I have recently finished reading Tim Marshall’s book Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags. I am not an expert in vexillology, the study of flags, but I find it a really intriguing topic. The author delves the origin stories of flags for countries, terrorist groups and supranational organisations, as well as others you might not expect such as the Jolly Roger, the Olympic and the Rainbow. National flags, the main focus of Marshall’s book, have frequently been born in violence, and their origin stories tell us a great deal about identity, culture, and nationhood. The use of flags as we know them today goes back some 3000 years to China. There had been symbols and painted cloth before, but silk proved to be a game changer; you could paint them in your colours, taking them long distances, and, of course, carrying them into battle. This material would travel along the aptly named Silk Route, where it would be adopted by the Arabs and then the Europeans. There are so many flags that Marshall tells us about – I cannot do justice to them here. Nevertheless, here are a few of the more interesting stories I found in Marshall’s book and from my own research online:
The flag of Denmark, the Dannebrog, was created in 1219 and was flown during Battle of Lindanise of 1219. It holds the world record of being the oldest continuously used national flag. It was in 2006 that it became the world’s most burned flag after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Muhammad. Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bosnia, Gaza, Iraq, Kashmir, Lebanon, Nigeria, Syria are among the countries that saw the burning of the flag. According to Marshall, the flags of Switzerland and the Savoy were also set on fire. This may have been due to the fact many of the flags were home-made. There was also, according to Slate magazine, alternatives provided by the market:
Doing it yourself may save you some money, but you can also try to grab a Danish flag at your local flag store. Reuters interviewed a shopkeeper in Gaza who stocked his PLO Flag Shop with 100 Danish and Norwegian flags when he heard about the cartoons. He gets his flags from Taiwan and charges $11 for each. Flag manufacturers in China and Thailand might also be able to provide Danish flags on short order.
Marshall also writes about the other Scandinavian Cross flags. All these countries use this basic traditional design on their flags. The cross design represents Christianity and in all of them it is shifted towards the hoist side. What varies is the colour scheme.
The Stars and Stripes
At one time “Old Glory” actually had 15 stripes after Vermont and Kentucky were admitted as states in 1795. It was this 15-star, 15-stripe flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, which later became “The Star Spangled Banner.” In 1818 it was decided that the flag would have 20 stars, with a new one to be added when each new state was admitted. The number of stripes, however, was reduced to 13 to honour the original colonies. The current 50-state version dates from 1960. Robert G. Heft was a 17-year-old high school junior back in 1958. As part of a history project he designed a 50-star flag. He spent 12 hours cutting out stars.
His teacher was not impressed. Mr. Pratt pointed out to Heft that that he had too many stars on the flag – “You don’t even know how many states we have.” He also claimed that it lacked originality and that anyone could make a flag; he gave him B- for his efforts. Yet, Heft’s design is what we see today. Here he explains what drove him:
As the designer of our Nation’s current flag: the flag I made in 1958 has taken me to all 50 states and 57 countries, promoting the country that I love.
I followed a dream and turned that history class project into a history making event. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone believe in you?
That very flag is now being sold to help me on medical bills and to establish educational funds for my little great nephews and great nieces.
I love the freedoms we got in this country, I appreciate your freedom to burn your flag if you want to, but I really appreciate my right to bear arms so I can shoot you if you try to burn mine.
Alas, Mr. Heft died of a heart attack in 2009.
The European Union
The European Union has its own blue flag, complete with twelve stars, which dates back to 1955. The twelve stars do not represent member states, as there are currently 28. Rather, it is thought to be a symbol of unity and perfection.
Once the flag appeared other more bizarre interpretations began to gain currency.
The University of Luxembourg’s CVCE.eu research unit has this about the religious symbolism of the number twelve:
“Twelve is also a number in Judaeo-Christian symbolism. The tree of life has 12 fruits; there are 12 sons of Jacob, 12 patriarchs, 12 tribes of Israel and 12 gates of the New Jerusalem. Moses sent 12 explorers to the lands of Canaan, the bread multiplied by Jesus was placed in 12 baskets and Jesus speaks of 12 legions of angels after the kiss of Judas; lastly, there are 12 apostles. The number 12 is also the product of multiplying three, always a divine number (the trinity), by four, the number of the earth with its four cardinal points; 12 is therefore the symbol ‘of the union between the divine and the terrestrial world’, which, as we know, embodies the central mystery of Christianity.”
Marshall himself quotes Revelations, 12,1:
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.
Does this Marian reference explain differing religious sensibilities towards the EU? Public opinion surveys going back as far the 1970s show that Catholics tend to favour European integration, whereas Protestants are more prone to resist it. Europe may be becoming more secular, weakening the effect, but it has not disappeared altogether. In 2005 Adrian Hilton, a Tory candidate standing in Slough, argued the EU was a Catholic plot to impose Vatican sovereignty over Britain and would result in “the subjugation of Britain’s Protestant ethos to Roman Catholic social, political and religious teaching“.
Catholic conspiracy theories aside, it is also the flag of the Council of Europe, the 47-member state organisation, whose aim “to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe.”
The Flag of the Arab Revolt
The Flag of the Arab Revolt was used by the Arab nationalists during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. It was the idea of the British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes (he of the Sykes-Picot Agreement) in order to create a sense of “Arab-ness” to fuel the anti-Ottoman revolt. This flag would inspire the flags of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Sudan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Palestine among others.
One of Isis’s most recognisable symbols is its black and white flag adorned with Arabic lettering. The white banner at the top of the flag reads: “There is no god but Allah [God]. Mohammad is the messenger of Allah.” This declaration of faith is known as the shahada and is used across Islam. Underneath is a white circle emblazoned with black writing reading “Mohammed is the messenger of God”. This is a copy of the Seal of Mohammed, which the prophet is believed to have used to seal letters he wrote to foreign leaders when he asked them to join him. It is designed to give the organisation a veneer of religious and historical authenticity. They have cleverly appropriated the flag from other Jihadi groups and made it their own.
The flag of China was officially adopted on October 1, 1949. The red of the Chinese flag symbolizes the communist revolution, and it’s also the traditional colour of the people. The large gold star represents communism, while the four smaller stars represent the social classes of the people – the working class, the peasantry, the urban petite bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie)
The Black Liberation flag
The Black Liberation flag is also known as the UNIA flag, Afro-American flag, Black Liberation Flag, Marcus Garvey Flag and various other names – is a tri-colour flag consisting of three equal horizontal bands of (from top down) red, black and green. It can be seen as a riposte to a popular turn-of-the-century racist song “Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon”:
“Bonny Scotland loves a thistle,
Turkey has her crescent moon,
And what won’t Yankees do for the old red, white and blue?
Every race has a flag but the coon.”
At that time, the goal of the movement, which was led by Garvey, was to establish a political home for black people in Africa. He was heavily influenced by other nationalist movements at that time – Zionism, Irish Republicanism to name two, as well as the Russian Revolution. It would later become a black nationalist symbol in the 1960s.
The flag was adopted by the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) on August 13, 1920 in Article 39 of the Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World. The Universal Negro Catechism, published by the UNIA in 1921, explains the meaning of the colours of the flag:
Red is the colour of the blood which men must shed for their redemption and liberty; black is the colour of the noble and distinguished race to which we belong; green is the colour of the luxuriant vegetation of our Motherland.