Saturday, January 25, 2014

A National Flag – In An Australian Context[1]
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Australia Day is the official national day of Australia. Celebrated annually on 26th January, which marks the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British Ships at Sydney Cove, New South Wales, and raising of the flag of Great Britain at that site by Governor Arthur Phillip. In contemporary Australia, celebrations reflect the diverse society and landscape of the nation, and are marked by community and family events, reflections on Australian history, official community awards, and citizenship ceremonies - welcoming new immigrants into the Australian community.

We love our flags – whether we are nationalists or not. It surfaces in artworks, time and time again. Who can forget Jasper Johns’ “Flag”. Its texture alone sends a shiver up your spine.

Jasper Johns - Flag (1954 - 1955).

If you want to publically disrespect a country, just burn their flag.

Modified American flag being burned in the 2006 “World Can’t Wait” rally in Washington D.C. USA.

On the other hand, if you want to show a nationalistic fervor, then parade in a flag on the day of a national celebration.

Memorial Day Celebration (USA) – last Sunday in May (USA).

Sequin dress especially designed for Memorial Day parade.

Perhaps a poem about the British flag can be applied to most democratic nations.
Our Flag
You may call it an old piece of bunting;
You may call it an old tattered rag;
But thousands have died for its honor
And shed their best blood for the flag.

You may call it an old piece of bunting;
You may call it an old tattered rag;
But Freedom has made it majestic,
And Time has ennobled Our Flag.

Unknown author.

What is really surprising is that not many ArtCloth artists have embraced the flag genre in their work. Perhaps it is too obvious a subject for that medium or perhaps it is a subject that does not resonate with this art community. Although this post mainly focuses on the Australian flag and the importance that we should change it in order to reflect a more accurate history of human occupation in Australia, nevertheless it may excite or give rise to a body of ArtCloth work which weaves flags through its narrative.

Flag of Stars
Wiki Answers dot com claims there might be 66 national flags that contain star(s) – listing the following countries: USA, Cuba, St. Kitts & Nevis, Dominica, Grenada, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Suriname, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Brazil, Slovenia (6-point), Moldova (8-point), Croatia (6-point), Bosnia & Herzegovina, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Cape Verde, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea (6-point), Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi (6-point), Sao Tome & Principe, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Comoros, Azerbaijan (8-point), Syria, Jordan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, China, North Korea, Myanmar, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, Australia (7-point/5-point), New Zealand, Micronesia, Marshall Islands (24-point), Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Nauru (12-point), and Samoa. Of course that list does not include military, internal state or other types of civilian flags. Clearly a star emblem is very important in designing a flag.

National Flag of Burkina Faso – a horizontal bicolor of red and green with a yellow star in the center.

The History of the Commonwealth of Australia National Flag
Although star(s) appear as a decorative motif on flags, on certain flags they herald a deeper representation. For example, on the United States of America flag each star represents a State in the Union. On the other hand, on the Australian Commonwealth Flag, the large “Commonwealth” star, placed below the Union Jack (British flag) on the hoist of the flag (the half of the flag nearer the flagstaff, the other half being the “fly”) is used to indicate the number of States and possession of territories in the Commonwealth of Australia.

The Commonwealth of Australia National flag.

From 1901 until 1908 the Commonwealth Star had six points – one for each State (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia). Then seventh point was added to represent the Territories under Australian control (Papua being the first Territory symbolized in this way). Nowadays Papua is no longer under Australian control and so the seventh point represents territories such as the Northern Territory, Australian Capital Territory, Cocos Island, Christmas Island, Lord Howe Island, Norfolk Island, and the Antarctic Territories etc.

There are only three national flags that show a constellation and in each case the constellation is the Southern Cross.

National flag of New Zealand. At first glance, the Australian and New Zealand national flags are very similar and so are often confused by the international community in such events as the Olympic games.

It is not surprising that the Southern Cross fascinated the Northern hemisphere mariners. On a clear night sky it is easily recognizable and a wonderful guide to navigation. It is a constellation that never sets in the Southern Hemisphere at any point south of thirty-three degrees latitude (which is a little north of Sydney), and for a short time of the year it is visible from parts of the Northern Hemisphere.

Graphic of the Southern Cross Constellation.

The first European flag to be seen in Australian waters was flown by a Dutch vessel Duyfken (Little Dove) which entered the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1606. Its captain, William Jansz, did not realize what he had discovered and although he chartered some two hundred miles of the Australian coastline, he imagined that the coastline was a continuation of Papua and New Guinea. He took a small boat up one of the rivers that flowed into the Gulf of Port Musgrave, where there was a clash with the Australian Aborigines, which resulted in the death of one of the crew of the Duyfken.

