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United Kingdom: Colonial Flags

Last modified: 2008-02-28 by rob raeside
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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
Canada2 February 1892
New Zealand7 February 1899
British South Africa Company11 November 1902
Australia4 June 1903
South Africa28 December 1910
Cyprus31 August 1922
Newfoundland25 October 1918
Tanganyika9 March 1923
Somaliland29 June 1924
Indian Native States10 October 1924
Western Samoa16 January 1925
Palestine14 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
Australia1936-presentCommonwealth of AustraliaCrown changed in 1953.
Bahamas1973-presentCommonwealth of the Bahamas
Barbados1966-presentBarbadosRatio of 3:4.
Canada1931-presentCanadaCrown changed in 1953; scroll removed and royal crest replaced by the Canadian crest in 1981.
Fiji1970-?FijiLegend on a whale's tooth; ratio of 11:15.
India1947-50IndiaNo scroll; see note no. 1 below.
New Zealand1936-presentDominion of New ZealandCrown changed in 1953; legend changed to 'New Zealand'.
Pakistan1947-56PakistanNo scroll; crown changed in 1953.
Papua New Guinea1975-presentPapua
Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland1953-63Federation of Rhodesia and NyasalandSee note no. 2 below.
Saint Kitts-Nevis1983-presentSt Christopher-Nevis-AnguillaLegend changed to 'Country above Self'.
Saint Lucia1979-presentSaint Lucia
St Vincent and the Grenadines1979-presentSt Vincent & The Grenadines
Sierra Leone1961-71 
Solomon Islands1978-presentSolomon IslandsThe legend appears on the outline of a two-headed frigate bird.
South Africa1931-61'Union of South Africa' above and 'Unie Van Suid Afrika' below crest.Crown changed in 1953.
South East Asia1946-1963(?)South East Asia The present Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
Southern Rhodesia1951-65+?Large crown (changed in 1953) instead of royal crest; ratio of 7:9.
Sri Lanka1948-72CeylonNo scroll; crown changed in 1953.
Trinidad and Tobago1962-76Trinidad & Tobago
West Indies?The West IndiesSee 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

The official model was (and still is) that the wreath [around the disc] sits half on and half off the outer edge of the disc. In practice a lot of flags were made with the wreath completely within the disc simply because this was easier to make. The modern specification is that the outer diameter of the gold ring is now 55% of the flag width, and the ring is 2.34% of the flag width thick. The wreath is approximately 4% of the flag width wide, so you can see that it doesn't overlap the inner edge of the gold ring.
Graham Bartram, 28 May 2005

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:

