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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Flags at Sea: Ensigns

Flags at Sea; ENSIGN

 William Crampton in his book “The World of Flags” wrote “The use of flags at sea was the beginning of the flags as they are known today, since they were actually flown from masts and staffs rather than merely held in hand”. Since time immemorial, flags have always been used at sea in trading vessels (merchant ships) and ‘men-of-war’ (warships).

The ‘Age of Discovery’ saw the development of heraldic sails, ie, ones painted with armorial devices all over. The armorial devices symbolic of nationality ultimately gave away to modern Flags at Sea.
At sea there has grown up etiquette of how the flags should be used and where they should be hoisted and the occasions when they are used. 
 We will discuss about the Flags at Sea chapters wise, viz. Ensign, Jack, Pennant, Courtesy Flag, House Flag, Flag of Convenience, Signal Flags, Rainbow Fashion, Pirate Flag, Yacht Flag and finally “Flag Customs at Sea” with philatelic illustrations.
 The term ‘ENSIGN’ is derived from Greek Semeion, Latin equivalents Signus and Insigne is the distinguishing National flag worn by ships at or near the stern. According to Late E. M. C. Barraclough, foremost flag historian, the term 'Ensign' was first used by the British Navy way back in 1574.
White Ensign (War Ship) - Red Ensign (Merchant Ship) - Blue Ensign (Ship on Govt. duty)

The Spanish Ensign (1516 - 1785); The Cross of Burgundy -        The Saltire Raguly.

Many National Flags of today were, in fact, first created as Ensigns for use at sea.
 The first display of Japanese Ensign was on the occasion of the trip to the US in 1860 of the first diplomatic delegation ever sent abroad. The cruiser Kanrin Maru sailed the Pacific, for this purpose flew the Japanese Flag "Hi No Maru" at the bow for the first time s the symbol of the nation.

Swallow-tailed or Split National Flag is used as Naval Ensign in Scandinavian Countries.
Indian White Ensign (2001-2004)

IN White Ensign (2004-2014)

Most Commonwealth countries use White Ensign to denote Warship

Italian and Korean Naval Ensigns
 Red Ensigns denote Merchant ships
Israel's Merchant ship Ensign
Indian Coast Guard's Blue Ensign defaced with Coast Guard's emblem.

In most countries, but not all, Ensign discharges a dual function; it shows the Nationality and the function of the ship, for example a warship, a merchant ship or a ship in government service, namely, Coast Guard, Coastal/River Police, Customs, Private Yachts and so forth. Most countries, particularly within the Commonwealth Member countries have three or more different ensigns – one for the warships (white), one for the merchant ships (Red) and one used by ships in government duties (Blue). Often these ensigns are further differentiated by superimposing (defacing) the ensigns with the ‘badges’ or ‘emblems’ of the particular organization the ship belongs.
The German Imperial Reichskiegsflagge (War Flag; 1903-1921) was based on Naval Ensign of Prussia dating back to Teutonic Knights.


  1. Your post contains a very good infrmation about the ensigns and why they are used in military. Its new information for me. These ensigns have been printed in the form of stamps.

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