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Alternate Terminology: Naval Gazing Part 3 - Flags at Sea

By Tom Anderson

The Dutch Raid on the Medway, 1667.

In previous articles in this series, we looked at naval history through the topics of the Mediterranean galley, and then those early oceangoing ships which traversed distant seas to explore new worlds. We are now entering the era in which many of the tropes and conventions we associate with naval warfare were forged, as navies became more organised and strictly delineated forces. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were periods in which much of the future fate of the world was arguably decided. It was conflicts between European nations in this period, both at home and increasingly around the world in colonies fighting for trade, which decided what languages and cultures ended up on top and which did not. Often, it was not entirely apparent at the time what the consequences of particular wars and treaties would be long-term.

For example, England and the Dutch Republic fought three wars between 1652 and 1674. These were largely driven by the competing global trade interests of the two nations rather than ideological concerns, as illustrated by the fact that England was a republic for the first conflict and a restored kingdom for the other two, yet this made little difference. At the time, the Netherlands was considered arguably the leading naval power of Europe and England was a plucky upstart. The Dutch had founded the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC in Dutch), which was arguably the world’s first mega-corporation.


The VOC grew to dominate the valuable East Indies trade, eventually leading to what is now Indonesia becoming a Dutch colony. Outcompeted, the English were forced to settle for the second prize of trying to trade with India—yet this was the ultimate beginnings of what would, two centuries on, turn into the British Raj and the symbol of British imperial power. Of the three Anglo-Dutch wars (a fourth followed in the eighteenth century), the Dutch were considered to have won the second and third—yet this involved the seemingly trivial handover of the Dutch North American colony of New Netherland with its capital of New Amsterdam. The Dutch had kept the more valuable spice trade of Dutch Guyana (modern Suriname) which seemed more important at the time—but long-term, New Amsterdam became New York and the fact that it spoke English not Dutch led to much bigger ramifications on world history. It is illustrative of the outcome that the Dutch today continue to regard the English as a rival, and remember their successful raid on the Medway in Kent in 1667 (arguably the biggest English naval defeat in home waters ever), while in England the Dutch are often forgotten in the uncomfortably long list of historical mortal enemies. England (and then Britain) went on to bigger things, in a large part because of outcomes like the New York case.

There are many similar examples to this in this period. Broadly speaking, over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries some nations waxed as naval powers while others waned. As noted above, the Dutch were considered the leading naval power in the seventeenth century, a position cemented when Admiral Maarten Tromp beat the previously pre-eminent Spanish at the Battle of the Downs in 1639. This was the end of the long Eighty Years’ War between the Spanish Hapsburgs and their rebellious former subjects in the Netherlands, and symbolised both the fading of Spain and the ascendancy of the Netherlands. Yet, by the end of the eighteenth century the Dutch were considered a fading power, to the point where they suffered their own revolution preceding France’s by a few years (but which was put down by a Prussian army). Portugal also descended from a former strong naval power to a second-rank one, in part due to a period of Spanish Hapsburg rule before regaining its independence in 1640. Things could easily have gone differently, and this is a fascinating period for alternate history; for example, the Dutch temporarily took control of northern Brazil from Portugal during this period, but lost most of it later. Colonies were traded willy-nilly, often in return for advances in Europe which now look trivially irrelevant. Sometimes a colony might pass between three nations in as many years, then stick with one for a century and end up with the language and culture of that nation being the dominant one there. The world map could have looked very different based on some very minor changes.

Meanwhile, as Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands all declined, France and Britain (after 1707 when England and Scotland combined) were rising naval powers. Conflicts in this era often boiled down to the rising power of France under Louis XIV fighting an alliance of almost every other country in Europe, all at once—and winning as often as not. Five great wars dominated the century between 1688 and 1788: the War of the Grand Alliance (1688-97), the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13), the War of the Austrian Succession (1744-48), the Seven Years’ War (1754-63) and the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). All of these wars had complex local causes and varying alliances, but for the purpose of this article the important point is that they all led to naval conflicts between Britain and France. Indeed, the two countries spent more years at war in this period than at peace, and it has been dubbed the ‘Second Hundred Years’ War’ by some historians.

Battle of Chesapeake

Britain (and England) are often taken for granted as major naval powers as an island nation, but as noted above in the Anglo-Dutch Wars, this was not always the case. Indeed, under the republican English Commonwealth, dominated by Cromwell’s New Model Army, naval commanders were referred to as ‘Generals at Sea’ rather than admirals! On average, Britain generally came out on top of France in naval conflicts, not least because France as a continental nation must always put her army first, and also needed to balance attention between her Mediterranean naval forces and the worldwide ones. However, this was not to say that France did not win several important victories. The outcome of the American Revolutionary War would have been quite different, for example, if the French fleet under the Comte de Grasse had not defeated the Royal Navy at the Battle of Chesapeake in 1781. This left the British army under Lord Cornwallis stranded and blockaded, and ultimately led to his surrender to George Washington at the Battle of Yorktown, signalling the beginning of the end for the loyalist cause.

