Countries that changed their flags (and why)

A nation’s flag is something that is very important to its identity. It is the first means by which it identifies itself to the world, be it on ships at sea, in reference texts on the countries of the world, or at the Olympic Games. Here in America, we see our own Stars-and-Stripes as not only a symbol, but as something that is sacred, and should be treated with reverence.

Yet earlier this year, there was a political struggle in Malawi about what their flag should look like. See, since the African country’s independence in 1964, it had used a flag with a rising sun. Then, two years ago, the country changed its flag to one with a full sun.

The old flag on the left, the new flag on the right.

The old flag on the left, the new flag on the right.

The reason, according to then-president Bingu wa Mutharika, was that the long-standing “dawn” flag represented a nation that was still emerging and developing, while having the full sun on the flag symbolized that Malawi had emerged as a prosperous nation. “We don’t have to live permanently in the past,” he said.

The people of Malawi disagreed, and after Mutharika died his vice-president and successor, Joyce Banda, and the Malawian parliament changed the flag back to the way it was. The new flag was unpopular, and there was a great deal of support for returning to the old one. Henry Phoya, leader of the house, said, “Changing [the flag] willy-nilly is an unfair attack on a country’s sense of nationhood, an attack on a symbol which Malawians hold so dearly and passionately.”

Yet while Malawians may have decided a flag change was not for them, plenty of countries have changed their flags over the years, and been totally fine with the change. Here are just a few examples.

Canada

Canadian flag image from Wikipedia

The Maple Leaf is undeniably the symbol of Canada. Anything with this flag, or a design based on it, immediately identifies it as Canadian.

Canadian mittens image from Canadian Design Resource

Canadian soccer image from CBC

Canadian tourism logo from Niagra Parks

Yet, the flag of Canada is only 47 years old. The current flag was adopted in 1965. Before that, all of Canada’s flags were British.

In 1763, the British defeated the French in the French and Indian War, conquering Canada (then the colony of “New France”) in the process. Canada played a crucial role in the American Revolution. At the war’s beginning, the rebels hoped Canadians would join them in the revolution, but an American expedition into Canada failed miserably. From then on, Canada was an invaluable base for the British to launch attacks against the Americans. When the war ended and the United States was granted independence, many Tories (Americans who had supported the crown during the war) fled to Canada in order to stay British and escape reprisals by their Patriot neighbors. In large part, modern Canadian identity was forged in the War of 1812, when volunteer Canadian militias succeeded in keeping their southern neighbor from conquering them, as most of the British army was too busy fighting Napoleon in Europe to come to their aid until 1814.

But when the British did come... oh, man...

But when the British did come… oh, man…

Thus, loyalty to Britain and to the crown became a part of this Canadian identity, and the British Union Jack was flown from all government buildings while the Red Ensign, a British flag for merchant ships, was re-purposed as a flag used by ordinary Canadians to represent themselves.

Canadian 1891 Election poster from Wikipedia

Later, versions of the Red Ensign emerged with a badge affixed to the fly depicting the country’s coat of arms. This was the Canadian flag used by soldiers in both World Wars, and is still sometimes used at ceremonies commemorating those lives that were lost in the fighting.

However, Canadian opinion regarding the use of clearly British symbols began to slowly change. As Canada began to act less as a colony and more like a nation, sending diplomats around the world and athletes to the Olympic Games, the need for a uniquely Canadian flag began to appear. This need was never more apparent than during the Suez Crisis of 1956, when Britain and France attacked Egypt. Canada participated in the peace negotiations and sent peacekeepers to restore order, but the Egyptian government objected and claimed Canada couldn’t be neutral, because it used the same symbols as Egypt’s enemy. As if that weren’t enough, there was a growing chorus of Canadians descended from the original French colonists the British conquered who wanted to be rid of the use of a “foreign” symbol.

So, in 1965, after several years of debate, Canada changed its flag. The Maple Leaf was a popular symbol, politically neutral, and most importantly, not British. Since its adoption, Canadians have put the flag on absolutely everything, making it the defining symbol of Canadianness.

Georgia

No, not the state (though that flag has undergone a lot of changes, too), but the country.

Georgia (the country) flag from Wikipedia

So, Georgia (the country) has been around for a long time – as in, since the days of Plato and Aristotle long. However, it hasn’t always been independent during this time. Romans, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Persians, and Russians all took turns conquering the land. It attempted to assert its independence during the Russian Revolution, only to be conquered by the Bolsheviks and absorbed into the Soviet Union. Eventually, it was able to secure independence with the Soviet Union’s collapse, and once it did so, it re-adopted the flag it had used during its short-lived attempt at independence 70 years prior:

Georgia (the country) flag 2 from Wikipedia

The wine-colored banner was supposed to represent good times, both past and future, while the black stripe represented the “black times” under Russian rule and the white one represented peace. However, to most Georgians the flag soon came to represent the turmoil and warfare that came with post-Soviet independence.