Marine Parks near Port Musgrave.

The first symbol of European discovery was a pewter plate nailed to a post by another Dutch captain, Dirck Hartog on Dirck Hartog Island Western Australia in 1616. A record of the visit of his vessel, the Eendracht, was inscribed on the plate, which was recovered by Willem de Vlamingh in 1697 and is now preserved in Amsterdam.

Hartog's pewter plate message was found and taken to Batavia (Jakarta) by Willem de Vlamingh in 1697. Translation: "1616 The 25 October is here arrived the ship Eendraght of Amsterdam the uppermerchant gillis miebais of liege skipper Dirck Hatichs of Amsterdam. The 27 ditto (we) set sail for Bantum the undermerchant Jan Stins, the first mate Pieter Dookes van bil. anno 1616".

Jansz and Hartog, in their ships, would have flown the old Dutch Flag of orange, white and blue, in three horizontal stripes. Later, the orange strip was replaced by a red one.

The colors of the old Dutch flag.

The colors of the Dutch Flag today. Note: National flags do change and it is wrong to assume that they should be static forever.

England was the second European nation to fly its flag in Australian waters. The Tryral - a ship owned by the British East India Company under Captain John Brooke, was wrecked on a reef north of the Monte Bello Islands, northwest Western Australia in 1622. Ninety-two lives were lost and also a considerable amount of treasure, but two boatloads of survivors manage to sail to Batavia. The reef is now known as Tryal Rocks.

The Tryal probably flew the stripped flag of the British East India company as well as the British Flag, later called the Union Flag and more commonly known as the Union Jack.

Flag of the British East India Company.

When Captain Cook arrived in H.M.S. Endeavour in April 1770, the vast continent was still unknown and unclaimed by European powers, even though the indigenous peoples of Australia had continuous ownership of the continent for over 60,000 years. On the 22nd of August 1770, he and his company landed on an island, which he named Possession Island, off Cape York (having previously landed at Stingray Harbour – later named Botany Bay on 29th April 1770) and raised the Union Flag, fired a salute, and claimed the entire east coast of the continent in the name of King George III. Not until eighteen years later did Britain take physical possession of Eastern Australia by founding the penal colony of New South Wales.

The First Union Flag (1770-1801).

In those intervening years the French Flag appeared in Australian European history. Captain Nicholas Marion du Fresne, commanding Le Mascarin and with Le Marquis de Castries as consort arrived off Van Dieman’s land - the original name for Tasmania - in March of 1772. Whilst a European claim for the continent was not made at that time, it was made the following year when Le Gros Ventre under Lieutenant Francois de Saint Allouarn entered Shark’s Bay in Western Australia.

French Flag of 1773. Parts of Australia could have had a French heritage – as do parts of the USA.

The Stars and Stripes flag of the United States of America was also carried into Australian waters – or very close to them – prior to 1788, when the Alliance under Captain Reed, made a historic non-stop voyage from the Delaware River to Canton (China) in 1787.

American Flag of 1787 – 13 stars and stripes.

The first flag designed and made in Australia was flown at Richmond NSW early in 1806. It is known as the Bowman flag and is preserved in the Mitchell Gallery in Sydney. Inspired by the news of Nelson's victory of 21st October 1805 at Trafalgar, John Bowman designed and made the flag and flew it on his property at Archerfield. He had no intention of designing an Australian national flag – it was just a gesture of solidarity with Britain.

Bowman Flag.

In the early 1820s, Captain Nicholson, R.N. and his friend Captain John Bingle sent to the Lords of the Admiralty a design for “a National Colonial Flag for Australia” and received official approval. The first flag of stars in Australia’s history was a white flag charged with the red cross of St. George, having in each corner a star to symbolize the Southern Hemisphere under the constellation of the Southern Cross. Despite the enthusiasm of its creators, it was nevertheless not popular since Australian Scotsmen and Irishmen complained that the cross of St. George being English was used whilst that of St. Andrew (Scotland) and St. Patrick (Ireland) was ignored.