This background is provided to explain the environment in which the ideas behind naval flags became defined. Much like I explored in my previous article on Air Force roundels, the design of naval flags was driven by the need to distinguish friend from foe, and therefore were influenced by which nation was friendly and which was not.

It was in the seventeenth century that the modern layout of naval flags was first codified: a large ‘ensign’ flag flown from the stern (rear) of a ship and a smaller, often square, ‘jack’ flag flown at the bows (front). Ensigns, or their precursors, had existed for some time, but jacks are first recorded in the seventeenth century; perhaps the changing sizes and designs of ships meant it was easier to lose sight of the ensign and an additional flag was required. These two flags indicated the national loyalties of a ship (as they still do today). When speaking of military ships (as we mostly are here), the ensign is sometimes called a ‘war ensign’ as a different flag may be used for civilian ships and coast guard. However, this is only true in some countries, and for example the United States uses the usual Stars and Stripes flag for all ensigns.

It is important to realise that national flags being omnipresent, splashed on clothes as a fashion item, is a very modern phenomenon. Most of Europe’s countries in this era did not have a national flag at all in the modern sense. They might have a royal flag which symbolised royal power and was flown when the monarch was in residence, or by their representatives, but for obvious reasons this would not be readily available to the man in the street. It is telling that British political cartoonists of the eighteenth century seem utterly incapable of drawing the Union Jack properly—likely they simply did not see it very often. As recently as 2007, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s move to fly the Union Jack all year round from Downing Street was considered controversial.

The name Union ‘Jack’ is telling here. Many countries have a national flag today because they needed to come up with something to put on their ships as an identifier in this period of intense naval warfare. For example, Spain had no national flag in this era, though Spanish colonial forces often used the ‘cross of Burgundy’, a red X on white with ‘ragged’ chevrons added to the cross. The Spanish royal flag, used as an ensign, was a blank white field (associated with the House of Bourbon) coupled to an absurdly complex coat of arms. When he came to the throne in 1759, King Charles III noted that this was easy to confuse with other European countries which had the similar white background + coat of arms flag. He held a competition to design a new distinctive Spanish ensign, and the winning flag formed the basis of the modern Spanish flag. There were other, rejected, designs, including a Scandinavian cross-type design with yellow on red. Because it looks so bizarrely un-Spanish to the OTL eye, in my timeline “Look to the West” I have this one win the competition, to remind us of how differently things could have gone.

Flag of the Honourable East India Company

Similarly, the modern British war ensign was driven by the needs of the eighteenth century wars. Historically, England had used ensigns consisting of a small St George’s Cross in the corner and a field of various colours. Under the Tudor monarchy, green and white horizontal stripes were sometimes used (the Tudor colours). However, these were the days before consistency, and many different striped ensigns can be seen in paintings of the period. One of these formed the basis of the red and white stripes of the Honourable East India Company’s flag (the British answer to the Dutch VOC) and therefore quite likely inspired the stripes of the American Grand Union Flag, which became the Star-Spangled Banner.

However, the Royal Navy itself switched in Elizabeth I’s day to using three ensigns with plain fields: the White Ensign, Red Ensign and Blue Ensign. These different flags were used to designate three different squadrons composing a fleet, each commanded by an admiral. The senior Admiral of the Red would command the main body of the fleet, flying red ensigns. Second in seniority was the Admiral of the White, who commanded the van (vanguard) of ships. Thirds came the Admiral of the Blue, who commanded the rearguard. Over time, these became the ranks of Admiral, Vice-Admiral and Rear Admiral.

The defaced White Ensign

By the turn of the eighteenth century, though, France (using a white Bourbon flag) had become the major enemy of England (then Britain) and the White Ensign was too easily confused with the enemy flag. For that reason, a red St George’s Cross was added to deface it. This flag eventually became the war ensign used by the whole Royal Navy, while the Red Ensign became the civil ensign of the UK (used by civilian boats) and the Blue Ensign was used as the basis for colonial flags.

Many of the countries which were formerly British colonies use war ensigns based on the White Ensign with St George’s Cross. Jamaica, South Africa and India are only three of them; it is interesting that this has been retained even in countries which are not majority Christian. Again, this design would not exist without the need to avoid confusion with the white pre-Revolutionary French flag. Britain’s naval jack, the Union Jack, has also been influential, and not only within the former Empire; many European countries, including Bulgaria, Estonia and Georgia, have adopted flags inspired by it.

This of course is leaving aside the many phrases which still exist in our language because of naval flags. Flags were also referred to as ‘colours’ (like the flags carried by armies). A ship must honestly fly the flag of its home country when making an attack; flying a different country’s as a trick means it has committed a false flag attack, a war crime under the laws of war. However, in the Napoleonic Wars period it was considered perfectly fine for a ship to fly a false flag until the last minute and then quickly hoist its genuine one just before opening fire. Some ships (then and now) avoided blockades and other unpleasantness by sailing (legally) under the flag of a country unrelated to the ship of its crew: a flag of convenience. When a ship was under attack, it could surrender by lowering its flags, or striking its colours. Conversely, a reckless captain might declare he would never surrender by making it impossible to take them down, by nailing his colours to the mast.

There remains more to cover about this era, but that will have to wait for the next article!

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Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth