The Colors of the Flags in Haiti
By Max G. Beauvoir Ati-Houngan
Historically, students in Haiti learn that on May 18th, 1803, in a congress held at Arcahaie, a township located about fifty miles north of Port-au-Prince, Dessalines created the country’s first flag. Ripping apart a French one — blue, white and red, he threw away the white portion that was in the center and asked Catherine Flon, a young girl of the area, to sew the remaining ones.
Having stitched together those two pieces of cloth, he mounted them horizontally on a staff as Haiti’s new national symbol. By this gesture, he publicly designated that this country no longer wanted to be recognized as a French territory and that the people who lived on this land preferred to be dead rather than be slaves. "Liberté ou la Mort!" meaning "Liberty or Death" had become the new motto as it had already been embraced at the Vodoun ceremony known as "Ceremony of Bwa Kayiman" held on August 14, 1791. This motto can be seen on all the official documents signed by Dessalines.
The blue set on the upper part of the flag represented the population of ancient slaves, four hundred and fifty thousand of them, an overwhelming majority indeed who, according to the first constitution, were supposed to be the only social group to personify the country.
The red, set below the blue part of the flag, represented the people of mixed races known as mulattoes. The white naturally disappeared, as it should in a country where it was well understood that: "Dessalines pa vle wè blan," Meaning Dessalines wanted nothing to do with the white man. Dessalines died in 1806 and the new President Alexandre Pétion who succeeded him, personally designed the coat of arms of the Republique that was placed at the center of the flag along with the motto: "L’Union fait la Force," — There is strength in unity. Ironically, at that moment the country was so profoundly divided that two governments were recognized: a Kingdom of the North and a Republic to the South. These conditions lasted until Pétion’s death in 1818.
One may feel barely concerned by such an affair, minimized by many as being of mild importance. After all, the creation of a flag may not seem so vital to many people…, to the point where nowadays it does not even call for a governmental celebration. But, to others that story shows unbelievable inconsistency. To the Vodouists, it seems incredible that Dessalines, the Father of the Nation, took a French model to create our national flag. His genius, as well as that of his ancestors have guided him and inspired him many times before, and in different situations. For instance at the battle of Crête-a-Pierrot1, they led those national heroes to launch for the first time in the history of humanity a new tactic of war, recognized nowadays as guerilla warfare. That strategy was invented by Dan Petro, king of the ancient Kingdom of Kongo2, the Mulassa’s and the Panzu who lived on the continent of Africa about one hundred years earlier when the Congo2 was being invaded by Portugal. That very same tactic, used centuries later by the Vietnamese people in South East Asia, proved to still be a very effective one against modern weapons.
Dessalines was a Houngan3. He was initiated by a famous Mambo4 named Gran’ Guiton in Arcahaie whose temple still exists not far away from the place where it was said that that assembly took place. The proof of such a fact may be easily demonstrated to the satisfaction of any Houngan3 or Mambo4. Furthermore, the Vodun5 societies traditionally uphold a devotion or cult to flags. At least a dozen flags may be found at any given time in the most ordinary Hounfo6 in Haiti, Africa, and other places in the Diaspora. It is not unusual for a Temple to display 101 or more flags at any given time. Usually bi-colored, the combination of those colors symbolizes the lwa7 served in that particular temple. This may be witnessed by anyone during major events where a display of force may be foreseen. For example, they lead the way for each carnival group. The blue and red flags invariably represent the very popular spirit Ogoun Feray.
Ogoun Feray is the glorious Warrior. According to Vodoun mythology, he controls and directs all the powers of Nature. He taught humanity how to conquer and how to master fear, fire and arms. He is the only true hero of the Haitian people, he is the spirit of courage. That is why some people refer to him as a Blacksmith Spirit or the God of Iron. At will, he knows how to make matter change state, and in case of difficulty, his children just have to cry loudly: "Bullets are dust." These phrases were effectively recorded at Vertières, the last large scale battle of the War of Independence in November 1803. Gran’ Guiton could not miss having one of Ogoun’s flag, at hand and ready. But to win that battle against the Napoleonic forces, the ancient slaves had to also call for the help of the Maroons8, Jean François, Biassou and others, many of them being descendents of indigenous Indians, known in Haiti as Champwell9. Some of them were of the same stock as the Ciampuala known in the mountains of Cuba and Mexico. According to history, they provided the strongest resistance to the invading army of Cortes around the year 1530. Believing strongly in the power of their magic, their flag was black and red as it is also found in most secret society centers in Haiti.
From governments succeeding other governments in Haiti, one may see a constant waltz of changes of the national flag from blue and red to black and red and vice versa. That, undoubtedly affects profoundly the political climate and socio-economic development of the population. Between the blue and red of Ogoun Feray proned by the ancient slaves and the black and red of the secret societies proned by the Maroons, one may determine the true ideology of a particular regime. One may also determine who may effectively participate during that time in the construction of the country and who may help in moving along the organizational machine of the institutions. But, should they truly be mutually exclusive, or could that simply translate a certain uneasiness due to a situation where the bottom line has never been drawn? Who really won the War of Independence in Haiti? Who should be the beneficiaries of such a victory and who should also feel some sense of responsibility for the advancement of the population, the ancient slaves, the maroons, or both? The worst case, of course, seems to have been the easiest one to conceive, one where the winners found it easier to believe that yellow fever did the job.
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The Temple of Yehwe: President