Artifact Profile No. 5: Red Ensign

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Thank you to Joy French-Coleman for donating this beautiful historic flag, the Red Ensign, to the Museum at our AGM on Thursday, November 14, 2019. This flag belonged to Joy’s parents, Gordon and Mary French, who once owned Victoria Manor.

The Red Ensign was officially endorsed by King Charles II in 1674; this authorization recognized it as the ensign of English merchant shipping. Later, during the Victorian era, the flag—with colonial badge—formed the basis as the Colony of Newfoundland’s civil ensign. Old oil paintings show red ensigns flying from the topmasts of Grand Banks schooners. Nineteenth-century photographs show red ensigns flown at Moravian mission stations and Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts along the Labrador Coast.

Red Ensign (Newfoundland)

Red Ensign (Newfoundland). Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

In 1904, the British Parliament designated a civil ensign specifically for Newfoundland. The Red and Blue Ensigns with the Great Seal of Newfoundland in the fly were the British Dominion’s colony’s official flags from 1904 until 1931, after which the Union Jack was adopted as Newfoundland’s official national flag and the ensigns reserved for shipping and marine identification—the Red Ensign to be flown by merchant shipping while the blue was flown by governmental ships. Neither ensign was immediately formally adopted by the Newfoundland National Assembly, which sat at the Colonial Building in St. John’s, when Newfoundland became an independent Dominion of the British Empire in 1907. It was not until the Newfoundland National Flag Act of 1931 that the Newfoundland parliament officially adopted the Union Jack as the national flag of Newfoundland and re-affirmed the red and blue ensigns as official flags for marine identification. Between 1907 and 1931, however, the red ensign gained wide enough use, both at sea and on land by civilians and government alike, that it was considered to be the national flag.

The badge in the ensigns consists of Mercury, the god of commerce and merchandise, presenting to Britannia a fisherman who, in a kneeling attitude, is offering the harvest of all the sea. Above the device in a scroll are the Latin words ‘Terra Nova‘, and below the motto Hæc Tibi Dona Fero or “These gifts I bring thee.” The seal was redesigned by Adelaine Lane, niece of Governor Sir Cavendish Boyle.

 

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