Red Ensign

From Academic Kids

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English Red Ensign as it appeared in the seventeenth century.
English Red Ensign as it appeared in the seventeenth century.
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The British Red Ensign (1707-1801)

The Red Ensign is a flag that originated in the early 1600s as an ensign by the Royal Navy. The precise date the flag first appeared is not known, but surviving receipts indicate that the British Navy was paying to have such flags sewn during the 1620s.

In 1674, a Royal Proclamation of Charles II confirmed that the Red Ensign was the appropriate flag to be worn by British merchant ships. The wording of the 1674 proclamation indicates that the flag was customarily being used by British merchantmen before that date. At this time, the ensign displayed the English Cross of St. George in the canton.

In 1707, the Act of Union of 1707 united Scotland, England and Wales in the Kingdom of Great Britain, which resulted in a new red ensign. This flag placed the first Union Flag in the first quarter. The new design of the Red Ensign was proclaimed by Queen Anne, who indicated that it was to be used by both the navy and ships owned by "our loving subjects."

In 1801, the Act of Union of 1801, Ireland joined the United Kingdom, which resulted in the present Union Flag being added to the canton. The St Patrick's Cross was added to the Union Flag of the United Kingdom and, accordingly, to the first quarters of the British ensigns.

Until 1864, the Red Ensign was the principal ensign of the Royal Navy, and as such it was worn by ships of the Red Squadron of the navy, as well as by those warships that were not assigned to any squadron (i.e., those sailing under independent command). The white ensign and the blue ensign were also used by the Royal Navy.

In 1854, the Merchant Shipping Act included a specific provision that the Red Ensign was the appropriate flag for a British merchantman. This provision was repeated in successive British shipping legislation (i.e., 1889, 1894 [section 73], and 1995).

By the mid-1800s, however, many in the Admiralty felt that the Royal Navy's use of three separate ensigns (i.e., the red, white, and blue) was outdated and confusing. Many also felt that steam merchantmen should be clearly distinguishable from warships. (Recall that until 1864, British merchantmen and many warships of the Royal Navy were both using the Red Ensign).

In July 1864, an order in council provided that the White Ensign was the ensign of the Royal Naval Service. The Blue Ensign was designated as the proper national colors for ships commanded by an officer of the Royal Naval Reserve, and (with an appropriate badge) as national colors for ships in government service. The Red Ensign was assigned to British merchantmen. This basic structure remains today.

A few years later (1867-1869), the Admiralty determined that the blue ensign charged with an appropriate badge in the fly would be used as the ensign by those ships in the armed, or public, service of the many British colonies. Most all British colonies needed to use the blue ensign due to the fact that most had government vessels; some colonies, such as South Australia, had warships. As a result, the Blue Ensign was used throughout the Empire and thus became the model for the flags used by a number of colonies and former colonies in the British Empire. At the same time, the red ensign (which was designated in 1864 as the flag for merchant shipping) was used by merchantmen of those colonies which obtained an Admiralty warrant. Not all colonies obtained an Admiralty warrant, however; ones that did tended to be larger, and included Canada (1892); New Zealand (1899); Australia (1901); South Africa (1910); and Cyprus (1922). Those areas that did not have an Admiralty warrant used the plain Red Ensign, although unofficial local versions of the Red Ensign were used.

Today (2005), Red Ensigns charged with the local emblem are available to be used by ships registered on several of the component registers of the Red Ensign Group: Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Guernsey, and Isle of Man.

For more information see British ensigns.'



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Australian Red Ensign

The Australian Red Ensign, is a red version of the Australian Flag and is a reserved civil ensign. From 1901 to 1954 the flag was used as a civil flag, to be flown by private citizens on land, while the government used the Blue Ensign reflecting British practice. In 1941, Prime Minister Robert Menzies stated that there should be no restrictions on private citizens using the Blue Ensign on land and, in 1947, Prime Minister Ben Chifley reaffirmed this position but it wasn't until the passage of the Flags Act 1953 that the restriction on civilians flying the Blue Ensign was officially lifted after which use of the Red Ensign on land became a rarity. Under the Navigation and Shipping Act 1912 and the Shipping Registration Act 1981 the Red Ensign remains only flag permitted for use by merchant ships registered in Australia. Pleasure craft may use either the Red Ensign or the national flag, but not both at the same time.


