Catherine Flon, an often-overlooked figure in Haitian history, was pivotal in creating the Haitian flag. Like Betsy Ross in the United States, Flon has been mythologised for her contributions to her country’s independence. Despite the lack of detailed accounts of enslaved women in historical records, Flon’s story persists through oral tradition and popular memory.
Early life and relationship with Dessalines
Born in the late 1700s in the Haitian city of Arcahaie, very little is known about Catherine Flon’s early life. She was said to be the goddaughter of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first ruler of the independent republic of Haiti. Flon served as Dessalines’ principal assistant during the Haitian Revolution, although there is little archival evidence to substantiate this claim. Despite the scarcity of documentation, Flon’s story continues to be passed down through generations, highlighting the importance of women’s contributions to the revolution.
Skills as a seamstress and nurse
Catherine Flon was introduced to sewing at a young age, quickly discovering her talent for the craft. She also pursued a career in nursing, which would prove invaluable during the Haitian Revolution. Flon opened a sewing workshop in her hometown of Arcahaie, teaching young girls the trade to help them support themselves.
Involvement in the Haitian Revolution
The Haitian Revolution began on 21 August 1791, and many families, including Flon’s, sought refuge from the conflict. However, Catherine chose to stay behind and aid the revolutionaries. While she did not engage in combat, Flon served as a nurse, attending to soldiers’ wounds and providing support in a non-combat zone.
Creation of the Haitian flag
In 1803, as Jean-Jacques Dessalines led the Haitian army against France, England, and Spain, the need for a distinct flag for Haiti became apparent. Dessalines famously removed the white stripe from a French flag, symbolising Haiti’s disconnection from France. He then tasked General Clerveau with overseeing a team led by Flon to create the Haitian flag.
The original design
Catherine Flon quickly assembled her team, and they began brainstorming ideas for the flag. The original design featured vertical red and blue stripes, sewn together after the removal of the white stripe. This flag was completed on 18 May 1803, a date now celebrated as Haitian Flag Day.
Evolution of the flag’s design
Since its creation, the Haitian flag has undergone several changes. In 1805, the red and blue stripes were altered to a horizontal orientation. The following year, the National Haitian Coat of Arms was added to the design. In 1811, the flag featured red and black vertical stripes with the coat of arms. The current design, horizontal red and blue stripes with the coat of arms, has been in use since the 19th century.
Flon’s legacy in Haitian history
Catherine Flon’s contributions to the Haitian Revolution have been immortalised in various forms. She is considered one of the three most prominent women in the establishment of the Haitian nation-state, alongside other female revolutionaries. Many of Haiti’s nationalist artists depict Flon with the red and blue flag, emphasising her importance in the country’s history.
Depictions in art and currency
Since 2000, a rendition of Catherine Flon has appeared on Haiti’s ten-gourde banknote. Madsen Mompremier’s painting “Dessalines Ripping the White from the Flag” features Flon in the right corner, dressed in white, sewing the red and blue bands together. This image has become synonymous with her role in the creation of the Haitian flag.
Commemoration through education and holidays
A secondary school for girls was established in Flon’s honour, further emphasising her importance in Haitian history. Additionally, Flag Day celebrated on 18 May, places Catherine Flon at the centre of the nation’s narrative.
The mythology of Catherine Flon
Despite the lack of concrete archival evidence, the persistence of Catherine Flon’s story in oral tradition and popular memory speaks to a broader desire to recognise women’s participation in the Haitian Revolution. Historian Nicole Willson suggests that even if Flon did not exist as a singular figure, her story may represent the actions of multiple women involved in the flag’s creation and resistance against French colonial rule.
Enslaved seamstresses and resistance
Documentary evidence exists of enslaved seamstresses in pre-revolutionary Saint-Domingue who engaged in acts of espionage and resistance against French authorities. Records of runaways include accounts of women like Madeleine and Marie, who escaped bondage and defied the colonial system. The memory of Catherine Flon serves as a representation of these women and their contributions to the cause.
Catherine Flon’s role in the creation of the Haitian flag and her support during the Haitian Revolution are emblematic of the contributions of women throughout the African diaspora. Despite the limited documentation of her life, Flon’s story persists as a symbol of female empowerment and resistance against colonial rule. As we reflect on the history of Haiti, it is essential to remember and celebrate the women like Catherine Flon, who played a crucial part in the nation’s struggle for independence.