The National Colonial Flag for Australia (1823/24-1830s)
. This flag was the forerunner of the many Australian flag designs, which featured the Southern Cross and Union Jack in combination. It is the first recorded attempt to design a distinctive national flag for Australia. Designed by Captain John Bingle and Captain John Nicholson, both New South Wales residents, it is inspired by the White Ensign of the Royal British Navy, the protector and defender of Australia from 1788 to 1913. The large red cross of St George features four white, eight pointed stars representing the Australian Southern Cross. According to Captain Bingle, it was adopted by the Government of Sir Thomas Brisbane. Today, the National Colonial Flag has the unique distinction of being the first flag designed specifically to represent Australia.

Political flags were first used in Australia in 1843, when candidates for two City of Sydney seats in the first NSW parliamentary elections – Bland and Wentworth – who ran as a team campaigned beneath a special “flag of stars” – two stars – designed for the occasion. Made from white silk, with features stitched on by hand, the flag had a union Jack in the top left corner, a white star below the Jack, and a red star over to the right. In blue letters with a light border sewn around them was the campaign slogan: ”Wentworth and Bland, Australia’s and Sydney’s pride”.

First Australian political flag. Needless to say Wentworth and Bland were successfully elected!

Australia and New Zealand were often linked in the 19th Century. The Australasian Anti-Transportation League was established in 1851. It was a merger of various State organizations with the object of inducing Britain to cease transporting convicts to either Australia or to New Zealand. After signing a charter for the League, the flag was unfurled - a Union Jack in the left top corner and a broad field displaying four stars (the Southern Cross). In subsequent flags of the League the four stars were increased to five.

The flag of The Australasian Anti-Transportation League.

A flag about which little is known is the Murray River Flag, flown by some of the early paddle-steamers. The Murray river separates NSW from Victoria (States of Australia). The idea of the flag may have originated as far back as 1850, when R.W. Beddome, announced the formation of the River Murray League. There was a Murray Flag when the first paddle steamer went into service on the river in 1853. The steamer was named Mary Ann and it was built by three brothers: William, Thomas and Elliott Randell.

The flag shown above is a post 1950s modern interpretation of the Murray River Flag and not the original, since there are no definitive historical descriptions of it.

The appearance of the River Murray flag is a matter of speculation, but it is generally accepted to comprise the Union Jack in the top left and the cross of St George in the top right with five white stars, representing the five Australian colonies, on the red of the cross. Below are four blue and four white horizontal stripes. It has been speculated that the four blue stripes represent the four rivers that make up the Murray-Darling system: the Murray, Darling, Lachlan and Murrumbidgee rivers.

We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties.

Beneath a starry flag of rebellion this oath was taken by 500 gold diggers at Ballarat (Victoria) in 1854. The Eureka Rebellion was a short-lived revolt against against petty officialdom that helped prepare the country for suffrage.

The famous American writer Mark Twain, who visited Ballarat in the 1890s, described Eureka in this way: "It was a revolution — small in size, but great politically; it was a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against injustice and oppression ... It is another example of a victory won by a lost battle."

The Eureka flag was designed by a Canadian, Lieutenant Ross. It was hand sewn by Anastasia Withers, Anne Duke and Elizabeth Hayes just before the “monster meeting” at Bakery Hill in Ballarat on Wednesday the 29th November 1854. The flag was 12 foot by 8 foot and had five stars on a cross, sewn on a blue background. The stars have eight points because the women who sewed it were pressed for time and folded the material in four when they cut out the stars.

Racism in Australia has meandered a course throughout our history - from the attempted systematic extermination of Tasmanian aboriginals to the anti-Chinese riots at Bendigo (Victoria). In 1860 and 1861 riots occurred at Lambing Flats aimed to drive hard working Chinese gold diggers from the rich goldfields. European diggers removed 500 Chinese from the claims that they were working, returning triumphantly with Chinese pigtails hanging from roughly made banners.

Flag of Stars carried at the Lambing Flat riots,1860.

In the 1890s the Australian Natives Association (ANA), mainly white Anglo-Saxon men, made positive suggestions for a federal constitution. One slogan invented by Barton (who was to become Australia’s first Prime Minister) coined the slogan - “A Nation for a Continent, and a Continent for a Nation”.

Marie-Therese Wisniowski, Fine-Art Print on Paper; Federation on Hold: Call Waiting, Press One - Reconciliation.

However, the slogan preferred by the ANA and used on its badges was: “One People…One Destiny…One Flag”. And the league had its flag, often referred to as the Australian Ensign. Widely flown towards the close of the nineties, it was based on the British White Ensign, with a large cross pale blue instead of red, and charged with five white stars - one in each arm of the cross and one in the center. The Union Jack was in the hoist.

Australian Natives’ Association Flag.

