Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.


A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

The Flag of the Arab Revolt

An English Catholic contribution to Pan-Arabist vexillology

Though often overshadowed by the more theatrical T.E. Lawrence, Sir Mark Sykes (7th baronet) was still by all accounts a remarkable man. Educated by Jesuits in England, Monaco, and Belgium, young Sykes had instilled in him a cosmopolitan sense of adventure by travelling with his mother across the Middle East, Mesopotamia, India, and Asia throughout his childhood. It was during his travels in the provinces of the Ottoman empire that Sykes’s lifelong fascination with Islam began. By the time it was appropriate to go to university he found the atmosphere and formality of Cambridge stifling and left without taking a degree, but not without gaining a reputation for good humour with a special talent for mimicry.

At 25 Sykes wrote his first book, Dur-ul-Islam, which Kipling found so fascinating he couldn’t put it down until forced to by the necessity of sleep. After forays in the civil and diplomatic services, Sykes was elected to Parliament as the Unionist candidate in Kingston upon Hull. A romantic tory at heart, he disliked being labelled as conservative. “It is impossible to be a Conservative,” Sykes argued, “when there is nothing left to Conserve.”

When the Great War broke out in August 1914, Sykes recruited a batallion of men from his Yorkshire estates alone, but his unique insight into the Ottoman empire was put to good use in military intelligence. In May 1916 he was sent to negotiate the Anglo-Franco-Russian carving-up of Ottoman Asia with Charles Georges-Picot of the Quai d’Orsay.

The question of what the Turks’ Arab subjects themselves wanted only became a question the following month with the beginning of the Great Arab Revolt. This huge undertaking to wrest the Arab peoples from centuries of Turkish rule found a leader in the Sharif and Emir of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali of the Hashemite dynasty, but the uprising needed a symbol to rally round, and Sykes was the man for the job.

The flag of the Arab Revolt that Sir Mark Sykes designed was to be one of the most influential flags in the history of vexillology, launching the four pan-Arab colours into the world of flag design. Black represented the Abbasid dynasty, green for the Fatimids, and white for the Ummayad, all of which was united by a triangle of red for the Hashemites who hoped to rule Arabia.

Twelve modern states today employ designs descended from the flag Sykes designed. Among them is Jordan, now the only land ruled by the Hashemites – the Sauds kicked them out of Hejaz while the brutal slaughter of the 1958 coup deprived them of the Iraqi throne.

Jordan’s Red Sea port of Aqaba was made famous by its capture during the Great Arab Revolt – retold in David Lean’s 1962 film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – and it is there today that Sykes’s flag flies from one of the tallest flagpoles in the world.

July 28, 2016 10:50 am | Link | 1 Comment »

Flag of an African Slaver

Flag of an African Slaver
c. 1862-1866; hand-sewn cotton; 9 ft 2 in x 15 ft
National Maritime Museum
Greenwich, London

The simple image of an African, garments aflutter, on a plain background provides a strikingly modern design as the commercial emblem of a firm engaged in the trade in human misery.

This flag was captured by Commodore Arthur Eardley-Wilmot while on anti-slavery operations off West Africa and given to his friend William Henry Wylde who supervised anti-slave-trade efforts at the Foreign Office in Whitehall.

The eradication of the slave trade is arguably the greatest peacetime achievement of the Royal Navy as well as powerful proof that the supremacy of economics can be overcome and made subject to morality. This is not just a possibility, but a necessary precondition for any humane and civilised order in society.

February 10, 2016 8:45 am | Link | No Comments »

Two Flags Based on the French Tricolour

The French tricolour is one of the most influential flags in history, inspiring most prominently perhaps the Italian and Irish flags, but also dozens other, including the nationalist triband flags (like those of Germany, Russia, etc.). Indeed, the national flags of nearly sixty UN member states are based on these vertical or horizontal stripe combinations.

While long identified with revolution, republicanism, and nationalism, the French flag originally represented a combination of the blue and red of Paris — the colours of Saint Martin and Saint Denis — with the white of the French monarchy. Two (non-national) flags based directly on the French tricolour are those of the Acadians in North America and of Franschhoek in South Africa. (more…)

December 27, 2013 4:24 pm | Link | No Comments »

Flags, Northern Ireland, and the Union

Flags have been in the news of late, perhaps as a late hangover of the disruptive protests over Belfast City Council’s decision to fly the Union Jack from Belfast City Hall only on the United Kingdom’s designated flag-flying days. Ironically, this would have brought the Six Counties further in line with normal British practice, but disgruntled unionists viewed it as a diminution of “their” flag and a bit of a fracas ensued with the once-traditional death threats and intimidation returning.

