Social Design

Do You Know the Origins of Flags and of Your Flag?

Did you know that the origins of flags, as we know them today, were the invention of the peoples of the Indian subcontinent and what is now China? This then resulted in the early adoption of flags in Southeast Asia — much earlier than in Europe.

Source for the above claim: Origins

Flags in the Indian subcontinent were triangular in nature and referred to as dhwaja in Sanskrit or pataka in Hindi. They are also known through a host of different names: akra, krtadhvaja, ketu, brihatketu, and sahasraketu. They were made of light material to be used in battles to enthuse warriors. Dhwajas were also objects of religious worship in temples, these were called dhwaja stambhas. The use of dhwajas are described in the epic Mahabharata which narrates events that took place between 800 BCE and 700 BCE, but the oldest preserved parts of the document dates to 400 BCE. Here is an interesting essay on the use of flags on the Indian subcontinent by Balakrishna for the Dharma Dispatch site. Sadly, much of this Indian history is patchy at best, no thanks to the climatic conditions of the subcontinent, which makes it hard for historians to unearth the past. Despite this, evidence of the use of flags in ancient times is relatively clear and apparent in epic tales, temples, and paintings.

Manuscript illustration of the Battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata. Note the triangular dhwaja on the chariot. Image source.

In the book Flags Through the Ages and Across the World, Smith suggest that “we owe to the Chinese two characteristics of flags which are now universal – their lateral attachment to the staff and a focus on the cloth of a flag rather than its staff and finial” (pp. 38–41), the latter being the previous practice in Egypt and Assyria in the use of vexilloids. There is an instance narrated on the Britannica site where the founder of the Zhou dynasty (1046–256BCE) carries a white flag before him, and another instance in 660CE where a minor prince was punished for failing to lower is standard before his superior. Crampton in Webster’s Concise Encyclopedia of Flags & Coats of Arms reveals that the oldest existing silk banner, in the shape of the letter T, was found in 1972 at a burial ground in Hunan province of China and is dated to approximately 200BCE. Barker in The Complete Guide to Flags of the World, page 19, states that it “appears that the pole, and a laterally attached flag, was an Arab influence on the West”. So here we see a relatively clear trend in the adoption of flags starting in the East and moving toward the West. Europe adapted the use of “national” flags much later in the Middle Ages (Crusades) and the Renaissance.

The Chinese were most likely the first to use silk flags at sea and land (left). A rare painting depicting Muslim horsemen brandishing flags that are typically calligraphically or geometrically patterned (right). Images sourced from Flags Through the Ages and Across the World.
A small section of a 1200 meter bass relief at the Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The upper right corner depicts what appears to be part of an individual holding a flag. Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the 12th century (1110-1150CE). Image © Vinod J Nair, 2013.

Most books attribute the use of flags to China, thanks to its relatively well preserved and documented history but also its Neolithic practice of sericulture or silk farming, which probably facilitated cloth flags that were light, large, and translucent.

I became interested in flags because of my fascination with school emblems. School emblems in Malaysia have their origins in the discipline of heraldry. Heraldry is a visual identification system previously used to distinguish individuals in battle, but would later symbolise a person’s hereditary line, status, and marriage connections, while Vexillology is the study of “history, symbolism, and use of flags”. Heraldry and vexillology are interrelated disciplines because some areas in their respective fields overlap.

Today when we think of flags, we associate them with symbols of countries or states. We see them as unchanging creations that are meant to last forever. Of course, this is not always the case, what if you are stuck with a flag that looks eerily similar to another country’s (Monaco vs Poland vs Indonesia)? What if you’re stuck with a flag that is too complicated? What if you’re stuck with an unflagtering, flag? What then?

The Monaco flag was adopted in 1881. Its colours are derived from its heraldic use of the same. Poland’s flag was officially adopted in 1919 although its colours can also be traced to its heraldic use in the middle ages. The Indonesian flag was only officially adopted in 1950 due to colonial subjugation. That said, there is some evidence of repetitive stripes of red and white banners used in the medieval period by some of its kingdoms.

Well, there have been historical and contemporary instances where a country, state or city have changed their flag. Thus, it is possible for changes to occur, but the reason must be significant and popularly supported by its citizens.

Flag of Malaya 1950

In Malaysia (prior to the 1963 was known as Malaya), our flag (first adopted in 1950), is by no means unflattering, but the criticism of the “Jalur Gemilang” pertains to its visual similarity to the flag of the United States (first adopted 1777) and the flag of Liberia (adopted 1847). It is also likely wrongly attributed to the flag of the Majapahit empire, according to Dr. Wayan Jarrah Sastrawan, who states that it is a misreading of the Kudadu inscription (Figure 1).

