Catherine Flon has been mythologised for sewing together the first flag of the independent black Republic of Haiti in 1803. Her role in Haitian popular memory is similar to that of Betsy Ross in the United States, who is famed for crafting the nation’s first flag and viewed as a symbol of women’s participation in the American Revolution. Flon has also come to embody and symbolize the contributions of enslaved women that have historically been overlooked in Haiti--and throughout the African diaspora--in large part because detailed accounts of enslaved women are largely absent from the archival records on which many historians and writers have based their scholarship.
Many accounts state that Flon was the goddaughter and principal assistant to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first ruler of the independent republic of Haiti. Because there is little archival evidence of her role in the overthrow of French colonial rule, some scholars, like Philipe Girard, deny her existence. Nonetheless, the persistence of Flon’s story in oral tradition and popular memory speaks to a broader desire to commemorate the known participation of women in the Haitian Revolution that is largely silent in the archive. In the words of historian Nicole Willson, Flon’s story highlights “the symbiosis between revolutionary creativity and female domestic labour.” (136)
Most popular accounts state that Flon was not only a seamstress but an enthusiastic supporter of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), during which time she served as a nurse, in a non-combatant but supportive capacity. Her unique place in the history of the revolution during the colonial war of independence (1802–1803), was precipitated by the revocation of the decret du 16 pluviôse an II, an attempt to reestablish chattel slavery that resulted in the French abduction of the Haitian revoluionary leader, Toussaint Louverture.
The design of the Haitian national flag occurred during a three-day meeting of the diverse revolutionary groups in May 1803, which was held at Archaye. It was during this conference that Dessalines is said to have symbolically excised the white vertical band from the French tricolor flag, leaving the red and blue bands. Flon, most accounts suggest, then stitched together the remaining bands.
Revered and immortalized as one of the three most prominent women in the establishment of the nation-state of Haiti, Flon is integral to the mythology of the Haitian nation. She has been interpreted by many of Haiti’s nationalist artists, all of whom paint her with the red and blue flag. Since 2000 a version of her likeness has adorned Haiti’s ten-gourde banknote. A secondary school for girls was established in her honor. One of Haiti’s national holidays, Flag Day, celebrated on 18 May, places her at the center of national history. In 2004 historian Laurent Dubois published Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Its paperback edition presents an image of the painting, “Dessalines Ripping the White from the Flag,” by the artist Madsen Mompremier. The oil on canvas painting places Catherine in the right corner, dressed in white, head wrapped, barefoot, and seated on a golden chair, stitching the red and blue bands of the new flag together. Apart from the ethereal figures, she is the only female mortal pictured. She seems to have turned her face away from her godfather. On the back cover of the book, Flon is presented as a detail from the painting.
During the two centuries since the Haitian nation declared independence, the design of the national flag has undergone changes. However, all artistic renditions of Catherine Flon have portrayed her stitching the blue and red bands of the French tricolor after the white was cut out by her godfather.
As the historian Nicole Willson notes, “even if there was no real personality named Catherine Flon, it might safely be assumed that there was at least one woman, if not a series of women, who were involved in the flag’s creation at Arcahaie or elsewhere.” (138) Moreover, there is documentary evidence that many enslaved seamstresses in pre-revolutionary Saint-Domingue rebelled and were involved in acts of espionage and resistance to the French colonial authorities. A database of records of runaways on St. Domingue, for example, includes a February 1784 notice for “Madeleine, a Creole” (Caribbean born) enslaved woman in her early twenties, who was “an excellent seamstress and embroiderer, speaking good French...having been raised in Paris.” Madeleine had escaped bondage 6 months earlier and was still at liberty. https://www.marronnage.info/fr/document.php?id=6710. Another woman, Marie, liberated herself the same year. A newspaper notice seeking her return described her as “generally well dressed and has the vanity of passing herself off as free when it is not known.” (Willson, 147). The persistence of the mythological memory of Catherine Flon in present-day Haiti, therefore, is representative of the actions of women like Marie, Madeleine, and others who resisted slavery and colonial rule.
Read the full, original biography by Curtis Jacobs in The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography
Embassy of the Republic of Haiti to the United States. https://www.haiti.org/a-celebration-of-the-215th-anniversary-of-the-haitian-flag/
Marronnage in the Atlantic World: Sources and Life Trajectories.
An online database of 20, 000 documents recording self-liberation and other acts of resistance by enslaved people in Saint-Domingue, Jamaica, Louisiana, South Carolina, Canada, Guadeloupe, and French Guyana, from 1765-1833. https://www.marronnage.info/fr/
Accilien, Cécile, Jessica Adams, and Elimde Mééance, eds. Revolutionary Freedoms: A History of Survival, Strength and Imagination in Haiti. Coconut Creek, Fla.: Caribbean Studies Press, 2006.
Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 2004.
Dubois, Laurent. Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012.
Geggus, David Patrick. The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 2014.
Girard, Philippe. The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801–1804. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2011.
Willson, Nicole. “Unmaking the Tricolore: Catherine Flon, Material Testimony and Occluded Narratives of Female-led Resistance in Haiti and the Haitian Dyaspora,” Slavery & Abolition, 41:1, (2019) 131-148.
Briona S. Jones and Steven J. Niven
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.