The BBC raised the issue of how Scottish independence might affect the Union Jack. (Pedants only refer to the British flag as the “Union flag”, but the Flag Institute points out both terms are perfectly acceptable). Scottish independence would have no automatic effect on the flag whatsoever, but it has provoked a round of speculation over what changes, if any, should be made to the Union flag.

Then Richard Haass, the American diplomat charged with chairing the inter-party talks on unresolved issues in the Six Counties, waded into matters vexillological when he wrote to party leaders seeking their views on the possibility of a new flag for Northern Ireland. (more…)

December 12, 2013 11:10 am | Link | 3 Comments »

Danzig in Flag & Arms

The first time I met my friend Rafal, I noticed his necktie bedecked with a subtle heraldic pattern. “I gather you’re German,” says young Cusack, summoning his Sherlockian deductive genius. “What makes you say that?” “The coat of arms on your tie: it’s Danzig.” “Actually I am Polish, and it’s Gdańsk!”

Well, so much for my deductive powers, (and Rafal is a secret wannabe-German anyhow) but the arms and flag of the Baltic city — once German, now Polish — combine the usual strong characteristics of any design: simplicity and beauty. (more…)

April 26, 2013 2:30 pm | Link | 11 Comments »

Squabbles Over Szekler Flag

In Transylvania, a “flag war” has broken out between Romanian politicians and the representatives of the Hungarian-speaking Szekler people. As România Libera reports, no one is offended by flying the old Hapsburg flag over the fortress of Alba Iulia (De: Karlsburg, Hu: Gyulafehérvár), the Romanian government takes umbrage at the appearance of the blue-and-gold flag of the Szekler (or Székely) people who live primarily in three of Transylvania’s counties. (more…)

February 18, 2013 5:32 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

State Flags Considered

The famous Matthew Alderman provoked a disputation on Facebook the other day regarding amongst other things (jousting got a mention) the relative merits of U.S. state flags. I touched upon this subject previously in a post discussing the arms of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, when I noted the lamentable tradition in American state flags is for the state seal or emblem to be presented on a blue field. Overall, I have to admit that Maryland has the best flag of any U.S. state: it is heraldic, relatively simple, and overwhelmingly traditional. The Facebook commenting led to an all-out war of annihilation between a lasse of Virginia and one of Maryland on the relative merits of their respective state flags. Right as it is for Virginians to defend the great inheritance of their fair dominion, there is simply no contest here: Maryland’s flag is the overlord.

Just look at Virginia’s (above) state flag! A total yawn-fest, I’m afraid. State seal on blue — how original. It would be far better if they took their ancient coat of arms and followed Maryland’s example by using a banner of arms. In Virginia’s case that would mean a red Cross of St George with the crowned shields of Scotland and Ireland in two quarters and of the quartered French & English arms in the other two quarters. Very handsome.

I don’t really like many other state flags (my geboorteland of New York is no exception: once again a banner of its arms would be much more handsome). Of the few I do enjoy, California rakes highly. It has a certain panache, and the words ‘California Republic’ are a healthy reminder of wherein lies the sovereignty. And interestingly, if the Soviets ever take California (“You mean they haven’t?”) they wouldn’t have to change the flag at all, as it already has a red star.

New Mexico’s is admirably simple and different, but one does worry if it’s a bit too simple: the Zia sun symbol veers eerily close to being a corporate icon. The uber-trad proposal would be to replace it with the yellow-field Cross of Burgundy.

The flag of South Carolina also gets an honourable mention, with its comely combination of palmetto tree and crescent moon. Rendered in red and white instead of blue and white, it is the flag of the Citadel, South Carolina’s military college.

