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Zimbabwe: Southern Rhodesia (1923 - 1953)

Historical flag

Last modified: 2015-05-25 by bruce berry
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   image by Clay Moss, 18 Jun 2005

 image by Clay Moss, 18 Jun 2005

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Southern Rhodesia (1923 - 1953)

Southern Rhodesia became a self-governing colony with responsible Government in 1923, thereby relinquishing the British South Africa Company of its administrative responsibilities. What this meant was that there was a local parliament although some powers (notably relating to African political advancement) was retained by London.  The territory was ruled via the Dominions Office (and NOT the Colonial Office) although strictly speaking the country was not a Dominion (like Canada, Australia, South Africa etc.). This was a unique case.
Bruce Berry, 20 Nov 1995

According to Bruce Berry's excellent account, "Flying in the Winds of Change, in The Flag Bulletin No. 163, March-April 1995 [brr95], the status and usage of Southern Rhodesian flags from 1924-1937 was a bit of a mess, to say the least! But it appears that Southern Rhodesia, when it used the blue ensign at all, used the shield of the territory without the white ring behind it, unlike other colonies. (For reasons which I'll be outlining, Rhodesia was a constitutional anomaly; neither dominion nor true colony). The two contemporary images I have are flatly contradictory - one dated 1940 implies the circle, the other (c1937) doesn't.
Stuart Notholt, 11 Feb 1996

This is true, there was confusion surrounding the flag of Southern Rhodesia after the adoption of Responsible Government in 1923. When the organiser of the British Empire exhibition wrote to the Rhodesian High Commission in London in May 1925, on the question of the flag for the colony, this caused some consternation. The High Commission did not know what flag to use; on the advice of the Colonial Office, it recommended that the Blue Ensign with arms (or flag badge) in the fly be used, adding that the Governor had indicated that the government had approved the shield only as the flag badge. In March 1928 the Rhodesian High Commission wrote to the Colonial Office in Salisbury asking what the flag of the colony was, adding that they used the "Blue and Red ensigns with the Arms of the Colony in a circle" at the HC in London and at some exhibitions.

The reply a month later stated that the Union Jack was the flag of Southern Rhodesia and that the use of the flag badge on the Union Jack or of both the Red and Blue Ensigns "would not be in order for the purpose mentioned in your letter". Between 1933 and 1934 correspondence between London and Salisbury described the colony's flag as being the Union Jack with the colony's badge in the centre of the fly, while another letter noted that no official authority had been given for the use of such a flag, normally reserved for use at sea. In brief, there was no official flag for Southern Rhodesian during this period.

The impending coronation of King George VI in 1937 brought matters to a head as the Rhodesian prime minister wanted a flag to represent the colony at the coronation. Through correspondence with the High Commission and the Dominions Office, it emerged that the most appropriate flag would be a Blue Ensign with the badge of Southern Rhodesia emblazoned in the fly, although the High Commissioner was of the opinion that the Union Jack remained the official flag of the colony and that the new flag had been adopted only for use outside the colony only. Thus the flag for Southern Rhodesia was finally established as being a Blue Ensign with the colonial shield in the fly. The Union Jack nevertheless continued to be flown INSIDE the colony, alongside subsequent Rhodesian flags, until 11 November 1968.

Not only the basic form of the colonial flag, but its exact details were confused in the era of its use. The Admiralty amended the 1915 edition of its Flags of All Nations by issuing, as part of Errata 8, a coloured sheet dated May 1926 which showed the flag badge as having the full achievement of the Southern Rhodesia arms. In April 1927 a correction was made, clearly establishing that the shield only was the appropriate flag badge. In both sheets the text indicated that this emblem appeared on a white disc when on the Union Jack, but WITHOUT a disk on the Blue Ensign. Nevertheless a Rhodesian Government publication illustrated the ensign with a disc behind the shield.

Various sources refer to a Southern Rhodesian Red Ensign bearing the shield (without disc), although Southern Rhodesia's lack of a coastline suggests that such a flag would have been unnecessary even if - as appears not to have been the case - it had official sanction. Red Ensigns were displayed during the 1947 Royal Visit and the local Salisbury newspaper commented, "This is a variety which we have not met previously and which appear to owe its origin neither to official sanction nor custom, but to an enterprising manufacturer's idea of what our flag should be".

The issue of a flag for Southern Rhodesia was resolved once the territory became part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and a new flag adopted on 7 September 1953.

