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South Africa (1910-1928)

Last modified: 2010-05-21 by
Keywords: south africa | red ensign | blue ensign |
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[Flag of the United Kingdom] (1:2) image by Clay Moss, 18 Dec 2006
  See also:

Union of South Africa - introduction

The colonial flags (Natal,  Cape Colony, Transvaal and Orange River Colony)  became dormant when they joined together to form the Union of South Africa on 31 May 1910 and the Union Flag of Great Britain became the official flag.

Apparently it was the custom in the former South African colonies to use and regard the colonial flags for use on land as well as at sea. I think this was more a case of ignorance by the locals about the finer points of British vexillology. The Cape colonial Blue Ensign became generally known as the Cape Government flag which implies that it might have been flown at various colonial offices, but I have found no records to confirm this. The same applied in Natal. When the Natal Legislature on their own initiative adopted both a Red and Blue ensign in 1870, the Blue Ensign was later modified on instructions by the Colonial Office as the Natal Seal which they had placed in the fly was too complicated. The Blue Ensign was then apparently designated as the only valid colonial flag for Natal. The inhabitants did, however, continue to use the original Natal Red Ensign. There is a surviving example in the Killie Campbell Library in Durban.

Even the Boer republicans acknowledged the Cape Government flag as representing the Cape Colony. The design of the little New Republic's flag was a vierkleur with the blue and green bars interchanged. But the original design approved by the Volksraad made provision for flaglets on each bar: on the vertical blue bar a small Union Jack, on the horizontal red bar a small Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) vierkleur, on the white bar the Orange Free State vierkleur and on the horizontal green bar the Cape Government flag.  As far a I can ascertain, this complicated design was, perhaps fortunately, never made or taken into use although the plain version without the flaglets was used until the New Republic was absorbed by the ZAR.  Later it was for a time also used as the municipal flag for the town of Vryheid - formerly the capital of the New Republic.

When the warrants were issued for Red and Blue ensigns for the Union of South Africa in 1910-12, the Red Ensign came to be regarded by the citizenry as the national flag, erroneously of course as the national flag of the Union officially remained the Union Jack. Even in Government circles - when Union troops under the command of General Louis Botha (he was also the Union's Prime Minister) took the town of Windhoek in German South West Africa in March 1915, he hoisted the SA Red Ensign over the Tintin Palast (the German Governor's Residence). There are even indications that the South African Blue Ensign was used over overseas offices of the Union Government. Even after the Union adopted the new national flag in 1928, it continued to use the South African Red Ensign in its proper role as the Merchant Marine ensign until 1951 before the Merchant Shipping Act of that year designated the orange-white-blue national flag also as the Merchant ensign.
Andre Burgers, 07 Dec 2004


South African Red Ensign

[flag of South Africa of 1910] image by Mark Sensen, 08 Oct 1999 and Blas Delgado Ortiz, 14 May 2002

You might be interested to know, that I discovered a picture of South Africa's first flag (1910- 1928). It was a red ensign (a red flag with the Union Jack in the upper left corner) and it had a crest on the fly with four quarters, in each of which were the emblems of the former provinces - Cape, Natal, Transvaal and Orange Free State.
James Alcock, 08 Oct 1999

The governing authority in the British Empire for flags flown at sea was the British Admiralty. On 28 December 1910, Admiralty warrants were issued for two South African ensigns, the Blue and the Red. They were both to be charge on the fly with the quartered shield from the Coat of Arms. Initially the shield was NOT placed on a roundel.

The Blue Ensign was, in accordance with general British practice, to be flown by Government vessels (not warships of which South Africa had none anyway at the time), and the Red Ensign by South African merchant vessels.

The Blue Ensign version was rarely seen in South Africa as South Africa had few such government owned vessels at that time. There is evidence that it was used on occasion on overseas offices of the country until the new South African flag came into use in 1928.

The design South African Red Ensign was amended by Admiralty Warrant on 25 March 1912 so that the shield could be more readily distinguished by placing it in the centre of a white roundel.  This did not apply to the Blue Ensign. 

The Red Ensign was for use at sea as the merchant fleet ensign. This version of the South African Red Ensign continued in use in the merchant navy until 1951 when it was finally displaced at sea by the South African national flag in terms of the Merchant Shipping Act of that year.


[flag of South Africa of 1912] image by Mark Sensen, 08 Oct 1999 and Blas Delgado Ortiz, 14 May 2002

The Red Ensign was, at times, also used as the national flag ashore, although it was the Union Jack that officially enjoyed this status.
These flags never enjoyed much support and were regarded more as necessary conveniences than as symbols of the still non-existent national unity. They were largely ignored by both segments of the white population and rarely flown in public. The Red Ensign's most prominent moment was probably when General Louis Botha, former Commandant-General of the Zuid-Afrikaanse Republiek forces, later Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa and Commander-in-Chief of the Union forces, hoisted it over Windhoek (in the then German South West Africa), after capturing that town from the Germans in 1915. The South African troops fighting in East Africa, the Middle East and in the trenches in France during the First World War, did so under the Union Jack.
Source: "Sovereign flags of Southern Africa", A. P. Burgers, 1997 [bur97].
Jarig Bakker, 11 May 2002


South African Blue Ensign

[Blue Ensign (1910)] image by Blas Delgado Ortiz, 14 May 2002

The governing authority in the British Empire for flags flown at sea was the British Admiralty. On 28 December 1910, Admiralty Warrants were issued for two South African ensigns, the Blue and the Red. They were both to be charged in the fly with the quartered shield from the Coat of Arms. Although the design of the Red Ensign was amended in 1912 so that the shield was to be placed on a white roundel, this did not apply to the Blue Ensign.

The Blue Ensign was, in accordance with general British practice, to be flown by Government vessels (not warships of which South Africa had none anyway at the time), and the Red Ensign by South African merchant vessels.

The Blue Ensign version was rarely seen in South Africa as South Africa had few such government owned vessels at that time. There is evidence that it was used on occasion at overseas offices of the country until the new South African flag came into use in 1928.
Source: "Sovereign flags of Southern Africa", A. P. Burgers, 1997 [bur97].
Jarig Bakker, 11 May 2002


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