February 21, 2012 8:00 pm | Link | 16 Comments »

Le drapeau « Jacques Cartier »

To be filed under ‘Flags I Never Knew Existed’: the Québécois heraldist Maurice Brodeur designed a flag commemorating the French explorer Jacques Cartier, founder of Quebec and Canada. The banner was designed to hang as an ex-voto in the Memorial Basilica of Christ the King in Gaspé, conceived in the 1920’s as an offering of thanks for the four-hundredth anniversary of the claiming of Canada by Cartier. The Great Depression brought the project to a halt, and the church was finally finished in 1969 as a modernist cathedral in wood — the only wooden cathedral in Catholic North America.

Was the flag ever actually executed? I don’t know, but I doubt it.

December 4, 2011 7:00 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Canada’s Royal Standards

In anticipation of the recent visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Canada, the government of that dominion unveiled new Canadian personal flags for the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge. The British Empire started out as a group of states and colonies united in the British crown, but as the Empire evolved into the Commonwealth, dominions were gradually recognised as sovereign entities of their own. Thus when, for example, Elizabeth II visits, say, Vancouver, it is not the ‘Queen of England’ who is visiting but the Queen of Canada exercising her functions in her own country. (This is a point frequently lost upon ideological republicans). Even when Elizabeth remains in London she puts on different ‘hats’ for different occasions. The only time I ever saw the Queen was at a Service for Australia at Westminster Abbey, thus it was the Queen’s Personal Flag for Australia which flew from the tower of the Abbey, not the British Royal Standard. (more…)

September 8, 2011 8:25 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

The Namibian Way of Reconciliation

Accepting differences, not erasing them, is the path to civic harmony

DISCORDIA GERANT ALII, tu felix Namibia reconciliant! Peace and reconciliation are amongst the noblest of earthly aims, but the deluded establishment that rules most of what used to be called the Western world often seem convinced that peace among peoples can only be achieved by erasing the differences between them. Yet it is precisely those differences — the unique characteristics of tribe, clan, and platoon that separate us from some and unite us with others — that make us who we are: human beings, created by God in time and place and circumstance. Without them, we are rootless citizens of nowhere, easily abused and manipulated by the powerful. (How flimsy is even the thickest oak when its roots have been severed). It is the acknowledgement of differences, rather than the erasing of them, that leads to true respect and understanding between and among peoples. While the racial grievance industry thrives in America and Europe, an entirely different attitude exists in happy Namibia. (more…)

March 13, 2011 9:04 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

French Flag-Fiddling

As if you needed more reasons to despise Nicolas Sarkozy! Well, this one we can’t even blame on him. Shall I explain? The national flag of France is a tricolour of three equal vertical stripes of blue, white, and red. Excepting the heady days of the Bourbon restoration, this has consistently been the French flag for the past two centuries now. A little while into the Sarkozy presidency, however, I began noticing a change only in the French flag as displayed whenever the President gave a press conference. The white stripe was reduced in width by half and the space on either side given to the neighbouring colours. The obvious deduction made was that the President wanted all three colours of the national flag shown whenever there were close-up press photographs of himself, and research confirms that this is the case. This shows an awareness for visual representation, but is nonetheless a highly unusual assault on the official flag of a nation. (more…)

November 10, 2010 10:55 am | Link | 10 Comments »

Burma’s New Flag

Burma Colony (1937–1948)

State of Burma (1943–1945)

Union of Burma (1948–1974)

Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma (1974–1988) and Union of Myanmar (1988–2010)

The military government of Burma (officially ‘Myanmar’) unveiled a new flag for the southeast-Asian country last week. The new design (above) rejects the general form of Burmese national flags since the country was granted independence from Great Britain in 1948, but instead harkens back to the ‘State of Burma’, a puppet regime set up by the Japanese to integrate Burma into their ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’.

Somewhat paradoxically, the Minister of Defence in the puppet ‘State of Burma’ was General Aung Sang, the father of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, pro-democracy activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Aung Sang Suu Kyi is the most prominent leader of the opposition to the military junta that rules Burma, and has spent fourteen of the past twenty years either in jail or under house arrest.

The flag change is part of a transition period devised by the military junta in their attempt to reform the country into a managed democracy that will be less isolated from the rest of the world without threatening the junta’s grasp on power.

Burma became a British possession in 1824, and was made a province of the Empire of India in 1886. In 1937 the province was separated from India, excluding it from the reforms aimed at eventually granting dominion status to the sub-continent but also introducing important reforms for Burma, including an elected assembly with a prime minister. The country saw some of the heaviest fighting during the Second World War, but the forces of the Japanese puppet regime, the ‘State of Burma’ eventually saw the tide turning against the Empire of Japan and switched sides to join the British and Indian armies under Lord Mountbatten.