  • Bahamas:
    • 1869-c.1921. Horizontal oval belt and buckle, with crown above and scroll below, on a white disc.
    • 1 June 1921: disk removal proposed; 7 July 1921: disk removal accepted [National Archives (PRO) ADM 116/1847B]
    • c.1921-1959. Same badge, no disc.
    • 1959-1964. Shield with scroll below, possibly on a disc.
    • 1964-1973. Re-drawn 1869 badge, probably no disc.
  • Barbados: no disc.
  • Bermuda:
    • 1875-1910. Circular badge.
    • 1910-present. Shield which seems to have started-off on a white disc, but by 1930 there was no disc.
  • British Central Africa: Circular badge of a disk of orange-white-black diagonal stripe
  • British Guiana:
    • 1875-c.1905. Circular badge.
    • c.1905-c.1920. Vertical oval belt and buckle, on a white disc.
    • 12 March 1919: disk to be omitted on all future flags  [National Archives (PRO) ADM 116/1847B]
    • c.1920-1954. Same badge, no disc.
    • 1954-1966. Shield with a scroll below, probably no disc.
  • British Honduras:
    • 1870-c.1920. Elaborate frame, on a white disc.
    • 19 March 1919: disk removal agreed; 12 December 1919: crown agents informed [National Archives (PRO) ADM 116/1847B]
    • c.1920-1981. Same badge, no disc.
  • British North Borneo Company: no disc.
  • Canada: no disc.
  • Ceylon: no disc.
  • Cyprus: white disc on the Red Ensign, not on the Blue Ensign.
  • East African Protectorate (Kenya): removed in 1919.
  • Falkland Islands: no disc.
  • Fiji: removed in 1919.
    • 12 December 1919: disk removal proposed; 8 May 1924: instructions issued [National Archives (PRO) ADM 116/1847B]
  • Gambia: no disc.
  • Gibraltar:
    • 1 June 1921: disk removal proposed; 7 July 1921: disk removal agreed [National Archives (PRO) ADM 116/1847B]
  • Gilbert and Ellice Colony: white disc.
  • Gold Coast: no disc.
  • Hong Kong: removed in 1919 after the badge on the flag had been changed to correspond to the drawing in the flag book.
    • 17 November 1923: flag in use differed from badge in Flag Book; 12 May 1924: agreed [National Archives (PRO) ADM 116/1847B]
  • Indian Maritime Governments: no disc.
  • Indian native states: not listed individually but general note 'unless there is some special reason for obtaining a particular colour around the badge, the badge should appear on the Red Ensign without a surrounding circular disc except that if the colouring of the badge is indistinguishable from the red field the badge shall appear in a white circle'.
    • White circle specified in warrant:
      • Cochin.
      • Junagadh.
    • Probably on a white circle, but not specified:
      • Cambay (red shield).
      • Bhavnagar (red portcullis in crest).
    • Possibly on white circle:
      • Nawanagar (circle depicted in original design).
      • Morvi (multi-coloured).
    • Unlikely to have been on white circle:
      • Baroda (white edging specified for ochre-coloured rectangle).
      • Porbandar (white hanuman).
      • Kutch (white moon, sun and lettering).
      • Travancore (white conch 'on fly' specified).
      • Janjira (white moon, star, black and white fort).
      • Jafarabad (white moon and star).
  • Jamaica: white disc.
  • Jersey: no disc.
  • Kenya:
    • 1 June 1921: disk removal proposed; 7 July 1921: disk removal accepted [National Archives (PRO) ADM 116/1847B]
  • Labuan: no disc.
  • Leeward Islands: no disc.
  • Malta:
    • 14 March 1919: disk removal proposed; 15 December 1922: disk removal agreed; 16 January 1923: disk removed [National Archives (PRO) ADM 116/1847B]
  • Mauritius:
    • 12 December 1919: disk removal proposed; 7 July 1921: disk removal agreed; 14 December 1923: disk removed [National Archives (PRO) ADM 116/1847B]
  • Newfoundland: no disc.
  • New Hebrides: white disc.
  • Northern Rhodesia: shield with no disc.
  • Nigeria: no disc.
  • Nyasaland:
    • 1894-1914 (British Central African Protectorate) circular badge.
    • 18 April 1919: disk removal proposed; 12 December 1919: crown agents informed [National Archives (PRO) ADM 116/1847B]
    • 1914-1964 shield with no disc.
  • Palestine: 1923-1948 white disk with name.
  • Papua: white disc.
  • St Helena:
    • 1875-1984 elaborate frame, no disc.
    • 1984- shield, no disc.
  • Samoa: no disc.
  • Seychelles: no disc.
  • Sierra Leone: white disc.
  • Solomon Islands Protectorate: white disc.
  • Somaliland: white disc on Blue Ensign and on Red Ensign 'as warranted'.
  • South Africa: white disc, though it was reported that shipping did not use the ensign or merchant flag of the Union of South Africa
  • Southern Rhodesia: shield with no disc.
  • Straits Settlements: no disc.
  • Tanganyika: white disc on Red Ensign, not on Blue Ensign.
  • Trinidad and Tobago: no disc.
  • Turks and Caicos: no disc.
  • Uganda: no disc.
  • Western Pacific High Commission: badge used only on Union Flag.
    • Windward Islands: badge used only on Union Flag.
    • Grenada: no disc.
    • Saint Lucia: no disc; the governor wrote in 1919 that the badge was not used on the Blue Ensign, just the letters 'H.M.' in white, which stood for 'harbour master', not 'his Majesty'.
    • Saint Vincent: no disc.
  • Zanzibar: badge used only on Union Flag.

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:
BlueMilitary authorities afloatUnion Jack1869-
BlueNatalUnion Jack1905-1910
OrangeNorthern IrelandUnion Jackc1924-1973
GreenSouthern NigeriaUnion Jack and Blue Ensign1900-1914
Badges with a coloured background:
RedNorthern NigeriaUnion Jack and Blue Ensign1900-1914
BlueVictoriaUnion Jack1900-1984
YellowBritish North BorneoUnion Jack (with no garland), Blue Ensign and Red Ensign1882-1948
YellowLiu Kung TauUnion Jack1898-1902
YellowSouth AustraliaUnion JackUJ: 1903-1976; BE: 1904-
YellowWestern AustraliaUnion JackUJ: 1870-1988; BE: 1870-
GoldBurmaUnion Jack and Blue Ensign1937-1948
RedNigeriaUnion Jack and Blue Ensign1914-1960
Yellow over white over black diagonally British Central Africa Protectorate (Nyasaland after 1907)Union Jack and Blue Ensign1894-1914

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

List of colonial badge types

Readers might be interested in some lists that I made of official British colonial type badges as used on ensigns and Union Jacks, arranged roughly by type, and approximate date of introduction.
I grouped them in four separate lists, GB Defacements:
1865 - 1879. Early designs; mainly seals.
1880 - 1900. Remaining years to 1900; a mixed batch.
1901 - 1945. Twentieth Century to Second World War; mainly arms and simple pictures.
1946 - Second World War onwards.
I have not checked them recently so any corrections or additions would be welcome.
David Prothero, 8 April 2005

1865 - 1879. Early designs; mainly seals.

