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United Kingdom: Colonial Flags

Last modified: 2005-01-29 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | colony | ensign | red ensign | blue ensign |
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Colonial flags: an overview

The official flag of a colony was the Union Jack. The governor flew the Union Jack with the badge of the colony in a laurel wreath in the centre of the St George's cross. Vessels employed by the government of the colony flew a Blue Ensign bearing the badge in the centre of the fly. A few colonies, usually self-governing ones, had a Red Ensign for their merchant marine. That privilege was not extended to all colonies, most of which had to use the plain Red Ensign. A couple of dominions - Canada until 1964 and South Africa until 1926 - in effect used Red Ensigns as their national flags.

The colonial badges could be the whole arms (e.g. Hong Kong), shield of arms (e.g. the Falkland Islands), crest (e.g. British North Borneo), an adaptation of the arms (e.g. New South Wales), the colonial seal (e.g. Barbados), or none of the above (e.g. the Leeward Islands, which had a very poorly-designed badge involving ships and pineapples at wildly varying scales).
Roy Stilling, 6 February 1996

Foreign civilian ships visiting any British overseas territory should fly, as a courtesy flag, the territory's own Red Ensign if the territory has one and the ship happens to carry one. The undefaced British Red Ensign is always an acceptable alternative. If the ship is a Foreign government vessel they should fly the territory's Blue Ensign. Basically the British rule is that you may use either the appropriate Red, Blue or White ensign (depending upon your own status) or the land flag, except that you cannot use the Union Flag at all.
Graham Bartram, 1 April 1999


Colonial ensigns

Regulations of 1865 required all colonial governments to adopt a defaced Blue Ensign for their ships, but a defaced Red Ensign for colonial merchantmen required a warrant from the Admiralty.
Roy Stilling, April 1997

The red ensigns which were authorized by an Admiralty warrant were those of overseas territories. Flagmaster lists the following:

Territory Date of permission to use a defaced Red Ensign
North Borneo (modern Sabah) 5 January 1882
East Africa (Kenya) 6 March 1890
Canada 2 February 1892
New Zealand 7 February 1899
British South Africa Company 11 November 1902
Australia 4 June 1903
South Africa 28 December 1910
Cyprus 31 August 1922
Newfoundland 25 October 1918
Tanganyika 9 March 1923
Somaliland 29 June 1924
Indian Native States 10 October 1924
Western Samoa 16 January 1925
Palestine 14 October 1927

India had an unofficial red ensign with a sort of sun in the fly charged with a ring and a star. If you read this carefully you will see a strange thing: there was a red ensign for an inland territory (Rhodesia).

Source: Flagmaster number 82, 1996, 'Sorting out the colonies, new flags for old possessions'

Nick Artimovich, 6 February 1996


Flags of governors general

In their work on Canadian flags, Alistair Fraser and Ralph Spence state that authorisation for the creation of a distinguishing flag for the governor general was given (presumably by the Admiralty) in 1869:

We further submit that the Governors of Your Majesty's Dominions in Foreign Parts, and Governors of all ranks and denomination administering the Governments of British Colonies and dependencies be authorised to fly the Union Jack with the Arms of the Badge of the Colony emblasoned in the centre thereof.
Fraser and Spence do not give a primary reference as a citation for this quotation, but Conrad Swan states that the final design was authorised by despatch #191 of Lord Kimberley, secretary of state for the colonies, to Sir John Young, Bt., governor general of Canada, 16 July 1870; see Public Record Office CO 43/157. The above quotation simply gave permission for the governors general of the colonies to fly a distinguishing flag, and a rough idea as to its design - the specific design for each colony still had to be submitted to the authorities for approval. This happened for Canada on 16 July 1870. In fact, the final design differed from that suggested in the quotation above, in that the Union Flag not only had the badge of the colony in it, but was also surrounded by a crown and a garland of maple leaves. This became the general pattern for other colonies, although the garland was either of oak leaves or some local flora rather than the distinctively Canadian maple leaves.