Figure 1 A tweet from Dr. Wayan Jarrah Sastrawan responding to an oft made claim that the Majapahit empire used a flag of red and white stripes. Sastrawan is a postdoctoral researcher at the École française d’Extrême-Orient in Paris and a research affiliate at the University of Sydney. His research focuses on the historical writing practices of premodern Southeast Asians, specialising in texts written in Malay, Javanese, and Balinese.

Mohamed Hamzah’s design for the Malaya flag competition had its stripes in blue, similar to the Uruguayan flag or today’s Greek flag. The archival documents unearthed and referenced, makes it possible for us to infer the motivations underpinning the amendments of the flag design. More on this later.

The United States between 1777-1796 used several flag variations, however, the 1777 version here is presumed to be the first one adopted by Congress. It uses stars instead of the British Union flag on the upper left canton. This flag is a continuation of the East India Co. flag. On the other hand, the Federated Malay States ensign 1895-1946 was the official flag for the Federated Malay states, which consisted of colours representing Selangor, Perak, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan. It was a distinct flag and featured a tiger in full stretch within a white oval. Mohamed Hamzah’s flag colours (1949) were based on the criteria of the competition set out by the committee in charge. The subsequent revision in colour placement would bring it in line with the colours and design associated with the UK and East India Co. flag.

In the case of Malaya’s flag, a committee was setup by the appointed Federal Legislative Council (Federation of Malaya Order No.61 of 1949) with the intention of deliberating and proposing a new flag for the federation. Interestingly, and typically, a competition was organised to solicit designs from the public. I feel it is never a good idea to design a symbol that has so much importance connected to it through a competition or a public vote. However, admittedly it is a good way to solicit potential ideas to be debated and improved upon. The committee that was setup by the Federal Legislative Council presented 3 chosen flags from 373 submissions (Figure 12. The Malay Mail was tasked to organise a poll and publish the designs. The majority favoured the design by government architect from Johore, Mohamed Hamzah. The design had 11 horizontal stripes alternately blue and white with the uppermost stripe in blue, in canton a red quarter superimposed with a crescent and star in yellow.

Interestingly, a quarter of the public who were polled wanted a Union Jack included in the flag of Malaya like New Zealand and Australia — talk about a captive mind.

Figure 2 The committee established by the Federal Legislative Council presented 3 chosen flags out of 373 submissions along with a report. The Malay Mail poll concluded that the majority of their respondents favoured “C”.

However a cabinet meeting on the 6th of March 1950 of the Federal Legislative Council found “none of the designs were acceptable” and sought a revised design by the 19th of April 1950 (the FOTW site cites a document: BT11/4189 from the Public Record Office at Kew, United Kingdom). The revision to Hamzah’s design were significant in terms of colour placement and in the type of star used but the basic design was somewhat retained.

The document, The History and Chronology of Jalur Gemilang, published by Thinklab and researched by M.R. Nasruddin and Z.N. Zulkhurnain (2012) unearths excerpts of the committee’s meeting minutes. It reveals the term of reference for the committee and their deliberations. These are quite revealing, in one record the committee examines designs provided by Dato Onn (founder of the United Malays National Organisation), which seems to include the colours red, white, blue, two crowns and 9 stars. There seems to be an alignment of views between the chairman and Dato Onn in direction.

Equally revealing is the statement by Dato Onn (Figure 3), which indicates that the flag should denote “…partnership with the United Kingdom”. Thus, the choice of colours red, white and blue, with the exception of yellow, were an attempt at depicting this partnership. These colours were derived from the colours of the Union Jack.

Figure 3 Digitally recreated excerpt of the committee minutes. Not the actual document.

According to the Thinklab document, the final revision tabled at the Federal Legislative Council on the 19th of April 1950 had the revised flag initially displaying the crescent and star in white. Upon the advice of the Sultan of Kedah, the star and crescent would revert to yellow, representing royal sovereigns (p. 21).

Right: The original proposal by Mohamed Hamzah. The committee proposed this and 2 other options to the Federal Legislative Council (6th March, 1950). Left: Revision to Hamzah’s proposal. The design revision originally presented the crescent and star in white, which would later be amended to yellow (19th March, 1950). I must say, there is a sense of harmony in this version sans the use of yellow. Should Malaysia ever become a republic, the country could revert to this iteration.

