Last modified: 2017-12-17 by rob raeside
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Until about 1630 when the red, blue and white ensigns were introduced, nearly all English ships are thought to have flown striped ensigns with a St George's cross canton. It is unlikely that the East India Company used striped ensigns before 1660, and possibly not until 1673. The ensigns usually had nine, eleven or thirteen red and white stripes, with a small canton of St George's cross until c1707, a 1606 Union canton from c1707 until 1801, and an 1801 Union from then until 1830, when they were replaced by Red Ensigns. After 1801 some ensigns had a central vertical red stripe.
by Phil Nelson
Jacks had nine stripes with no canton and continued to be used until 1863 by the Bombay Marine and 1877 by the Bengal Marine. As a signal flag it was still in use in 1895, when P. Downes referred to an 'Old Indian Navy Jack which will appear in every hoist except single flag signals and the numerical signal' in his Code of Signals for Use in Connection with Lighthouses and Light-Vessels on the Burma Coast.
Sources: C.R. Low, History of the Indian Navy and A. Rowand, Naval and Maritime Flags of British India.
David Prothero, 30 August 1999
Image by Phil Nelson
When the proclamation of 1674 authorized the red ensign for English merchant ships, the Honourable East India Company was restricted in 1676 to using their ensigns in eastern waters, and beyond St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean. Wilson in Flags at Sea (1999) shows several ensigns of the Honourable East India Company with proportions that are roughly 3:5 and varying numbers of stripes. The first of these is the East India Company ensign until 1707. This is a thirteen-stripe version with the St George's Cross in the canton.
The top image is similar to the illustration in B. Lens's chart A Good View of the Flags which most Nations bear at Sea of 1700, but the one in Lens has eleven stripes, as shown below.
Image by Phil Nelson
Wilson also shows an image from an English signal book, dated 1711, that has nine stripes with a St George's Cross in the Canton. The colours of the stripes are reversed from the image by António Martins shown above.
Image by Phil Nelson
From 1707 to approximately 1800, Wilson shows the Honourable East India Company ensign with the British Union flag.
Image by Phil Nelson
This in turn was replaced around 1801 with the newer Union flag.
image by Kim Rowden, 6 November 2016
Wilson shows an image from a black and white flag plate in Rees's Cyclopedia (1820). It is similar to the thirteen-stripe version shown above, except that the colours of the stripes are reversed. The proportions of the drawing are approximate.
image by Kim Rowden, 6 November 2016
Another variant is shown in the Laurie chart in Wilson. This is an Honourable East India Company nine-stripe ensign with a Union Flag in the canton.
image by Kim Rowden, 6 November 2016
I was concerned that the countercharge, etc., didn't meet the red stripe and about the overlap, but in looking at Laurie's chart, this feature seems to be replicated there as well.
Phil Nelson, 24 and 25 January 2000
I think that you can't go wrong with East India Company flags, as long as there are horizontal red and white stripes. They seem to have made them up as they went along. Nine, ten, eleven or thirteen stripes; cantons of varying size, some sitting on stripes and some cutting through stripes. One variation is shown in a painting of the East India Company's Yard at Deptford, c.1660 with ensigns that have, one red stripe at the top of the fly, one lined up with the arm of the St George's Cross, and four red and three white stripes below the canton.
After 1801 some jacks and ensigns had a vertical red stripe, slightly wider than the horizontal stripes, in the centre of the flag. On others the central horizontal red stripe of seven was widened to match the vertical stripe. In one example the Union Jack canton occupies the whole of the first quarter of the ensign, cutting into the surrounding
There's a lot of information in Naval and Maritime Flags of British India from 1600 by Captain A. Rowand, Royal Indian Marine. The original 1909 typescript, which used to be in the Records Department of the India Office, is probably now in the British Library. There is a type-written, hand-painted, 1935 copy, in the Library of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
David Prothero, 27 January 2000
"When the proclamation of 1674 authorized the red ensign for English merchant ships, the Honourable East India Company was restricted in 1676 to using their ensigns in eastern waters, and beyond St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean."
This is somewhat misleading, as it implies that the East India Company had the right to sail under their own flag, and that this right was being restricted. They had no such right, and being allowed to wear their own flag in certain areas was a concession, arranged, as far as I know, without the warrant, that was required by the Royal Proclamation of 18 September 1674:
"And His Majesty doth hereby further Command all His Loving Subjects, that without such Warrant as aforesaid, they presume not to wear on board their Ships or Vessels any Jacks made in imitation of His Majesties; or any other Flags, Jacks or Ensigns whatsoever, than those usually heretofore worn on Merchant Ships, viz: The Flag and Jack White, with a Red Cross (commonly called St George's Cross) passing quite through the same; and the Ensign Red, with the like Cross in a Canton White, at the upper corner thereof next to the Staff."That the Company were not fully complying with this proclamation was apparently ignored until 1676, when, as Wilson puts it in 'Flags at Sea', "...the ever-busy Pepys took issue with the continued use on the Company's ships of the striped ensign ..." Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty, was a personal friend of Sir John Banks, a Kent businessman, who was Governor of the East India Company, and it appears that the concession to allow, in certain areas, use of the Company Flag instead of the English flags, may have been an arrangement between Pepys and Banks.