Almost as soon as the dust had settled, a majority of Georgians wanted to adopt the five-cross flag, a banner that dates from the height of the medieval kingdom of Georgia’s power, and thus has a lot of resonance as a symbol of national pride. For years, President Eduard Shevardnadze blocked any attempts to change the flag, but in 2004 he was kicked out of office by Mikhail Saakashvili and the change was made.

South Africa

South African flag image from Wikipedia

South Africa’s flag was adopted almost by accident. In the early 1990s, the country was in negotiations to end their racist system of apartheid, which was essentially racial segregation on steroids. One of the demands of the anti-apartheid African National Congress was the adoption of a new flag.

The flag that South Africa had been using up to that point, while well-liked by white South Africans, was despised by the black majority as a symbol of apartheid. It was based on the flag used by 17th-century Dutch explorers in the area, with three smaller flags in the middle representing the British and the two (white-ruled) “Boer Republics” of Transvaal and Orange Free State that were absorbed into the Union in 1910.

Apartheid flag image from Wikipedia

When the decision was made to adopt a new flag, a competition was held in 1993 for people to submit their ideas. More than 7,000 designs were received, so you would think they would surely find a great design in there somewhere. But no. All 7,000 designs were ultimately rejected. Eventually, a quick compromise flag was adopted as an “interim” flag until a new one could be agreed upon. The new flag, which was a sort-of merger between the old flag and that of the African National Congress, was announced on April 20, 1994, giving South Africa’s flag makers just seven days to make and ship enough flags for the upcoming election and transfer of power!

That “temporary” flag is the one you saw at the beginning of this section. To give you an idea of how well-received it was, I once met a South African (now living in the U.S.) who said everyone at the time made fun of its Y-shape, asking “Why? Why? Why?” And yet, its simple yet elegant design grew on people. Instead of being replaced after a few years, as originally intended, it was written into the country’s constitution and is still flown proudly today.

The United States

US Flag image from Wikipedia

Oh, yeah. I just went there.

We may think of our flag as dating back to the American Revolution, and in a way it does, but in another sense America has had more new flags than almost any other country. It’s all because of those stars – one per state, with a new star added each time a new state is admitted to the Union. The basic design is the same, but each time a new state was admitted, the flag was redesigned to accommodate the new star. And we’ve had some really interesting designs in the past:

26 Star flag image from Wikipedia

29 Star flag image from Wikipedia

 

38 Star flag image from Wikipedia

But how we wound up with such a system is quite the story in its own right. Originally, the rebels under George Washington’s leadership used a flag with 13 stripes (one for each colony) and the British Union Jack in the corner.

 

Grand Union Flag image from Wikipedia

People forget this, but even as Americans were fighting the British, in the early days they saw themselves as fighting for their rights as Englishmen. Only later did they realize that independence was the only option really available to them, and once they decided on that course of action, they replaced the Union Jack with a field of 13 stars.

Betsy Ross flag image from Wikipedia

Then, after independence, Kentucky and Vermont quickly joined the Union, bringing the total number of states to 15. So, in 1795, two more stars and stripes were added to the flag.

15 Star flag image from Wikipedia

Then, a problem soon emerged: as even more states were admitted, it became apparent that adding a new stripe for each new state was impractical – either the flag would be gigantic, or the stripes would have to be increasingly tiny. So, for 23 years, they left it, even as more and more states were added. Finally, the Flag Act of 1818 sorted out the mess. It fixed the number of stripes at 13, for the original Thirteen Colonies, and increased the number of stars to 20, the number of states at the time. It further declared that each time a new state was admitted to the Union, a new star would be added to the flag the following July 4.

Thus, we have had a total of 28 different national flags. The 50-star variant we currently use is now the longest flag in our nation’s service, at 52 years old and still going.

But maybe not for long. As I mentioned in an earlier article, voters in Puerto Rico recently made a tentative step toward statehood. If we eventually do have a 51st state, then the following July 4, our nation’s flag will look like this:

Doesn't look all that different, really.

Doesn’t look all that different, really.

Information from Wikipedia

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6 Responses to Countries that changed their flags (and why)

  1. Pingback: Awesome Flags You’ve Probably Never Seen Before | Cat Flag

  2. Sophia says:

    Great! Every day you learn something new.

  3. Pingback: More Countries (and Places) That Changed Their Flags and Why | Cat Flag

  4. Pingback: NZ Flag | mattlightbourn

  5. Pingback: Who Designed the U.S. Flag? | Cat Flag

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