a student here (1824-7), this book provides an eyewitness account of the aftermath of what was perhaps the most important event in the history of enslavement, the revolution of 1791-1804 that occurred in Haiti (on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola).  There, for the first time in history, a violent uprising of enslaved people had brought about the establishment of a new nation state, thereby offering a stark warning to all those who continued to profit from slavery and heralding the possibility of an end to the slave trade. Published at a key moment within the wider context of nineteenth-century Britain’s debates on slavery, Harvey’s personal account was clearly intended as a means to promote his own abolitionist agenda.

Apart from the purchase of Harvey’s book, the Queens’ Legacies of Enslavement project has of late been active in a range of areas that include a recent video made by the college’s history Fellows and planning for a conference next September  entitled ‘Education, Enlightenment, Empire: Anglo-German Universities and the Transatlantic Slave World, c. 1700-1850’. In addition, the library team has been examining the college’s archives as well as assessing the careers and backgrounds of hundreds of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Queens’ members to find evidence of engagement with Britain’s slave economy. Whilst the extent to which the college’s finances might have benefited from transatlantic slavery is as yet unclear, there are innumerable associations with the trade to be identified in the lives of the college’s members. Although this is perhaps only to be expected, given the British Empire’s deep engagement with slavery at that time, the stories to be told are nevertheless proving insightful and interesting. Whilst it may be tempting to segregate discussion of this subject into those who were for slavery, and those who professed opposition to it, the available evidence at Queens’ presents a picture that is more nuanced and complex. For an institution whose central mission had always been ‘the augmentation of the faith’ and the instruction of the clergy, it is not surprising to find that a principal point of contact with the slave economy was via missionary work and associated biblical scholarship. Indeed, the Old Library is replete with evidence of how through evangelism, missionary work and related publishing projects Queens’ members played an active part in the wider imperialist project in ways that both supported and/or opposed the slave economy.

Engraved frontispiece of Harvey’s Sketches of Hayti depicting Cap-François, now Cap-Haïtien.

William Woodis Harvey and his Sketches of Hayti represents a case in point. Born in Penzance, Harvey’s early calling as a Wesleyan preacher led him to undertake missionary work in Haiti where he resided from 1818 until 1824. There, he was able to witness the aftermath of the revolution that had occurred, whereby a successful insurrection of self-liberated slaves terminated French rule, thus depriving France of one of its richest colonial possessions. The initial uprising had taken place in 1791, in the wake of the French Revolution. Following the combined efforts of both former slaves and colonists to repel British attempts to capture Haiti in 1793-8, independence was proclaimed in 1801 under the rule of the charismatic and formerly enslaved, Toussaint Louverture. He was famously abducted by the French in 1802 following the arrival of a huge fleet despatched by Napoleon to re-take the state and re-impose slavery. Whilst Louverture was taken to France and left to die in a castle, Napoleon’s army was repelled through the resourceful leadership of the formerly enslaved, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who as president signed a new ‘declaration of independence’ addressed to the people of ‘Hayti’ in 1804.

Portrait of Henri Christophe (Wikimedia Commons).

Harvey claimed that his account drew on his own ‘personal observation’, ‘frequent conversation with the natives and white residents’ and intimacy with ‘those who had dwelt in’ the palace of Henri Christophe (another of Haiti’s early rulers) in order to relate the remarkable events that had followed the declaration of independence. These sources, he believed, had furnished him with ‘more satisfactory answers to such inquiries as naturally suggest themselves concerning a free and independent body of negroes, than could be collected from the occasional notices of their state which appeared in periodicals and gazettes, or from any history that has been written respecting them’ (p. viii-ix). Over 400 pages Harvey set out what he saw as the successes of the Haitians in establishing a state founded on institutions of law, education and industry. A key objective for Harvey was to counter arguments prevalent amongst his compatriots at the time that saw the enslaved people from African as ‘destined by providence to live in subjection to us, and to administer to our pleasure’ (p. 216). On the contrary, Harvey saw in Haiti:

a people newly escaped from slavery, yet still suffering and exhibiting in their character, its pernicious and demoralizing effects; gradually returning from scenes of confusion and bloodshed, to habits of industry, peace and order; steadily aiming, amidst frequent reverses, to establish a regular and independent government; and under circumstances of difficulty, with confined resources, labouring to improve their agriculture, to repair an exhausted population, to form commercial connexions, and to introduce a knowledge of the arts and sciences; thus laudably endeavouring to lay the foundation of an empire, which may perhaps be compared hereafter with nations the most celebrated for their civilization and refinement (p. vii-viii).

His account focusses mainly on the northern part of the state which, following the death of Dessalines in 1807, was ruled by Henri Christophe (also, formerly enslaved). Harvey presents Christophe as a highly effective military strategist, who had played a vital role in both defeating the French and in maintaining the state’s defences via a range of measures, including construction of a colossal fortress at Citadelle Laferrière.  Harvey goes on to describe in positive terms the state’s judicial system, its army, establishment of schools, agriculture and commerce, as well as the condition and character of Christophe’s subjects before concluding with an account of the subsequent ‘Decline of Christophe’s popularity’. Having elevated himself to the status of King (1811), an act ‘partly influenced…by a sincere regard to the interests of his people’, Christoph adopted the accoutrements of office, building for himself the magnificent Sans-Souci Palace, the ruins of which can still be seen today. However, after over a decade in power during which Christophe increasingly succumbed to paranoia and tyrannical behaviour his reign ended in violence in October 1820.  Yet for Harvey this was merely a setback in the nation’s road to peace, prosperity and ‘civilization’, as reflected in this glowing summary concerning Haiti’s subsequent unification (1820) under the rule of Jean-Pierre Boyer, the biracial son of a formerly enslaved woman from Congo.

The institutions they have formed with a view to public instruction, are admirably adapted to their state; and being liberally supported, and in full operation, by gradually opening to them the treasures of knowledge, are thus conferring on them incalculable benefits. Free from civil broils, and no longer in dread of foreign foes, they are availing themselves of the opportunities which a period of tranquillity affords them, for establishing such regulations as shall render them hereafter a powerful, wealthy, and intelligent people (p. 415).

Haiti on the West side of the island of Hispaniola (map from Queens’ archives QC 979).

In many ways Harvey presents some of the contradictions encountered when considering legacies of enslavement at Queens’, an institution which saw itself at that time as a bulwark of abolitionism. Harvey’s discussion of African enslaved people is frequently couched in ways that rightly attract censure today on account of their Eurocentrism, paternalistic attitudes and racial undertones. Moreover, in his efforts to bolster the achievements of Christophe, Harvey was outspoken in his criticism of what he saw as the brutal excesses of Christophe’s predecessor, Dessalines. This has occasioned recent disapproval, not least because as author of Haiti’s original ‘declaration of independence’, Dessalines is widely recognised today as a great Haitian hero. Yet, if Harvey does not live up to standards of anti-racism, we can nevertheless see in his promotion of racial equality and the Haitian state, an attempt to shape those debates that ultimately led to the Emancipation Act of 1833 and Britain’s prohibition of slavery. We do not yet know whether Harvey encountered any Black students during his time at Queens’. Peter Moncrieffe (‘of the West Indies’), the earliest known Black Queens’ student matriculated the year after Harvey graduated. We do know, however, that Harvey was at Queens’ at the same time as several others now remembered for having either benefited from the slave trade or for professing opposition to it. Whilst discussion of these figures must await further blogs and the library’s upcoming exhibition it is interesting to consider the conversations Harvey’s first hand knowledge and experiences of the Haitians must have occasioned during his time at Queens’.

By Tim Eggington, Fellow Librarian