Pepys was apparently under some pressure from officers of the Royal Navy over this issue, and he wrote to Sir John in December of 1676 which I quote from Perrin P.313: "...but forasmuch as it cannot be thought fit for me to remain under constant accountably for any behaviour of his Majesty's officers different from his pleasure signified by a proclamation, I desire that you will take an opportunity of mentioning this thing to my honoured friends of the Company, to the end that (in case their service be indeed concerned in the continuance of this their usage) they may
take some way of making their desires known to his Majesty...etc., etc."
Like David, as far as I am aware no such application was made nor required Warrant issued, but the fact remains that ships of the Honourable East India Company continued to fly the striped ensign despite its being illegal for them to do so.
Christopher Southworth, 18 August 2004
Image by Blas Delgado Ortiz
"The Company's Jack was used as a Jack by the Company's regular traders, and by vessels of the Bombay Marine sometime prior to 1828, although the latter service appears to have frequently worn the Union Jack prior to 1828, it
was never used as a Jack by the Indian Navy, but was flown at the peak to denote a court martial sitting, and was also used in conjunction with, but superior to, signal flags showing the name of the vessel in the list of the Indian Navy. It was of course used on dressing ship etc, and also as a Jack by the pattimars-of-war commanded by natives."
Source: Naval and Maritime Flags of British India, written in about 1909, by Captain A. Rowand, Royal Indian Marine.
David Prothero, 26 June 2002
image by Pete Loeser and Željko Heimer[Editorial Comment: Gridiron (no relationship to American Football) is a term, now obsolete, for the red and white striped flag of the Honourable East India Company. Although this particular version of Gridiron ensign seems to have existed, some of its design details remain unclear. There are also no indications that it was ever used as a war flag (as reported elsewhere); but it was possibly used as a jack by armed vessels of the HEIC in India between c1824-1864.]
The latest issue of Flagmaster has a short article about the flags of the British East India Company. One of the illustrations shows the EIC flag with the post-1800 union and the St. George's cross on top of the stripes. The text says that the St. George's cross version was adopted about 1801 when the Company established its force of armed cruisers, and was discontinued in 1824. Perrin (p. 131, fn 3) says that this flag was
introduced "about 1820," and that it was not used as an ensign after 1824, although it was still used as a jack or signal flag. He does not indicate that it was used only by the armed vessels.
The EIC's "Marine" (maritime armed force) was actually established in the early 17th century, and was known variously as the "Company Marine," and the "Bombay Marine." In 1830, it was renamed the "Navy of India" and partially integrated into the Royal Navy. Sutton's "Lords of the East" states that at this time the Navy of India was granted the privilege of flying "the union jack." A painting of the East Indiaman "Waterloo," that appears on the cover of Sutton's book shows the vessel flying an EIC ensign with the St. George's cross. The "Waterloo" was not part of the Marine, and was in service between 1816 and 1832. (BTW, her ensign is shown with 21 stripes, including the horizontal bar of the cross). A color plate in the same book shows an unnamed East Indiaman at anchor in St. Helena, flying the same flag. The ships of the EIC Marine did not generally operate in the South Atlantic; they were based in Surat or Bombay and operated on the Indian west coast and adjacent seas.
The bottom line is that there seems to be some puzzlement about whether the St. Georges cross version of the EIC flag was used only by the Marine, or whether it was also flown by Company merchant ships. Also, did the discontinuance of the Company ensign in 1824 apply to the Marine, soon to become the Navy of India?
Peter Ansoff, 24 June 2007
Information about this is conflicting, and it seems that it was probably used by the Bombay Marine, and by other Company vessels, both before and after 1801. The unnamed East Indiaman at anchor in St. Helena in the colour plate in Sutton's book that you refer to is flying an ensign with the overall St George's cross and a pre-1801 canton.
Concerning the discontinuance of the Company ensign in 1824, it did apply to the Bombay Marine but was apparently ignored by the Bengal Marine. When the Bombay Marine were granted the privilege of wearing the Union Jack it was stated to be in addition to the Red Ensign. On 12 June 1827 the Duke of Clarence, Lord High Admiral, issued a Warrant granting, "the privilege of wearing, in addition to the Red Ensign, which all ships belonging to His Majesty's subjects should legally wear, the Union Jack and a long Pendant having St George's Cross on a white field in the upper part next the mast with a red fly. I do therefore, by virtue of the power invested in me hereby warrant and authorise the Union Jack and Pendant above described being worn on board all ships of the Bombay Marine accordingly." However, according to R.F.Barlow, a Hooghly River Pilot writing in 1896, the Bengal Marine flew the Company Jack, and a striped Ensign that had an overall St George's cross with three red and three white stripes in quarters two, three and four until 1861.