's Red Ensign
Bermuda's Red Ensign

Bermuda, uniquely among British overseas territories, uses the Red Ensign as its land flag, which apparently has been flown unofficially since Bermuda's arms were granted in 1910. (Note, however, that many other British territories use local versions of the Red Ensign at sea). There appears to be no formal adoption of the Bermuda flag for use on land, although a 1969 Foreign & Commonwealth Office circular mentions its use. The white and green shield has a red lion holding a scrolled shield showing the sinking of the ship Sea Venture one mile off the coast of Bermuda in 1609. The ship struck a reef after being caught in a hurricane. The Red Ensign is likely to have been chosen as Bermuda's land flag due to Canadian influence. (In the early 20th century, Canada made use of the Red Ensign defaced with the Canadian shield as an unofficial land flag). Bermuda's 2002 shipping legislation officially recognizes the flag as an ensign for Bermudian registered ships. Prior to 2002, the flag was often used unofficially by Bermudian ships as an ensign, as reflected in Admiralty correspondence dating back to the 1950s.


 Red Ensign
Canadian Red Ensign

The term Red Ensign is often used in particular to refer to the Canadian Red Ensign, the former de facto national flag of Canada. It was informally adopted following Canadian Confederation in 1867 and, from 1892, it was the official flag for use on Canadian merchant ships, but on land the official national flag was the Union Jack. Despite its lack of official status the Red Ensign was widely used on land as well. In 1924 it was approved for use on Canadian government buildings outside Canada, and in 1945 for those inside Canada as well.

Canada's Red Ensign bore various forms of the shield from the Canadian coat of arms in its fly during the period of its use. The picture shows the official form between 1957 and 1965. Canada also used a blue ensign for ships operated by the Canadian government and for the Royal Canadian Navy.

The Red Ensign served as Canada's national flag until 1965 when it was controversially replaced by today's Maple Leaf Flag.

See also: Flag of Manitoba and Flag of Ontario for surviving provincial Red Ensigns.

New Zealand

Example of a Red Ensign used by New Zealand's Maoris
Example of a Red Ensign used by New Zealand's Maoris
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New Zealand's Red Ensign

The New Zealand Red Ensign with the Union Jack in the first quarter, and the Southern Cross, represented by four five-pointed white stars featured in the fly became the official flag in New Zealand for merchant vessels in 1901.[1] ( Previously a plain red ensign was used.

The red ensign may continue to be flown on land in Maori areas or during Maori events under the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981[2] ( in recognition of long held Maori preference for red flags. New Zealand law allows the defacement of the flag in accordance to Maori custom in which white capital letters identifying a particular family or Maori tribe are added. In the case of the flag on the left, TAKITIMU refers to a grouping of Maori tribes descended from the crew of the ancestral canoe of that name [3] (

Today, private and merchant craft can choose to fly the Flag of New Zealand (which is a blue ensign) or the Southern Cross red ensign.

South Africa

Red Ensign of the  as it appeared from 1910 to 1912.
Red Ensign of the Union of South Africa as it appeared from 1910 to 1912.

The Union of South Africa used a Red Ensign as its de facto national flag from 1910 until 1928, with the shield of its coat of arms in the fly. There was also a Blue Ensign which was mostly used on overseas offices. Both ensigns were changed slightly in 1912 when the shield of the coat of arms was placed on a white roundel. The most notable usage of the flag was when General Louis Botha flew the flag over Windhoek in what was then German South West Africa after the town's capture by South African troops in 1915.

Neither the red nor blue ensign enjoyed public support, particularly not from the Afrikaans speaking portion of the white population.

See also

it:Red Ensign


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