October 24, 2010 9:45 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

Olympic Teams of Yesteryear

The vanished lands and failed alliances of the Modern Olympiad

THE GAMES OF THE Modern Olympiad are events which are meant to bring the peoples of the world together in peace and harmony and all those good and heartening things, but from the very beginning they have gotten bogged down in the petty particularities of rival nations, which altogether makes them rather more fun and interesting, if perhaps a touch less high-minded. The story of the ancient gathering’s revival in 1896 through the efforts of Pierre Frédy, Baron de Coubertin is well-known. Athletes from at least fourteen countries participated in those first modern games in Athens over a century ago, though the concept of national teams was not introduced until the 1906 games (the Intercalated Games, which have since been de-recognised by the IOC). But since those first games towards the end of the nineteenth century, the fortunes of many lands have waxed and waned, and likewise the spirit of unity amongst various peoples vied with the spirit of distinctiveness. Here, then, are but a small sample of Olympic teams which once vied for gold but which can no longer be found among the Olympic competitors of today. (more…)

August 30, 2010 4:00 pm | Link | 3 Comments »


Written and illustrated by Andrew Cusack (at 7 years of age)

Were I to review this book, I would say it is riddled with inaccuracies and depicts a stereotypical Hollywood version of Scotland far-removed from reality. But then, it was written in 1991 by a seven-year-old (yours truly), which is already eighteen years ago now. The ultimate schoolboy error is that I was apparently incapable at age 7 of producing a vexillologically accurate reproduction of the Saltire. My incorrect version of the Scottish appears like the old Greek flag, a white cross extended across a blue field. (See the correct flag here). (more…)

January 17, 2010 4:07 pm | Link | 21 Comments »

The Coat of Arms of Massachusetts

Massachusetts is all over the news of late as the northerly state holds a special election to fill the seat left empty by the death of the notorious Senator Edward Kennedy. The Democratic Party outnumbers Republicans by three to one in the land, but their candidate is fighting tooth-and-nail against the G.O.P. challenger. Crucially, half of Bay State voters are independents, and the Republican candidate is polling well among floating voters. But, of course, the pedantry of politics does not normally fall under the purview of this little corner of the web. Rather, let us consider the heraldic achievement of the Bay State. The most handsome and successful arms are marked by their simplicity. (For a host of excellent examples, consult the roll of Sweden’s provincial and town arms). The heraldry of the American states can tend toward the over-complicated, but the coat of arms of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a noble exception.

The central motif of the Indian with bow and arrow has appeared almost consistently from the beginning. A native appears in the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in which the appeal “Come over and help us” pours from his lips. The arms of the neighboring Plymouth Plantation likewise depicted a native, in Plymouth’s case quartered between the arms of a Cross of St. George. Disregarding the earlier attempt to form the Dominion of New England, the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Plymouth Colony were finally united in the Province of Massachusetts in 1691, and received a seal depicting the English royal arms.

Late in 1774, revolutionaries established the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to subvert legitimate authority in the province, subversion which erupted into open warfare in April of the following year. The rebels created their own emblem depicting an English colonist instead of an Indian, now armed with a sword and a copy of Magna Carta. The motto Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem (“By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty”) was chosen, a quote attributed to the English republican Algernon Sydney.

In 1780, the rebel provisional government adopted a new device created by Nathan Cushing. The Cushing design resurrected the Indian, and added a single star symbolizing the province’s statehood to accompany the native. Paul Revere engraved the design, the original impressions of which are preserved in the Archives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. (more…)

January 13, 2010 9:44 pm | Link | 7 Comments »

La Bandiera dell’Io Amo L’Italia

In most countries, the voter of sound mind and disposition is hard pressed to find a political party worthy of his vote. One of the charming aspects of Italy is that the inverse is true: there are usually at least half-a-dozen political parties worth voting for, sound in policies and public morals, though the more recent trend has been towards amalgamation. It nonetheless often seems that every Italian of public stature has, at some time or another, founded his own political party.