The Commonwealth of Australia came into being on the first day of the twentieth century; that is, 1st January 1901. At Centennial Park in Sydney, a huge crowd heard Queen Victoria’s Proclamation. During many days of celebration, the Union Jack took pide of place in official displays, but prominence was also given to the Australian Ensign, which played an important part in the Federation campaign.

It is sad that Australians do not celebrate their day of independence with a public holiday. Rather the Federal Government prefers to celebrate the 26th of January - the day Captain Cook arrived on our shores to colonise Australia. Australian aboriginals have long protested against this celebration - some envisaging it as the day the dispossession of their lands began - hardly a day for celebration.

In November of 1900, a Melbourne Journal – The Review of Reviews for Australasia – announced a flag competition for a national flag having secured the Premiers of NSW, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland to act as judges with the closing date for entries being 1st of February 1901. The Commonwealth Government announced it too was going to run a Federal Flag Competition – agreeing that the Journal entries would automatically be entered into its competition. Entries came from around the world.

Five almost identical entries were chosen as the winning design, and their designers shared the £200 (2009: $25,000) prize money. They were Ivor Evans, a fourteen-year-old schoolboy from Melbourne; Leslie John Hawkins, a teenager apprenticed to an optician from Sydney; Egbert John Nuttall, an architect from Melbourne; Annie Dorrington, an artist from Perth; and William Stevens, a ship's officer from Auckland, New Zealand. The five winners received £40 each. The differences to the present flag were the six-pointed Commonwealth Star, while the component stars in the Southern Cross had different numbers of points, with the real stars being a brighter white. This eventually led to five stars of nine, eight, seven, six and five points respectively.

The edition of the Review of Reviews front cover signed by Egbert Nuttall, after the winning designers of the 1901 Federal Flag design competition were announced.

Let's Change Our Flag
In 1962, the Menzies Government (1949-1966) amended the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to enable all Aboriginal Australians to enroll to vote in Australian Federal Elections. In 1965, Queensland became the last state to remove restrictions on Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders from voting in State elections. The Holt Governments 1967 Referendum overwhelmingly endorsed automatic inclusion of Aboriginal people in the national census, thereby heralding them for the first time to be citizens in their own right.

The present Australian Parliament is proposing to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Preamble of the Constitution. It will do so when it believes that consensus can be reached and the amendments to the Constitution will be successfully supported by the public. Currently a public campaign is underway to build a solid coalition of the willing. This blogspot is a strong supporter of the campaign – "Recognise". Please join the campaign to entrench their presence in our constitution.


There are two lobby groups involved in the on-going flag debate: Ausflag (est. 1981), which supports changing the flag, and the Australian National Flag Association (ANFA) (est.1983), which wants to keep the existing flag. Frequent polls have shown the percentage of Australians wanting a new flag increasing from 27% in 1979 to 42% in 1992, to a majority of 52% in 1998.

I believe our flag should reflect our collective histories rather than reflect a Euro-centric discovery. I should immediately add that this is my opinion and is not in any way connected to Recognise – a campaign that is solely trying to gain recognition in the preamble of the Australian Constitution only.

As a cloth artist I would combine our current flag design elements with the Aboriginal and Torres Islanders flag (designed by Harold Thomas) to produce a flag that truly reflects the complete Australian history rather than a Euro-centric one.

Aboriginal Flag.

My New Australian Flag.

The Southern Cross and the Commonwealth of Australia star would remain. Being white stars they would suggest a Euro-centric society. The blue background of the body of the flag would become black to meld with the Aboriginal flag. The ochre background in the bottom left corner would reflect the soil of the land, the dust in the air and a continent historically lived in. The yellow sun reflects that it is a sun burnt country (i.e. driest continent on Earth) and moreover, symbolises Australia's place in Asia and its asian heritage. It is interesting that most non-Aboriginal Australians hug the coastline, not only due to the need for water but symbolically to look outward to their oversea homeland, whereas most Australian aboriginals live within the continent rather than on its periphery.

[1] F. Cayley, Flag of Stars, Rigby limited, Melbourne (1966).


Flora Fascinata said...

Your flag is beautiful Marie. I too, would love to see a change that recognises out Nation's first people. Not too sure about the Recognise campaign though, I'll have to read more, I have read the viewpoint of some that don't feel it is the true solution. I am really looking forward to showing some of your textiles timeline this week with Year 11, with your credit. I really like how you put so much interest in the research. Thank you.

Art Quill Studio said...

Thank you for your kind comment Flora. I am so pleased that you like my interpretation / design of the flag !