This association of Malaya’s flag colours (red, white, and blue) with the United Kingdom is further substantiated by a letter of correspondence, dated 26 June, 1950, between J .D. Heaton Armstrong (Registrar for the College of Arms between 1939–1950) and J.H. Thompson (who was privy to the discussion or close to the High Commissioner of Malaya, Gerard Edward James Gent). I obtained a copy of the letter from the College of Arms, London, but as per my agreement with them, I will not publish the image of the actual letter. However, I can reveal what was said (Figure 4):

Figure 4 Digitally recreated correspondence from J.H. Thompson to J.D. Heaton Armstrong. Not the actual document. As far as I know, this is the first time the content of this document has been revealed. The archivist stumbled on this document — unrelated to my search — and kindly included it.

From the documents above, there was clearly a concerted effort exerted to maintain a link to the United Kingdom. This is evident from Dato Onn’s statement in the archived committee minutes published by Thinklab and the archival correspondence I obtained from the College of Arms, which also records the effort made by the High Commissioner for the UK — possibly Gerard Gent — to convince the Rulers to introduce a representation of the Royal crown into the flag’s design.

From the two documents we can glean the points below:

  • narrowing of colours for competition: red, white, blue and yellow
  • inclusion of crowns in flag proposal by Dato Onn
  • failed persuasion of Malay rulers by UK High Commissioner to include Royal Crown
  • Attempt to submit Crescent and Star in white, leaving out yellow

Interestingly, in analysing the correspondence letter between J.H. Thompson and Heaton Armstrong, written a little over a month after King George VI’s approval of the new flag, Thompson makes it a point to note that the crescent and star should be yellow. This would mean that the College of Arms initially recorded it as white and not yellow. If so, it suggests that the federal legislative council during the revision period between 6th of March and 19th April 1950 originally recommended the crescent and star be featured in white and proceeded to submit it to the colonial authorities. If not for the last-minute intervention by the Sultan of Kedah and the Royal Council, this would have been the colours of our flag: red, white and blue.

We must also note the reluctant acquiescence of the admiralty on the choice of the final design due to its similarities to the Liberian and US flags. I dare say they do have a point. It is a little surprising that the Council and committee did not consider it to be a pertinent point and went ahead with it anyway. Flags on vessels are identified at a distance and from a distance, our flag would be difficult to distinguish from the aforementioned countries. It is even difficult to differentiate them when using emojis as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) found out:

Did you know that there was an alternative proposal for the flag of Malaya other than that which was proposed by the appointed and not elected Federal Legislative Council? This flag was named the People’s Flag and was adopted on the 10th of December 1947 by the first ever multiracial coalition party in Malaya: PUTERA-AMCJA. It was a coalition of left-wing parties not favoured by the colonial authorities unlike the individuals appointed to the Federal Legislative Council. This flag was reportedly widely flown in many major cities in 1947, for more on this, you may read the Twitter thread by Fahmi Reza, which features various news articles on the flag:

Also note, the people’s flag is more in keeping with the region. Indonesia and Singapore both celebrate a “Common heritage” and are thus in keeping with the five principles of good flag design, “flag designers can choose symbols, colors, and shapes that recall other flags as a powerful way to show heritage, solidarity, or connectedness.”

In conclusion, we can infer with some amount of confidence that flags, as we know them today, originated in what is now China and the Indian subcontinent. The use of flags in the west is a result of influence from the Arabs. The Malaya 1950 flag was based on the design submitted by architect Mohamed Hamzah. While the basic design would remain, there would be significant alteration in the placement of colour. The colours are influenced by the United Kingdom’s Union Jack and the initial revision had the crescent and star featured in white. It would be changed to yellow with the intervention of the Sultan of Kedah and the Royal Council. The similarity to the US flag is likely coincidental, as they were both colonies of the UK and their flag colours are derived from this relationship. Nevertheless, this does not negate the fact that they look similar and the appointed Federal Legislative Council and committee should have recognised this fact, as the admirals did. To this end I constructed a timeline of key events in the creation of the national flag of 1950.

Chronology of events surrounding the creation of the Federation of Malaya flag 1950

With that we come to the end of this article on origins of flags and of our own flag. I hope this article not only lights a fire in you about flags (vexillology) but also about flag design (vexillography). As a country we can still look into our city flags, many of which do not adhere to the best practices in flag design. Perhaps in my next article I should think about revising a few of our city flags, what say? Comment below.


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