Although it is certainly correct to suggest that the changes to the flags of the governors general that occurred in 1931 in Canada and South Africa, and later in the other dominions, must be seen as part of the constitutional transformation process of the empire, one should be careful not to directly link the change to the statute of Westminster. In fact, according to Conrad Swan, York herald of arms, the change had been planned for quite some time before 1931. Swan also asserts that it was King George V who personally proposed the new design as early as 1928. In support of this Swan cites Lord Stamfordham, private secretary to the king, to Sir Henry Farnham Burke, garter king of arms, 24 September 1928; Public Record Office: CA 15. Finally, the new flag was formally adopted in Canada on 25 February 1931, nearly a year before the statute of Westminster was passed on 11 December 1931.
Glen Robert-Grant Hodgins, 23 February 1999

Originally the flags of governors-general, lieutenant-governors, governors-in-chief, governors, commissioners and administrators were all Union Jacks defaced with a badge in the centre. The royal crest on a blue flag was adopted by the governors-general of South Africa and Canada in 1931, and Australia and New Zealand in 1936. All subsequent governors-general had flags of this pattern. At various times between 1952 and 1988 the lieutenant-governors of the Canadian provinces (except for Nova Scotia) and the governors of the Australian states (except for Queensland) replaced their defaced Union Jacks with new distinguishing flags.

The following is a reasonably comprehensive list of the flags of governors-general. Unless otherwise noted, the name is on a scroll in capital letters and the flag proportions are 1:2.

Country Dates Legend Notes
Antigua 1981-? ?
Australia 1936-present Commonwealth of Australia Crown changed in 1953.
Bahamas 1973-present Commonwealth of the Bahamas
Barbados 1966-present Barbados Ratio of 3:4.
Belize 1981-? ?
Canada 1931-present Canada Crown changed in 1953; scroll removed and royal crest replaced by the Canadian crest in 1981.
Fiji 1970-? Fiji Legend on a whale's tooth; ratio of 11:15.
Gambia 1965-70 ?
Ghana 1957-60 ?
Grenada 1974-present Grenada
Guyana 1966-70 ?
India 1947-50 India No scroll; see note no. 1 below.
Jamaica 1962-present Jamaica
Kenya 1963-64 ?
Malawi 1964-66 ?
Malta 1964-74 Malta
Mauritius 1968-92 Mauritius
New Zealand 1936-present Dominion of New Zealand Crown changed in 1953; legend changed to 'New Zealand'.
Pakistan 1947-56 Pakistan No scroll; crown changed in 1953.
Papua New Guinea 1975-present Papua
Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland 1953-63 Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland See note no. 2 below.
Saint Kitts-Nevis 1983-present St Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla Legend changed to 'Country above Self'.
Saint Lucia 1979-present Saint Lucia
St Vincent and the Grenadines 1979-present St Vincent & The Grenadines
Sierra Leone 1961-71  
Solomon Islands 1978-present Solomon Islands The legend appears on the outline of a two-headed frigate bird.
South Africa 1931-61 'Union of South Africa' above and 'Unie Van Suid Afrika' below crest. Crown changed in 1953.
South East Asia 1946-1963(?) South East Asia The present Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
Southern Rhodesia 1951-65+ ? Large crown (changed in 1953) instead of royal crest; ratio of 7:9.
Sri Lanka 1948-72 Ceylon No scroll; crown changed in 1953.
Trinidad and Tobago 1962-76 Trinidad & Tobago
Tuvalu 1978-present Tuvalu
Uganda 1962-67 ?
West Indies ? The West Indies See note no. 3 below.
  1. In India the lieutenant-governors had the same flag as the governor-general. It was supposed only to be used afloat and the relative rank of the official was indicated by its position; governor-general at the mainmasthead, governors, lieutenant-governors, chief commissioners, political officers and political residents at the foremasthead.
  2. The entry under Southern Rhodesia above refers to the flag of the governor. There was no governor-general. Although the official proportions were 7 : 9 the flag in the National Archives of Zimbabwe is 1 : 2. Source: R. Allport, 'Flags and symbols of Rhodesia' in SAVA Journal 5/96.
  3. The Windward Islands had a governor-in-chief with a governor-style Union Jack.

