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A BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO FLAGS
When a new land was discovered, a flag was planted to claim
that land. When Mt. Everest was climbed, a flag was staked on top of the mountain to show
that man could conquer anything and then when he landed on the moon, he again planted a
flag in one of the greatest symbolic acts of all time, witnessed by the whole world.
Symbols have been used throughout time and by many cultures
to assist in identification and communication. Leaders of ancient tribes for example, set
themselves apart by wearing decorated head-dresses, ceremonial robes and by carrying
decorated staffs or spears bearing the symbols of the leader or tribe. Members of the
tribe rallied around the chosen symbols, distinguishing themselves from others. Decorated
staffs led men into battle, uniting them and communicating strength and a common purpose.
The staffs may have been decorated with a tiger's tail, a carved animal, precious metals,
gemstones or other items considered valuable or symbolic by the culture. These staffs were
the first vexilloids, from the Latin word for flag, vexillum.
Flags developed as man began to attach various materials to
the staffs. The materials used included leather, silk, and feathers of exotic birds used
by the Mayan culture. As lengths of fabric were developed, it became the favoured medium
and as the use of fabric became widespread, man chose it over other media to carry the
symbolism of the civilisation. Importance continued to be attached to the staff and it
continued to be decorated and highly visible in many cultures, but the attached fabric
assumed greater importance as a means of identification and communication. Significance
was attached, and is still attached, to various colours and images used on flags, but it
must be understood that the significance varies from one culture to another. For example,
red might indicate the blood of the people, the rich red soil, courage and bravery or
other features considered worthy of representation.
Throughout time, different civilisations used flags and flag staffs
different purposes. For example, among other uses, the Romans used flags to mark the ranks
of garrisons, communicating this clearly through the highly visible means of flags. They
also used them in a display of force and strength to intimidate the enemy. They flew their
flags from highly decorated staffs, some of which had intricate heads punctured with holes
so that the wind made an eerie sound as it whistled through them. This scary sound could
greatly unnerve the enemy.
When English soldiers went to fight the Crusades under King Richard, they
carried flags to show their allegiance and their homeland. Many noblemen went into battle
carrying flags displaying their Coats of Arms. The use of heraldic flags became
Flags have also been used over time to display strongly held beliefs. Gold
miners at Ballarat in Australia raised the Eureka flag as a symbol of their rebellion
against licence fees in 1854. They bravely fought government soldiers in a bloody battle
at the Eureka Stockade, the Eureka flag uniting them. In Australia today, the flag is
still unofficially displayed as a symbol against oppression and conveys the right of
individuals to have freedom of expression. In addition, flags have been used as a means of
propaganda. A powerful example of this was the use of the Swastika on flags and banners
throughout Germany during the Second World War. The symbol, widely exposed, suggested
solidarity, a common purpose for all German people and a perception that their strength
could not be conquered.
The use of flags as National Flags is a relatively new concept, not developed
until the 18th Century. In most countries the acceptance of a national flag was very slow,
government recognition generally coming long after the flag was accepted into the hearts
of the people. Today we readily identify a country with and by its flag. It expresses the
unity and identity of one nation as against all others, communicating clearly to all
people through its distinctive symbolism. The use of flags to represent nationhood is by
far today the predominant use, but we have also developed flags to suit many other
purposes. We continue the historical representation of states, provinces and cities, but
commercial and sporting representation on flags has become very popular. Among these we
see corporate logo flags, club flags for sports clubs and other leisure based pursuits,
and the increasingly popular generic commercial flags. The websites flags2000.com,
flags2000.com.au and flags2000.co.uk amply demonstrate such flags.
The study of flags, vexillology, is a fascinating one. It is hoped that this
brief introduction will encourage you to explore further. You won't be disappointed.
We are very grateful to personnel from many consulates
who responded with information in reference to their national symbols.
We are also grateful for the assistance received
from vexillologists and collectors of flags from around the World.
1999 Flags 2000 Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.