Haitians across the globe celebrated, on May 18, 2012, the birth of a symbol: Haiti’s bi-color blue and red; hence, commemorated 209 years since that solemn day in 1803 when Catherine Flon sewed the first Haitian flag. Mobilized around their collective aspiration, adamant bravery and inalienable rights to liberty and equality, Haiti’s Founding founders embarked on a collision course with history.
Reflecting on Haiti’s endless struggle last week, contemporaries of former slaves remembered how their forebears willed their destiny to abolitionism, independence and ultimately plunged a dagger into the heart of Imperialism. More than two centuries later, their legacy prevailed, reminding generations of Haitians of freedom’s herculean price and their obligation to its ideals.
Throughout the revolutionary war, recounted Journalist Fleurimond W. Kerns in his 2003 article “The Haitian Flag: Birth of a Symbol,” the indigenous army that overwhelmed Napoleon’s forces carried France’s tricolor blue, white and red flag that pioneer Toussaint L’Ouverture adopted in 1798. However, following Louverture’s capture and extradition to France’s Fort-de-Joux, a military outpost in the Jura Mountains where he died, his first lieutenant Jean Jacques Dessalines’ heroics gave new directions to Hispaniola’s slave rebellion. Although a major setback for the movement, Louverture’s arrest led to his famous declaration on-board his captors’ vessel headed to France. “In overthrowing me,” he said, “You have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of blacks’ liberty in Saint Domingue. It will spring back by its roots, because they are numerous and deep,” quotes that historians argued helped propel the revolution to its final phase.
During last weekend’s ceremonies in the town of Arcahaie, historic birthplace of Haiti’s flag, President Michel Martelly referenced Flon’s needle, as the glue that bonded red and blue bands together, giving Haitians their pride and dignity as human beings. Expanding on Martelly’s metaphor, Gandy Thomas, Haiti’s General Consul in Atlanta, Ga., highlighted the needle’s expansive role in the fabric of the republic. “The needle of Catherine Flon sewed together the unity of this society of men determined to seek, by the force of arms, the way to freedom,” said Thomas during his commemorative speech. “The needle of Catherine Flon also sewed their commitments of one another to live as equals,” he added. Many Haitians, including Thomas, believe the symbolism of May 18, 1803 is as relevant today as the ideals of the sons of freedom valid. The Founding Fathers’ ultimate sacrifice, argued this point of view, planted seeds of freedom that have yet to materialize for the Haitian population.
As anger flared over Louverture’s epic fall, all leaders of the Haitian Revolution set aside their differences during the Congress of Arcahaie and swore allegiance to Dessalines: their new leader. The unity achieved at the congress was essential to a successful completion of the revolution, beginning with Dessalines first major act cataloged by Kerns. “He grabbed a red, white and blue flag, and with a sharp jerk, ripped the white stripe to pieces and joined the blue and red together, making the first Haitian flag, symbolizing the union against the colonialist, pro-slavery France.” Dessalines then handed the remaining blue and white stripes to his god-daughter Catherine Flon who sewed them together horizontally, mobilizing revolting slaves under the Oath of the Ancestors: “freedom or death” written boldly on their new flag. Although widely regarded by Haitians as one of the nation’s founding heroes, Flon did not figure on Haitian currency until year 2000.
As the country struggles to build a more perfect union, her needle remains a powerful symbol of unity that can reunite today’s complex and fragmented Haitian society to honor the memories and sacrifices of its brave ancestors. Concluding his eloquent speech, Thomas reminded leaders of their obligation to the pioneers’ aspiration of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. “The needle of Catherine Flon finally sewed the ideals of brotherhood among men who solemnly swore to no longer live in subhuman conditions imposed by the slave system,” he said. “For it is we, the ruling elites,” he concluded, “who must lead the battle and emerge victorious.”