Readers will no doubt recall the Holy Father’s rather brave baptism of the Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam during the Easter Vigil of 2008. Signore Allam has proven his Italicity by following the peninsular trend of founding one’s own political party. Founded as Protagonisti per l’Europa Cristiana (Protagonists for Christian Europe), Allam’s party is now known as Io Amo L’Italia (I Love Italy). The party has had an early success in that its founder was elected to the European Parliament in the most recent elections, and he caucuses with the Christian-democratic Unione di Centro in the continental assembly.

Anyhow, the relevance for us is that Magdi Cristiano Allam’s political party has adopted a “baptized” tricolore of its own: the green-white-red tricolour defaced (as is the proper vexillological term) with a simple golden cross the arms of which reach to the ends of the field. A very simple solution, and not half bad really. One of the party’s Facebook followers suggests having a tricolore with a Constantinian-style cross in the center, which is another not half bad idea.

December 28, 2009 9:06 pm | Link | 4 Comments »

In the Dublin auction houses

THOUGH THE BORING brains of tawdry metropolitan Londoners are all too quick at relegating Dublin to the provincial periphery of the mind, the Irish capital is a perpetual treasure trove for the old-fashioned and right-minded. A number of items of interests have recently been sold at the auction houses of the fair city, including two ceremonial uniforms (above) of that famous Dubliner, Sir Edward Carson QC. Carson was the lawyer and statesmen who passionately, but without bigotry, opposed the cause of Irish home rule. He was the defending barrister in the Archer-Shee case and led the Marquess of Queensberry’s team in Oscar Wilde’s doomed libel action. Carson and Wilde had been at Trinity together (where — little known fact! — Carson was a keen hurler), and the famous wit quipped of Carson “I trust he will conduct his cross-examination with all the added bitterness of an old friend.”

Having a fine mind for the law and being politically active meant that Carson moved through several layers of British government, holding numerous offices and positions. He was a Privy Counsellor twice over (of both Ireland and the United Kingdom), a Queen’s Counsel, served in the House of Commons as leader of the Irish Unionists, and held portfolios in the British Cabinet. The two ceremonial uniforms auctioned at Whyte’s of Molesworth Street are from his appointment as Solicitor General for England & Wales in 1900. (He had been Solicitor-General for Ireland in 1892, and was later Attorney General for England & Wales, in which position he was succeeded by the F.E. Smith of Chesterton’s famous poem).

The two black wool morning coats feature gold bullion trimming and buttons, and are sold with a pair of trousers with gold filigree stripe matching the lesser uniform, and knee breeches & silk stockings for the greater uniform. The vellum appointment as Solicitor General was also included, in a red leather box with a gilt impression of the royal arms. Whyte’s estimated a sale of €50,000-€70,000, but the lot’s realised price was €42,000. (more…)

December 21, 2009 3:52 pm | Link | 14 Comments »

Baptizing the Tricolore

THE RECENT RULING of the self-styled “European Court of Human Rights” that the presence of crucifixes in Italian schools is a violation of the rights of a non-practicing Lutheran from Finland has sparked a surge of outrage against European institutions in Italy, and indeed elsewhere. While (as Gerald Warner has reported), the Italian Constitutional Court has shown the proverbial two fingers to the ECHR judgement in a ruling of its own, one junior cabinet minister has a suggestion of his own. Roberto Castelli, Italy’s deputy minister for infrastructure and transportation, suggests the country should reassert its Christian identity by adding a cross or crucifix to the Italian flag.

“I believe,” Mr. Castelli said, “that Europe has the right to recognize its true identity that we are starting to lose completely.” Even the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Freemason and ex-Socialist Franco Frattini, seemed amenable to the idea. “Nine European countries already have the cross on their flag,” Frattini pointed out. “It is an extremely common proposition.” (more…)

December 21, 2009 3:44 pm | Link | 15 Comments »

November 30, 2009 3:18 pm | Link | 9 Comments »

The Dutch Flags of New York

The vexillological inheritance from our Netherlandic motherland

NEEDLESS TO SAY, New York owes a great deal to our Netherlandic founders, who imbued the city and land with much of its culture, eventually transformed (but not supplanted) by the overwhelming influence of the English who snuck a few warships into the harbour and knicked this land from the Hollanders. One of the many signs of New York’s Dutch history are the numerous flags which so obviously and proudly display this heritage. Here are just a few simple notes about a few of these flags.


June 13, 2009 7:24 pm | Link | 7 Comments »
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