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Austro-Hungarian Empire: Merchant Ensign (Handelsflagge)

Last modified: 2013-07-24 by rob raeside
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Merchant Ensign, 1730

[17th Century ensign] image by Željko Heimer, 24 September 2007

At this time it is possible that a special different flag was explicitly prescribed for the first time for the non-military (i.e. merchant) ships (possibly like this black-gold bicolour).

However, after Emperor Carl IV there was again decreased interest in the marine and it even happened that in 1737 it was decided that all the ships were to be sold since they were too costly and they "provoke the enemies". [Novak, 2004b]
Željko Heimer, 24 September 2007


Ensign before 1786

Bellin's (1756) chart shows a red-white-red ensign with the letters F II in the middle. 
Željko Heimer, 1 December 2001


Merchant Ensign, 1786

It is not clear what flag was prescribed for the merchant ensign. The various versions of the triband defaced with "FII" and "FIII" initials may have been in use (if they are not inventions of the flag drawers for the period?)

The story on what was used as state ensign, i.e. as flags used by ships and boats belonging to various state services on seas, like customs and finance service, is a complex and interesting one, covered in many details by Baumgartner, 1979 report on the 8th ICV in Vienna [Baumgartner, 1979]. Here follows just a hint...

While the first half of the 19th century was dynamic on the Adriatic, with the Napoleonic wars, the presence of France and Britain maintaining the maritime blockade, and the fall of Venice, the naval flags of Austria were not changed a bit until well unto the end of the century. The ideas to differentiate the naval ensign from the merchant one were present since the introduction of the red-white-red flag, but agreement on the design was not reached. Lehnert and Baumgartner note a number of proposals considered on the highest levels in 1805 and 1819, however no decision was made until 1869 when the joined Austrian-Hungarian merchant ensign was introduced. The triband was then prescribed exclusively as the naval ensign. However, the state services (maritime and finance administration) continued to use the triband ensign without heed for its exclusivity and it was only around the end of the 19th century that the use for naval ships only was enforced. [Baumgartner, 1979]
Željko Heimer, 29 September 2007


Merchant Ensign, 1786-1869

[Austria-Hungary War Ensign] 2:3   by Željko Heimer, 22 September 1996

Red-white-red with shield in the first third of the white stripe golden bounded and crowned in red stripe above. Adopted as Merchant Ensign: 20th March 1786, effective 20 March 1786, modified in 1869.  Also used as war ensign 1880 until abandoned, 10th October 1915.
Željko Heimer, 22 September 1996, Norman Martin, 2 December 2001

Up to the end of Austria-Hungary there was no concept of the "national flag" as we know it today. The closest thing to the modern flag was the civil merchant ensign, used on the ships.
Željko Heimer, 20 September 2007

By the beginning of the 19th century there was already a strong tendency to differentiate the warships from merchant ships (as it was usual from much earlier), but the introduction of the Josephine triband flag in 1786 made all the ensigns of Austrian Empire equal. The first official method of differentiation was made by 1804 when the merchant ships were forbidden to fly the masthead pennant (retaining the same ensign as the warships). In 1805 and 1819 proposal designs were considered in the highest offices of the Empire, but nothing was decided. In fact, it was not until the dualization of the Monarchy and introduction of the dual Austrian-Hungarian flag that the matter was resolved. However, the 19th century flag charts and books show a palette of designs of ensign allegedly used by Austrian merchant ships. How much we can trust them and how much they are inventions of the flag chart designers, it is not easy to know - I would not quite dismiss the possibility that some chart makers would invent a missing design (not an unusual practice; and it is known to happen even today!) - however, it would not be quite unusual, I think, that the merchant captains were ordering (and flag manufacturers were making) flags that more or less differed from the prescribed design. Even more so, since the differences were apparently, mostly, referring to the ruling Emperor. (I would not entirely dismiss that there were some regulations in this regard, but I am not aware of them.)

The merchant ensigns found in the flag charts of 19th century are as a rule the usual Austrian red-white-red tribands defaced in two basic patterns:
- the prescribed Austrian coat of arms (crowned triband shield) - more or less simplified in design - defaced with the initials of the ruling Emperor
- only the initials of the ruling Emperor set in the middle of the white stripe (or off-set to hoist), as a rule being golden letters.

The ruling Emperors in the period in questions were:
Joseph II 1765-1790 (whose initials were probably not used in this manner)
Leopold II 1790-1792 initials L.II. might have been in use, although I do not remember seeing them in flag charts in this manner (the short reign helps to this)
Francis II, 1792-1806, as Francis I of Austria 1804-1835, initials F.I. (although F.II. might be considered...)
Ferdinand I, 1835-1848, initials, again F.I.
Francis Joseph I, 1848-1916, initials F.J.I. (for the matter in question, until flag change in 1869)

So, we have mostly to consider initials FI and FII with or without dots and different arrangement of spacing. The J of FJI might have been made as the modern J, or might have been straight as the classical I, making the Franz Joseph's initials also FI and FII... All these variations up to the captain ordering the flag and the flag maker making it, probably.

I prepared drawing of four variants from around 1860s, adding the source after the drawing name here:

[Austria Merchant Ensign] image by Željko Heimer, 12 October 2007

Deppermann, Ruschke: "Flaggen-Almanach. Gesammelt, lithographirt, gedruckt und herausgegeben im Lithogr. Institut von Deppermann & Ruschke", Hamburg, 1844 pl. 22

[Austria Merchant Ensign] image by Željko Heimer, 12 October 2007

Steenbergen (ed.): "Vlaggen van alle NatiŽn / Pavillons de toutes les Nations / Flags of all Nations", Weytingh & Brave, Amsterdam, 1862 pl. 8

[Austria Merchant Ensign] image by Željko Heimer, 12 October 2007

Steenbergen (ed.): "Vlaggen van alle NatiŽn / Pavillons de toutes les Nations / Flags of all Nations", Weytingh & Brave, Amsterdam, 1862 pl. 8

[Austria Merchant Ensign] image by Željko Heimer, 12 October 2007

"Maritime Flags of All Nations" flag chart, around 1870's?

There are, no doubt more variations that might be reported.
Željko Heimer, 12 October 2007