David Prothero, 26 June 2007
An illustration in Perrin (Sheet X, No. 11) exactly mirrors this drawing, however, during some recent research (on rank flags of the RN) Martin Grieve and I have found that the illustrations in Perrin were sometimes incorrect (or incorrectly labelled), and whilst this flag is listed as being that of the East India Company in 1822, there is nothing in the text to explain it and I am not inclined to trust it without reservation.
Christopher Southworth, 16 May 2013
A drawing of this ensign is in "Naval and Maritime Flags of British India from 1600", a 1909 typescript by Captain A.Rowand, D.S.O., Royal Indian Marine. There are also two other drawings of the same flag. He presumes that only one is correct, but does not know which it is.
Whampoa in China c1835
Although the Committee of Shipping suggested in 1824 that, "the Company’s Colours can used as a jack or signal flag", is there any evidence that the ensign was ever used as a jack? A print of the a painting of the "Waterloo" at Whampoa was published in 1835, but the "Waterloo" ceased to be employed in the China trade in 1832. Theoretically the picture should have been painted before 1824.
David Prothero, 17 May 2013
A touch of caution here, it is entirely possible that the picture was painted before 1824 as David says (when the ensign was still in use as such), or that the ensign itself was not used as a jack in the years before the Indian Mutiny?
Christopher Southworth, 17 May 201
The number of stripes on the EIC flag seems to have varied, but 13 was the most common. Apparently the number had no symbolic significance. Does anyone have any thoughts on why it was 13? Could it have had something to do with the
standard dimensions of British ensigns, and the width of the bunting that the stripes were made from?
Peter Ansoff, 16 August 2007
It is known that in 1687 naval flags were made from fabric 22 inches wide and that the standard proportion of 'colours' was 11:18. I don't think that leads anywhere. Perhaps more significant is that in some illustrations of pre-1707 EIC ensigns the stripes are the same width as the arms of the cross of St George in the canton. The arms of the cross are about 1/6th or 1/7th the width of the canton. There are thus either six or seven stripes in the upper fly. If the width of the canton is about half the width of the ensign, and the top and bottom stripes are to be of the same colour, there must then be either seven or six stripes in the lower hoist/fly, giving thirteen stripes in total.
David Prothero, 19 August 2007
Image by Martin Grieve
This East India Company 19th century masthead flag is from a black and white reproduction of a painting in the Science Museum of the East Indiaman "Earl Balcarras", which did nine voyages to China between 1815 and 1831. The colours are deduced from the corresponding shades of grey in the Red Ensign. My guess is that it is the flag of the Commodore of the Company's commercial fleet ?
David Prothero, 24 May 2005
I have two books, The Honourable Company: the East India Company by Brian Gardner (Dorset Press, 1971), and The Honourable Company: a History of the English East India Company by John Keay (Macmillan, 1991). Both feature the arms of the East India Company, which I'll attempt to describe. A white shield with a red St George's cross with a small shield with something I can't make out in the upper left quadrant. A rampant lion on either side as supporters, holding a flag pole with the Union Jack flying behind. Above the shield, a rampant lion holding a crown. The motto is Auspicio Regis et Senatus Angliae (by command of the king and parliament of England).
Dipesh Navsaria, 18 November 1995
The undescribed device in the canton is actually the royal arms of England, as introduced by Henry IV and used until the accession of James I. More about the arms of the company here:
The banner of arms seems to have been used as well. It is depicted on the painting "Shah 'Alam Conveying the Grant of the Diwani to Lord Clive, August 1765", which Benjamin West (1738-1820), American-born British painter, painted c. 1818. The painting depicts a historical event, the Mughal Emperor's grant to the company of the right to collect revenue in Bengal on his behalf. The company banner of arms is painted together with the Red Ensign. The photos of the painting can be seen here:
http://www.anselm.edu/academic/history/hdubrulle/BritEmp/2011/text/grading/food/fdwk04b.htm; (Image only)
http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00routesdata/1700_1799/companyrule/clive/clive.html; (Image only)
Tomislav Todorovic, 22 October 2012
This fictitious emblem for the British East India Company has enjoyed popular
usage, but is of modern invention perpetuated through use in such movies as
"Pirates of the Caribbean" and TV serials such as "Taboo". It is not historical
at all and was never actually used by the real British trading company. See
three entries in "Flags of Uncertain Veracity".
Pete Loeser, 30 October 2017
Inspired perhaps vaguely by the real VOC "logo" of the Dutch EIC. I think
logo-on-a-bed-sheet flags were quite rare in the 17th-18th centuries, and should
probably not be confused with royal monograms.
T.F. Mills, 30 October 2017