So in short - dark blue Southern Rhodesia Ensigns are known to have had the colony's shield both on a white disc and without the disc as illustrated above. Official proportions would have followed the British pattern of 1:2.
Bruce Berry, 16 Feb 1998

Southern Rhodesia - unofficial Red Ensign variant

  image by Clay Moss, 18 Jun 2005

  image by Clay Moss, 18 Jun 2005

I have in my collection a flag with the arms in white circle. In articles on the subject of Rhodesian flags by Michael Faul and Bruce Berry, and in Richard Allport's book on the subject recently published as the SAVA Journal [aLL96], it is stated that, while officially there should have been no white circle, in fact there were versions in existence both with and without the circle. My flag was made by Annin & Co., and measures 4x6 feet (2:3 proportions). It is marked on the heading "Rhodesia".

I have a vague recollection that at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the Rhodesians were allowed to compete, but under the old colonial flag, rather than their green and white national flag. Could these flags have been made up with the white circle? That would explain the marking 'Rhodesia' rather than 'Southern Rhodesia' on my flag.
Devereaux Cannon, 15 February 1998

The printers, who published the Admiralty Flag Book and its amendments, appear to have been unsure of the correct badge for the defaced Union Flag and Blue Ensign that were authorised for Southern Rhodesia in the mid-1920s. A 1925 amendment to the 1916 edition of the Admiralty Flag Book included a new page for Southern Rhodesia. The badge illustrated was the shield from the Arms of 11th August 1924, with a note that the white circle, on which it was drawn, was to appear on the Union Flag, but not on the Blue Ensign. The authority was N.L.1655/25, which I think is the reference number of the letter from Naval Law authorising the amendment for distribution. A May 1926 amendment, which was in a slightly different format to all the other amendments, changed the badge for the flags from the shield, to the complete Coat of Arms. Another amendment dated April 1927 changed the badge back to just the shield, quoting the original authority N.L.1655/25.
David Prothero, 18 June 1999

As Southern Rhodesia was landlocked, and as flags of convenience for merchant vessels were scarcely known during the days of its existence, on what occasion was the SR Red Ensign actually flown?
Ron Lahav, 20 Mar 2005

Southern Rhodesia was indeed landlocked and the red ensign was an anomaly. A number were made erroneously (and displayed) for the Royal Victory tour in 1947. I have one in my collection and there are a number in the National Archives in Harare. The local Salisbury newspaper commented at the time, "This is a variety which we have not met previously and which appears to owe its origin neither to official sanction nor custom, but to an enterprising manufacturer's idea of what our flag should be". 

In  A Manual of Flags by V. Wheeler-Holohan (1933) confirms that the red ensign was unofficial by stating (p. 85) , "though not laid down, the red ensign is also to be seen bearing the arms."  The confusion over whether to place the shield on the disc is highlighted later in Flags of the World (1939) by the same author, where the Southern Rhodesian red ensign is illustrated without the disc.  Brownell in The Union Jack over Southern and Central Africa, 1795-1994 [brl94] indicates that in the 1953 edition of Flags of the World, H. Gresham Carr also confirms the existence of a Southern Rhodesian red ensigns, illustrating on Plate VIII  the flag of Southern Rhodesia as being the red ensign with badge (without disc) stating that on the Blue ensign the circle is used but not on the red ensign version.

So as with the dark blue ensign, there were variants with the shield on a white disc as well as without the disc, although the latter appears to have been more common in the red ensign version!
Bruce Berry, 22 Mar 2005

Overview of the Flags of Southern Rhodesia / Rhodesia / Zimbabwe-Rhodesia / Zimbabwe

1890 - 1923                British South African Company (BSAC) flag
1923 - 1968                British Union flag (alongside various colonial flags)
1923 - 1953                Southern Rhodesia dark blue ensign (two variants - with and without white disc in fly)
1953 - 1963                Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland ensign (alongside British Union Flag)
1964 - 1968                Southern Rhodesian light blue ensign (alongside British Union Flag)
1968 - 1979                Rhodesian flag
Jun - Dec1979             Zimbabwe-Rhodesia flag (de facto until Dec 1979; de jure until Apr 1980)
Dec 1979 - Apr 1980  British Union flag (de facto although Zimbabwe Rhodesia flag in common use)
18 Apr 1980 to date    Zimbabwe flag
Stuart Notholt, 16 Mar 1996