Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania

21 February 2024

Researching and Unraveling Haitian Stories in the Archives

Jean Renel Pierre Louis (aka Prensnelo) is a Haitian-Grenadian artist and was a 2023 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library. 

I came to the British Library as an Eccles Visiting Fellow in July 2023 to research and unravel Haitian stories within the Library’s collection. My objective was to find inspiration for a new series of artworks, drawing strength from both my own recollections of the 2010 earthquake and the profound spirituality that defines Haitian existence and resilience. 

Hispaniola – named in 1492 by Christopher Columbus and split between French and Spanish control – over time became the distinct entities of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Opening and unrolling maps created between 1564 and 1794 revealed the evolving contours of this shared landmass and was very emotional for me. The many changes to the border separating the two nations shows a history of changing plot lines and its impact on the Haitian psyche. Varying spellings of Haiti and other place names which still exist, including those that were new to me, also caught my attention.  

A man looks at a large map of the Isle of San Domingo.
Isle of San Domingo or Hispaniola. London: Printed for William Faden, 1794. British Library shelfmark: Maps K.Top.123.36.2. 

The Library’s Philatelic collection holds what could be described as a Haitian history in miniature. From stamps honouring revolutionary heroes and commemorating the bicentennial of Port au Prince – showing George Washington, Jean Jacques Dessalines and Simon Bolivar – to a 1979 stamp portraying a rural Haitian mother breastfeeding and marking the 50th Anniversary of the Interamerican Children Organisation, these stamps are a mosaic of Haiti’s triumphs and tribulations. I had not thought of stamps as holders of history before this and finally appreciated the value of my father’s cherished collection, held in two red and brown suitcases and including a stamp of François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, Haiti’s 40th President.  

Seven stamps in different colours of Haitian revolutionary heroes.
British Library Philatelic Collections, UPU Collection, Haiti.

I did not find much information on Faustin Elie-Soulouque, a politician and military commander from Petit-Goave (my maternal hometown) who was president and later Emperor of Haiti. However, documents on Henry Christophe, a key leader in the Haitian Revolution and the only monarch of the Kingdom of Haiti, included a peculiar typewritten addition to the Library’s copy of Lithographic Sketches of the Public Characters of Calcutta (Calcutta: W. Thacker and Co., 1850; British Library shelfmark W.4769): an image of ‘Christophe, or Henry the First, King of Haiti.’ This addition reminded me that history, like ink on paper, can be amended and expanded. 

A skecth of young man in a military uniform, including a bicorn hat with a large feather.
'Christophe, or Henry the First, King of Haiti', in Colesworthey Grant, Lithographic Sketches of the Public Characters of Calcutta. Calcutta: W. Thacker and Co., 1850. British Library shelfmark: W.4769. 

Photographs of Haiti in its glory days made me a little sad, given the many buildings that are still unfixed more than a decade after the earthquake. However, those images, as well as video and recordings of ceremonial songs and festivals, were good references for future projects.  

Between July and November my days at the British Library helped me to think more broadly about how I, as a visual artist, can pay my respects to the resilience of a nation and of a people that have endured such highs and lows. The Eccles Fellowship provided me with a wellspring of inspiration for canvases yet to come.