Haiti's Revolutionary Calendar

Julia Gaffield Blog Post

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.

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

Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

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.

The switch to the Gregorian calendar appeared months before 1 January 1804 in a preliminary declaration of independence. Included in Haiti's first complete history by Thomas Madiou (1814-1884), the preliminary declaration and reprints in the American and English press all conclude with the date 29 November 1803.

Thomas Madiou, Histoire d'Haïti (Port-au-Prince: J. Courtois, 1848), 3:99
Madiou, 3:100.

The November 1803 proclamation initiated a return to the Gregorian calendar. While Dessalines replaced the preliminary declaration, he kept the rejection of the French revolutionary calendar. Over a month later, the former slave turned revolutionary general, declared Haiti’s independence and established a series of commemorative traditions. I document the creation and institutionalization of Independence Day (1 January) in the forthcoming collection edited by Julia Gaffield, The Haitian Declaration of Independence: Creation, Context, and Legacy and my dissertation, “Revolutionary Memories: Celebrating and Commemorating the Haitian Revolution.” In both instances, I focus on the ceremony. Yet, Dessalines did not just create the first national holiday. Along with his secretaries, he also established a new calendar that celebrated the end of slavery and colonial rule. The three-part declaration of independence is the first official iteration of the new calendar. The first and third sections are dated: “ce 1er Janvier 1804 et le 1er jour de l’indépendance” (the first of January 1804 and the first day of independence).

Haitian Declaration of Independence, The National Archives of the UK: CO 137/111, ff 113
Haitian Declaration of Independence, The National Archives of the UK: CO 137/111

Here, the declaration’s dating supports the country’s independence from France and proclaims 1 January 1804 as the first day of independence. A day, which would have been one of the few holidays plantation slaves had, became a celebration of complete freedom. Subsequent documents, including Boisrond-Tonnerre’s memoir, added the year, 1er an de l’indépendance (first year of independence). The date served to continue the celebration of 1 January and remind Haitians of the end of slavery. It also stood as a statement for foreign powers: Haiti was independent. The counting of years of independence on official letter head, in constitutions, and in the Haitian press represented an alternative way to legitimate the black state.

Revolutionary Addendum

The first Haitian Constitution, 1805, further codified both the holiday and calendar. Issued in the spring of 1805, the Constitution contains dates in Gregorian years (1805), years of Haitian independence (2), and years of Dessalines's reign as emperor (1).

Excerpts of the 1805 Constitution
Excerpts of the 1805 Constitution

The third organization, years of Dessalines's reign, represents an additional component of the revolutionary calendar. As various regimes rose and fell, Haitian leaders validated their coups d'etat by incorporating their government into the revolutionary narrative and calendar. They saw themselves as continuing or fulfilling the revolution. For example, the revolutionaries of 1843 spoke of regeneration and argued they were ushering in an era of renewal after twenty-five years of ignorance and misery under the former President Jean-Pierre Boyer. A theme in speeches and government publications, the Haitian revolutionary calendar also symbolized the nation's re-birth. Documents from the revolutionaries and a provisional constitution include three dates: Gregorian day, month, and year; the years of independence; and the years of regeneration.

Centre des Archives Diplomatiques de Nantes 524 PO/B/017
Centre des Archives Diplomatiques de Nantes, 524 PO/B/017

The tripartite dating system became a component of Haitian regime changes. Faustin Soulouque (1847-59) substituted reign for regeneration when he became Haiti's second emperor in 1849. Regardless of the form of government, heads of state employed the calendar initiated by Dessalines and his secretaries in 1804 to legitimate their own rule and place themselves within the narrative of Haiti's revolution and independence.

Institutionalized in the nineteenth century, the calendar continued even during the first U.S. occupation (1915-1934). Proclamations included in the official newspaper Le Montieur contain the date in Gregorian years and years of independence.

Le Moniteur, 5 Jan 1925, dloc.com
1924Le Moniteur, 5 Jan 1925, dloc.com

The removal of the U.S. Marines in 1934 prompted a return to the nineteenth-century tripartite dating. With President Sténio Vincent's proclamation of a second independence, the Haitian calendar counted years of independence from 1804 and years of liberation and restoration.

A Calendrical Coda?

The twitter exchange followed the calendar up to the Duvalier dictatorships. Both father and son are infamous for their manipulation of history and appropriation of the revolutionary legacy. Post-Duvalier, however, the calendar continues.

Centre des Archives Diplomatiques de Nantes, 524 PO/B/85
Centre des Archives Diplomatiques de Nantes, 524 PO/B/85

My archival research ends in the late 1980s. Thus, does current state letter head contain the "___ year of Independence" ? What additions or deletions have come with the opening of democracy in Haiti?

The parallel dating, Gregorian years and years of independence, is remarkable. The calendar perpetually celebrates Haiti's revolution and independence. It served as a reminder of the radical challenge a black state posed to slavery and European colonialism. And, perhaps it continues to symbolize the Haitian Revolution in the face of new exploitative global systems. Yet, the commemorative letter head also begs the question of what those years of independence mean(t).


Jean Jonassaint, "A Very Historic Moment in Caribbean Studies: Boisrond-Tonnerre's Mémoires (1804) online,  http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/houghton/files/2013/05. /Boisrond-Tonnerre%E2%80%99s-M%C3%A9moires-1804-online.pdf

Madiou, Thomas. Histoire d’Haïti. J. Courtois: Port-au-Prince, 1847-8.

Zavitz, Erin. “Revolutionary Commemorations: Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Haitian Independence Day, 1804-1904.” In The Haitian Declaration of Independence: Creation, Context, and Legacy, edited by Julia Gaffield, 219-38. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016.