A conversation with Davis Prize recipient Julia Gaffield

Author: Philip Byers

Gaffield Hs

Julia Gaffield is associate professor of history at William & Mary. Her first book, Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution (UNC Press, 2015), won the 2016 Mary Alice and Frederick Boucher Book Prize from the French Colonial History Society. In early 2022, she was awarded the Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., Prize in support of her in-progress book, The Abandoned Faithful: Race and International Law in the Aftermath of the Haitian Revolution. This fall, Philip Byers corresponded with Gaffield about her research.

Philip Byers: Your first book explored Haiti’s post-revolution diplomatic relationships. Why were imperial powers hesitant to recognize Haiti, and how did Haitian leaders manage to secure economic and diplomatic recognition despite those misgivings? 

Julia Gaffield: European empires and the United States felt threatened by Haiti’s existence, so they tried to undermine Haitian successes and erase their achievements. Haiti represented many of their worst fears: the abolition of slavery, racial equality, and Black sovereignty. Recognizing Haitian independence would have acknowledged the legitimacy of the Haitian Revolution, and they feared that that recognition would threaten the racist institutions that were at the center of their own economic systems. Nevertheless, the Haitian government consistently claimed membership among the European family of nations by setting up state institutions, publishing legal codes and constitutions, and advocating for diplomatic relations and trade treaties. They took advantage of conflict among European nations to secure the resources that they needed to protect the new nation.

PB: In your proposal for the Davis Prize, you described how Haiti’s state-formation occurred at a critical juncture, a transition between religious and racial conceptions of “civilization.” Explain this shift for us.

JG: In the 18th century, the European “family of nations” was a community of states that were recognized by each other as having similar cultural and legal norms. They interacted with each other through a common understanding of the “law of nations” (in the 19th century, “international law”). Christianity was central to their perceived legitimacy as states and central to the rules that governed interactions among those states; together these comprised a “standard of civilization” (and here I build on Gerrit Gong’s earlier research). If European nations and empires understood a state to be “civilized,” they were treated within the customary practices of the law of nations. Non-Christian states were deemed to be outside the “standard of civilization.” The 19th century, however, saw both an expansion of European empires and challenges to those empires through independence movements. In coming to grips with their changing contact with the rest of the world, the European “family of nations” slowly transitioned to a race-based definition of the “standard of civilization.” Rather than a community of Christian nations, it became primarily a community of white nations. My book project explores the globalization of “scientific” racial hierarchies that followed the explicit demands of the leaders of a Black Catholic nation who were increasingly able to demonstrate the ability to fulfill the established expectations of the law of nations and international law.

PB: In your recounting, Haitian leaders viewed diplomatic relations with the Holy See as essential to their program of state-formation. Why did this matter so much, and how did their efforts pan out?

JG: When Haiti declared its independence, statehood, according to the European “family of nations,” was still very much centered on Christianity. An official relationship with the Holy See would have provided evidence for their Christianity as well as providing diplomatic legitimacy. As was the case with other treaty negotiations by the Haitian state, however, Haitian leaders did not want to compromise their complete sovereignty even though they needed these treaties. Haitian leaders, therefore, did not sign a concordat with the Holy See for almost six decades because they did not want an outside power to have control over local and national institutions.

PB: How has receiving the Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., Prize influenced your project? 

JG: I am grateful to have been awarded the Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., Prize, and the award has pushed me to understand the case of Haiti in a broader Atlantic and global context.

PB: The Abandoned Faithful is under contract with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and UNC Press. What work remains on the book, when might we anticipate seeing it in print, and what can you tell us about your other current manuscript?

JG: I have completed the research for The Abandoned Faithful and I have written three of five chapters. I am hoping the book will be in print in 2025. My second current book manuscript is a biography of Haiti’s first head of state, Jean-Jacques Dessalines. It is under contract with Yale University Press as a trade book, and I am hoping it will be in print in 2024.  


Philip Byers is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center.