The Arizona Chronicles, Part 1

Steering the boat!

On a recent trip to Arizona with my sister, I had the chance to get over to San Diego for the first time. One of the very first things we did when we got there was to check out the famous boats in San Diego’s harbor. If you have not already been to see the San Diego Maritime Museum’s collection of boats, let me be the first to tell you: WOW. These are some big, impressive ships. The two largest ships are the Star of India, the oldest ship that still sails, and the HMS Surprise. The HMS Surprise is the actual ship that was used in the filming of the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and is a replica of the Royal Navy frigate Rose from the 18th century. Naturally, my first instinct was to think about the impressive history…of nautical flags!

The HMS Surprise flies the British Red Ensign flag at the stern (back) of the ship. The British Red Ensign flag, also called the “Red Duster”, first originated in the beginning of the 17th century with the Royal Navy, but was later used to identify British merchants. A British Ensign flag is a flag used to designate that a ship is British, and whether it is a military boat or a civilian boat. In 1674, Charles II declared that the red ensign flag was the flag that should be used by merchantmen to identify themselves and their ships. At this time, the Royal Navy was still heavily using the Red Ensign flag to identify warships of the Red Squadron, and those under independent command. In 1864, the Royal Navy decided that the use of three separate colors, including the Red Ensign flag, was too confusing and that there should be a distinction between warships and merchantmen. As a result, they decreed that the White Ensign flag would be indicative of ships in the Royal Navy service, the Blue Ensign flag would be used for ships in government service and those commanded by officers, and the Red Ensign flag would be used exclusively for merchants. The blue flag later expanded to include ships serving the British colonies and those who have obtained an admirality warrant.

The Red Ensign flag underwent a number of versions in its early life, four to be exact. Prior to 1707, two versions of the British Red Ensign flag existed: a version used by Scottish ships with a Saltire in the canton, and an English version with St. George’s cross in the canton. In 1707, under Queen Anne, a new version combining the two designs was established. The year of 1801 heralded the fourth and final version of the flag, with the Irish St. Patrick’s cross added to the design in the canton. The Ensign flag has continued to be widely used to this day, and many flags exist in blue or red, indicating various departments of the Royal Navy or at times, colonial governments. The Ensign flag was also the basis of the modern flag of many ex-colonies and territories of the British government, such as Australia and Bermuda.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip and it has inspired a lot of food for thought. I hope you have enjoyed learning about these flags as much as I enjoyed researching them!