Four Hundred years of the Butcher's Apron/Rice Flag (*)
With its striking design and its long and chequered history associated with the British Empire, the union jack is one of the world’s most recognisable flags.
Four-hundred years old this week (yesterday to be exact), the union jack is one of the world's oldest national flags... if you overlook the fact it's only meant to be flown at sea, the proportions are wrong and no one can agree on its name.
Its striking red, white and blue design harks back to a time when Britannia ruled the waves, but the history of the union jack is as tangled as all the mothballed bunting it decorates.
It is a story about custom over clarity, assumption over assertion, anomaly instead of consistency.
In the words of union jack historian Malcolm Farrow, "a mish-mash - but what do you expect from the British constitution?"
Even its real name has been known to pitch grown men into heated argument, 400 years after the flag's creation.
On 12 April 1606, a new flag to represent this personal union between England and Scotland was specified in a royal decree, according to which the flag of England (a red cross with a white background, known as St George's Cross) and the flag of Scotland (a white saltire with a blue background, known as the Saltire or Saint Andrew's Cross) would be "joyned together according to the forme made by our heralds, and sent by Us to our Admerall to be published to our Subjects."
Even with the demise of the British Empire, the union jack still appears on the flags of four independent countries (Australia, New Zealand, Tuvalu and Fiji) but also appears on a number of flags representing regions and British colonies:
Anguilla, Bermuda, British Antarctic Territory, British Columbia, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Canadian Red Ensign, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands, Falkland Islands, Hawaii, Manitoba, New South Wales, Ontario, Pitcairn Islands, Queensland, Saint Helena, South Australia, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Tasmania, Tristan da Cunha, Turks and Caicos Islands, Victoria, Western Australia
Until 1994, when the flag was completely replaced, it also appeared on the South African flag. As far as I know, there’s only one place in South Africa where that flag still flies in an ‘official’ capacity and that is over the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. The Castle (its foundation stones were laid in 1666) replaced Jan van Riebeeck’s fort, Cape Town’s first building and, as a result, has existed through all the South African political dispensations. To reflect this, six flags fly over the castle: Dutch, British, Dutch, British, old South African, new South African.
Although the union jack was more of a naval flag at the time of the first British occupation (1795-1803) and may not have been used to indicate land possession, for most of that period the union jack would have been the original union flag (the current one came into being in 1801) that didn’t incorporate St Patrick’s cross. As far as I’m aware, the two British flags flying over the castle are both the current union flag.
For those of you who are Rocky Horror fans, you'll remember the dinner scene where Eddie gets eaten. Little flags decorate the food, including the old South African one. It’s strange that it should be included as South Africa was already a pariah state at the time the film was made (1975). Ironically, however, much of that scene was cut when it was first shown in South Africa, the censors not being too fond of anything that smacked of cannibalism. A few months later, the film was banned altogether.
(*) Butcher's Apron / Rice Flag
- Butcher's Apron: sometimes used by Irish nationalists.
- Rice flag: nickname used by the Chinese as the pattern looks like the Chinese symbol for rice.