Date of this Version
Published in Sacred and Ceremonial Textiles: Proceedings of the Fifth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Chicago, Illinois, 1996. (Minneapolis, 1997).
The drapo that appears in every Haitian Voudou houmfo is drapo nasiyonal, the flag of Haiti. Historians dispute the actual events that brought the red and blue drapo and its device of palm tree, cannons, anchor and drums into being, but the legends and esoterica move along in a deep current of real meaning.
When Aristide became President of Haiti, hundreds of murals appeared on street walls all over the country. A great number of them included the re-instituted red and blue national flag of liberation Dessalines had dramatically produced in 1803. With the stitching help of Catherine Flon, mambo of the Merote Voudou hounfo, he ripped the white from the French tricolor and joined the red band for the slaves and the blue for the freedmen in equality at the hampe. Under this banner the warriors expelled the French and proclaimed an independent Haiti, January 1, 1804. Drapo nasiyonal appears in every houmfo not so much for political insurance, as is sometimes claimed, but as an assertion of identity as free Haitians. Even under the most repressive conditions, the mythos of the successful slave uprising remains present and potential.
Beyond this chief drapo are all the others, created to some extent in its aura, and even two hundred years later echoing its call to arms. It is true, as Patrick Polk and others have pointed out, the flags bear many resemblances to French military banners and to European flags implanted in Africa during the era of slave trade.1 It is true also that the drapo function in the ceremony with certain military protocols, including mock battles, that appear to derive from the same sources. But there is more than the armies of Napoleon at work on these drapo and in their ritual deployment.