Gwenn ha Du, the Breton Cousin of the Stars and Stripes

At the Saint Patrick’s Day parade held every March 17 on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, it is common to see Bretons flying their black and white flag, which is reminiscent of the Star-Spangled Banner of the United States.
© JJLerenard35

The French and American flags share the same colors, but the Stars and Stripes actually have more in common with the flag representing the French region of Brittany. Adopted in 1777, the U.S. standard was born of the independence granted to the 13 American colonies, symbolized by the 13 horizontal stripes. The number of stars then increased over time. Since July 4, 1960, the flag has displayed 50 stars in reference to the 50 states.

This emblem of freedom inspired French militant Morvan Marchal to design the first Breton Gwenn ha Du flag in 1920 (meaning “Black and White” in Breton). “These two flags embody revolution and sovereignty,” says historian Joël Cornette, author of Histoire de la Bretagne et des Bretons. “They are hoisted in a sign of recognition.”

The BZH New York association displays the Gwenn ha Du in Central Park, 2015. © Capucine Bourcard/BZH NY

The stripes on the Breton flag reference the nine dioceses that disappeared during the French Revolution. The provinces of Haute-Bretagne are represented by the five black bands, and those of Basse-Bretagne by the four white ones. The ermines are black, just like the tail of the animal they stand for – a symbol of the dukes of Brittany who rejected the fleur-de-lis of the French kings. There is no set number, however, but the most common versions feature 11 ermines.

An American Flag in Brittany

The Breton banner can now be spotted at concerts, festivals, and other events all over the world. The Breizh Flag Trip Tour website has even recorded the 168 countries where the flag is flown. And in the U.S.A., some 58% of Americans say they regularly show off the Stars and Stripes. Both ensigns can be seen from far away, and are often used in marketing campaigns with resulting merchandise such as T-shirts, posters, and bedlinen. But this love story between the American flag and Brittany goes back even further than the Gwenn ha Du itself.

Edward Moran, The First Recognition of the American Flag by a Foreign Government, 1898. © U.S. Naval Academy Museum/National Archives

It was in Quiberon Bay, in the Morbihan département, that the Stars and Stripes were officially recognized for the first time. This “Breton baptism” took place in February 14, 1778. First Lieutenant John Paul Jones, a leading figure in the U.S. Navy, was sailing from Nantes back to the United States to announce the signature of a treaty between America and France. On the way, he was to meet a fleet of French ships in Quiberon.

Upon seeing the ships commanded by the Comte de la Motte-Picquet moored in the bay, the first lieutenant fired 13 cannon shots in homage to the royal French fleet. The sailors from the French side then let off nine shots – fired customarily to greet an independent republic. This was the first time the American flag had been recognized by another power, some 150 years before the invention of the Breton version, which has never been granted an official status.