David Prothero, 16, 18 and 28 January 2000


Discs on colonial flags

There is a note at the beginning of the 1916 and 1930 Admiralty flag books which reads:

The white circles are not to appear on the Red and Blue Ensigns except where they are necessary to display the design; e.g. where the badge itself has a border of the same colour as the ensign.
Some individual badges had additional notes such as 'on Blue Ensign without the white ground' or 'on Blue Ensign as shewn without the white circle'. In 1918 the Admiralty and Colonial Office agreed that there should be no white disc unless necessary, but thought that there could be 'occasions for diversity of opinion where the border of a badge was not uniform' and many white discs were officially removed following a survey in 1919. The situation in 1924 is described in Public Record Office, ADM 116/1847B, and as far as I know the "correct" appearance of the colonial ensigns was as follows:

David Prothero, 25 February and 20 October 1999

There are/were a number of badges on coloured discs, although it is not always clear whether the disc is coloured or the background colour is part of the badge:

Coloured discs:
Blue Military authorities afloat Union Jack 1869-
Blue Natal Union Jack 1905-1910
Orange Northern Ireland Union Jack c1924-1973
Green Southern Nigeria Union Jack and Blue Ensign 1900-1914
Badges with a coloured background:
Red Northern Nigeria Union Jack and Blue Ensign 1900-1914
Blue Victoria Union Jack 1900-1984
Yellow British North Borneo Union Jack (with no garland), Blue Ensign and Red Ensign 1882-1948
Yellow Liu Kung Tau Union Jack 1898-1902
Yellow South Australia Union Jack UJ: 1903-1976; BE: 1904-
Yellow Western Australia Union Jack UJ: 1870-1988; BE: 1870-
Gold Burma Union Jack and Blue Ensign 1937-1948
Red Nigeria Union Jack and Blue Ensign 1914-1960
Yellow over white over black diagonally British Central Africa Protectorate (Nyasaland after 1907) Union Jack and Blue Ensign 1894-1914

David Prothero, 30 December 1999

The Ministry of Defence is trying to address the problem of the small badges on some ensigns. The latest official drawings bring the older ensigns of British overseas territories into line with the modern practice as seen in the flags of Guernsey, Isle of Man, British Antarctic Territory and Pitcairn Islands, where the badges are a lot larger. In some cases, they are nearly 300% larger. This means that there is no longer either the need or the room for the white discs. Where the shield and background colour are similar, a white fimbriation is used instead. These will hopefully make it a lot easier to identify the various territories.
Graham Bartram, 25 May 1999

In 1999 the Ministry of Defence (MoD) department in charge of flags, the DCTA, decided, in consultation with the College of Arms, that the badges on many British flags were too small for identification. They also did not match the newer flags granted directly by the Queen, through the College of Arms, which have much larger badges.

So the MoD decided to make the badges much larger - the size and placement of badges on British ensigns was a decision in the power of the Admiralty, and passed to the MoD when the Admiralty ceased to exists as a separate body. So the MoD was simply exercising its authority in the matter, for the better identification of flags.

This meant that the white discs had to get larger. In fact the discs had to be so large that they looked ridiculous and it was therefore decided to discard them as they were no longer necessary, the new badges being clear even without the discs. So the new illustration of the Falkland Islands, Cayman Islands and Montserrat in BR20 (the government flag book) all had much larger badges (but no change to the design of the badge) and no white discs.

Of course the MoD's authority on flags only covers flags at sea, so the Islands concerned are free to continue using flags with discs on land if they wish to, but flags for use at sea should no longer have discs (unless they are old flags still in use). The question of discs of red ensigns is more complex as the size and placement of badges is usually specified in the Statutory Instrument that creates them and it is not clear whether the long standing MoD/Admiralty power over the size and placement of badges can be used to alter a flag created by a Statutory Instrument.

Now some people (mainly vexillologists) are unhappy that the MoD made this unilateral decision without consulting them, thereby discarding over a hundred years of arguments of disc or no disc! Some flag manufacturers are unhappy because some of their customers will want the new designs and some will still want the white discs.
Graham Bartram, 6 July 2000

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