Form of Badge. 1865 - 1879

Words/Initials with Royal Emblem.
1867 New Zealand - initials only
1870 British Columbia
1870 New South Wales - initials only
1870 Newfoundland
1870 Straits Settlements
1870 -73 Hong Kong - 1873 only crown

Arms : or part of arms
1870 Gibraltar
1870 Ontario
1870 Quebec
1870 New Brunswick
1870 Nova Scotia
1874 Malta
1875 Cape Colony
1875 Jamaica

Shield but not arms
1869 Mauritius
1870 Canada
1870 Heligoland
1877 Victoria

Circular Seal
1869 Bahamas - in garter
1869 Bermuda
1870 Barbados
1870 British Honduras - in ornamental frame
1870 Falkland Islands
1870 Natal - complete seal
1870 Tobago
1870 Western Australia
1870 West African Settlements
1874 Leeward Islands
1874 St Helena - in ornamental frame
1875 British Guiana
1875 Grenada
1875 Labuan
1875 St Lucia
1875 Trinidad
1875 Turks & Caicos
1876 Hong Kong (1876 flag)
1876 South Australia
1877 Fiji
1877 Gold Coast - same as WAS distinguished by initials
1877 St Vincent
1878 Prince Edward Island

(Local) Emblem
1869 New Zealand
1870 Ceylon
1870-76 New South Wales
1870-76 Queensland
1870 South Australia - until 1876
1870 Victoria
1873 India
1876 Tasmania
1877 Straits Settlements

1880 - 1900. Remaining years to 1900; a mixed batch.

Form of Badge. 1880 - 1900

Words/Initials with Royal Emblem.
1880 Western Pacific High Commission
1881 Cyprus
1883 Fiji
1885 British New Guinea
1895 Resident Pacific Islands
1896 Niger Coast Protectorate
1898 Sudan - words only
1900 Northern Nigeria
1900 Southern Nigeria

1888 Guernsey
1888 Jersey
1888 Isle of Man

Shield but not arms
1880 Manitoba
1886 Windward Islands - in crowned garter

Circular Seal
1888 Gambia - same as WAS distinguished by initials
1888 Lagos - same as WAS distinguished by initials
1888 Sierra Leone - same as WAS distinguished by initials 3

(Local) Emblem
1882 Br.N.Borneo Coy
1887 R.Niger Coy
1890 Br.East Africa Coy
1893 Br.South Africa Coy
1896 Br.East African Protectorate
1898 Liu Kung Tau

Circular Pictorial Badge
1892 Cook Islands
1894 Br.Central African Protectorate
1895 Uganda

1901 - 1945. Twentieth Century to Second World War; mainly arms and simple pictures.Form of Badge. 1901 - 1945.

Words/Initials with Royal Emblem.
1906 Papua
1907 South Africa HC
1910 Br.Solomon Islands
1911 New Hebrides
1927 Palestine - word only
1935 H C South Africa
1935 Northern Ireland - initials only
1936 Palestine

Arms : or part of Arms
1905 Manitoba
1905 Prince Edward Island
1906 British Columbia
1906 Jamaica - major revision
1906 Malta - major revision
1906 Mauritius
1908 Fiji
1910 Bermuda
1910 Union of South Africa
1916 Nyasaland
1916 Sierra Leone
1921 Canada
1924 Northern Ireland
1924 Southern Rhodesia
1929 Nova Scotia
1936 Falkland Islands

Shield but not Arms
1928 Northern Rhodesia - made arms in 1938
1937 Gilbert & Ellice - made arms in 1939
1937 St Lucia - made arms in 1939

Circular Seal
1903 Grenada - ?
1903 Seychelles - ?
1904 Newfoundland
1905 Natal - revised with frame and crown
1906 Br.Guiana - now in oval garter

(Local) Emblem
1901 Australia
1903 Cyprus
1906 Alderney
1914 Nigeria
1924 Indian Native States - 13 local emblems

Circular Pictorial Badge
1903 Transvaal
1903 Wei Hai Wei
1904 Br.Somaliland
1904 Orange River Colony
1904 South Australia
1918 Zanzibar
1919 Tanganyika
1925 Western Samoa
1937 Aden
1939 Burma

1946 - Second World War onwards.

Form of Badge. 1946 -

Words/Initials with Royal Emblem.
1959 Brunei

Arms : or part of Arms
1947 Sarawak
1947 Br.Solomon Islands
1948 Falkland Islands - new Arms
1949 Penang
1950 Br.Somaliland
1951 Basutoland
1954 Br.Guiana
1954 Federation Rhodesia/Nyasaland
1957 St Kitts Nevis
1958 Cayman Islands
1958 Trinidad & Tobago
1959 Hong Kong
1960 Br.Virgin Islands
1965 Dominica
1967 Antigua
1968 Turks & Caicos
1969 Br.Antarctic Territory
1976 Tuvalu
1982 Gibraltar variation
1984 Pitcairn Islands
1985 St Helena
1990 Anguilla
1992 S.Georgia & S.Sandwich
1996 Gibraltar variation
2002 Tristan da Cunha

Shield but not Arms
1955 Dominica
1956 Antigua
1960 Montserrat

(Local) Emblem
1948 Brunei
1948 North Borneo - crest of company arms
1948 Singapore
1951 Malacca - crest of arms
1985 Guernsey
1990 Br.Indian Ocean Territory