The Newfoundland Tricolour

The Newfoundland pink, white and green tricolour is one of the oldest symbols...

The Newfoundland pink, white and green tricolour is one of the oldest symbols in continuous use in Newfoundland and Labrador. It predates its cousin the Irish flag by five years, and is the oldest flag in the world to use the colour pink. It has a long history, one embodied in a myth publicized by J.M. Byrnes in 1931: In the early 1800s, sealers from around Newfoundland converged on St. John’s in winter, awaiting the departure of vessels for the annual seal hunt.

Public institutions benefited from this available labour by sending rival teams of sealers into the woods to haul out sleds of wood to heat the public buildings. Competitions ensued over which team had the largest “haul of wood,” the piles marked by flags flown from the top of the pile as it was hauled through the streets of St. John’s. Inevitably, strong disagreements ensued. The winter of 1843 was particularly violent. After several altercations, an English team bearing a pink flag, and an Irish team bearing a green flag decided to appeal to Bishop Michael Fleming, the nearest authority, to settle the matter. He took out a white handkerchief, announced that the white was in memory of his recently departed friend, the Scot William Carson, a founder of the House of Assembly, tied the rival flags together, and bid them go in peace. As convenient as this legend is, there is not a shred of evidence to support any aspect of it. It is pure myth. The subsequent history of the flag, though, is well documented.

The Newfoundland Natives’ Society flew the tricolour until the society disbanded around1847. By then, the flag was gaining wider acceptance. Historical geographer John Mannion notes that the first documentary reference to the flag was when St. John’s captain Walter Dillon flew the flag from the mast of his schooner, circa 1845, as he sailed between St. John’s and Waterford. The flag exploded in popularity when the governor of Newfoundland asked Dillon to remove it, and Dillon refused. Even the Irish seem to have been inspired by our flag. Dillon moored his schooner at Meagher’s Quay in Waterford in front of the merchant premises of Thomas Meagher, the Mayor of Waterford who had been born in St. John’s. In1848 his son Thomas Francis Meagher gave Ireland its own tricolour — orange, white, and green — before being convicted of treason as a Young Irelander, deported to Tasmania, escaping to the United States, and ending up as governor of Montana before drowning in a river. But back to our flag. In 1860 the Prince of Wales was greeted at the Newfoundland parliament at Colonial Building in St. John’s by the sight of alternating union flags and the Newfoundland tricolour. In 1897, the tricolour flew at the ceremony to lay the cornerstone of Cabot Tower. HistorianPaul O’Neill notes that when Frances Foster sang the Ode to Newfoundland for the first time on Jan. 21, 1902, between acts of Mam’zelle at the Casino Theatre in St. John’s, the audience wildly applauded when two soldiers brought out the pink, white, and green and the Union Jack. In the May 1909 general election, Robert Bond promised if elected to make the tricolour the official flag, and the Ode to Newfoundland the official national anthem. (Unfortunately for the tricolour, Bond lost the election to Edward Morris.)

And at a dinner tendered in his honour in New York, the celebrated Captain Robert Bartlett was presented with a tricolour by a Miss Phelan, aunt of the St. John’s lawyer Edmund Phelan, to take to the North Pole. When the First World War was declared and Newfoundland went to war, the tricolour flew along side the white ensign and the Union Jack. In 1945, at the end of the Second World War,Newfoundland troops marched past Governor Walwyn on Military Road; he stood under a Newfoundland tricolour. After Confederation, Joey Smallwood (who had campaigned on a“British Union” platform) adopted the Union Jack, but by the 1970s, even the British government was complaining that Newfoundland should get its own flag. In the 1970s, the Newfoundland Historic Trust, the Newfoundland Historical Society, and theSt. John’s Folk Arts Council submitted a joint brief to the Flag Committee of the House ofAssembly unanimously recommending the adoption of the tricolour as the flag of Newfoundland. Instead, the present provincial flag as designed by Christopher Pratt was adopted.

Since then the tricolour has undergone a renaissance in popularity. Rugby teams sport it. Teenagers and adults — with not a shred of rebel, separatist or republican understanding or heritage — wear it. Newfoundland nationalists fly it and wear it, but so do firmly committed Canadians. Tories, Liberals, NDPers, and the non-committed fly it. Athletes who row in the St. John’s Regatta receive their medals hanging from official pink, white and green ribbons, and the cultural and arts community fly it from the legendary LSPU Hall. Ironically, many people call it “theRepublic of Newfoundland Flag” — but this is a misnomer. Newfoundland never was a republic, and is not likely to become one.

The flag is properly called the Newfoundland tricolour, or simply, the pink, white and green. The most remarkable part of its history is that in 162 years, the Newfoundland tricolour has yet to receive any official state recognition. One former lieutenant-governor incorporated its colours into his personal coat of arms, to the delight of vexillologists who study flags, but they also were shocked that the tricolour had yet to receive any official sanction or even casual recognition by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. That day in the flag’s history is yet to come. Surely its history — our history — deserves this. Since October 2003, when The Independent newspaper first appeared with the Newfoundland tricolour on its masthead, the popularity of the flag has grown steadily. In many ways, flags are personal things. To me, the tricolour speaks of the greatness of our past and the potential of our future.

Dr. John FitzGerald is a historian who teaches in the Department of History and in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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