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East India Company (United Kingdom)

Last modified: 2005-07-16 by rob raeside
Keywords: east india company | united kingdom | india | cross: st george |
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[Flag of the East India Company] by António Martins

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Flags of the East India Company

Until about 1630 when the red, blue and white ensigns were introduced, nearly all English ships are thought to have flown striped ensigns with a St George's cross canton. It is unlikely that the East India Company used striped ensigns before 1660, and possibly not until 1673. The ensigns usually had nine, eleven or thirteen red and white stripes, with a small canton of St George's cross until c.1707, a 1606 Union canton from c.1707 until 1801, and an 1801 Union from then until 1830, when they were replaced by Red Ensigns. After 1801 some ensigns had a central vertical red stripe.

[Jack of the East India Company] by Phil Nelson

Jacks had nine stripes with no canton and continued to be used until 1863 by the Bombay Marine and 1877 by the Bengal Marine. As a signal flag it was still in use in 1895, when P. Downes refered to an 'Old Indian Navy Jack which will appear in every hoist except single flag signals and the numerical signal' in his Code of Signals for Use in Connection with Lighthouses and Light-Vessels on the Burma Coast.

Sources: C.R. Low, History of the Indian Navy and A. Rowand, Naval and Maritime Flags of British India.

David Prothero, 30 August 1999

When the proclamation of 1674 authorized the red ensign for English merchant ships, the Honourable East India Company was restricted in 1676 to using their ensigns in eastern waters, and beyond St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean (see note 1). Wilson in Flags at Sea (1999) shows several ensigns of the Honourable East India Company with proportions that are roughly 3:5 and varying numbers of stripes. The first of these is the East India Company ensign until 1707. This is a thirteen-stripe version with the St George's Cross in the canton.

[East India Company, pre-1707] by Phil Nelson

The above image is similar to the illustration in B. Lens's chart A Good View of the Flags which most Nations bear at Sea of 1700, but the one in Lens has eleven stripes, as shown below.

[East India Company, pre-1707 variant] by Phil Nelson

Wilson also shows an image from an English signal book, dated 1711, that has nine stripes with a St George's Cross in the Canton. The colours of the stripes are reversed from the image by António Martins shown above.

[East India Company, drawing of 1711] by Phil Nelson

From 1707 to approximately 1800, Wilson shows the Honourable East India Company ensign with the British Union flag.

[East India Company, 1707] by Phil Nelson

This in turn was replaced around 1801 with the newer Union flag.

[East India Company, 1801] by Phil Nelson

Wilson shows an image from a black and white flag plate in Rees's Cyclopedia (1820). It is similar to the thirteen-stripe version shown above, except that the colours of the stripes are reversed. The proportions of the drawing are approximate.

[East India Company, 1820 variant] by Phil Nelson

Another variant is shown in the Laurie chart in Wilson. This is an Honourable East India Company nine-stripe ensign with a Union Flag in the canton.

[East India Company, Laurie's flag chart] by Phil Nelson

I was concerned that the countercharge, etc., didn't meet the red stripe and about the overlap, but in looking at Laurie's chart, this feature seems to be replicated there as well.

Phil Nelson, 24 and 25 January 2000

I think that you can't go wrong with East India Company flags, as long as there are horizontal red and white stripes. They seem to have made them up as they went along. Nine, ten, eleven or thirteen stripes; cantons of varying size, some sitting on stripes and some cutting through stripes. One variation is shown in a painting of the East India Company's Yard at Deptford, c.1660 with ensigns that have, one red stripe at the top of the fly, one lined up with the arm of the St George's Cross, and four red and three white stripes below the canton. After 1801 some jacks and ensigns had a vertical red stripe, slightly wider than the horizontal stripes, in the centre of the flag. On others the central horizontal red stripe of seven was widened to match the vertical stripe. In one example the Union Jack canton occupies the whole of the first quarter of the ensign, cutting into the surrounding stripes.

There's a lot of information in Naval and Maritime Flags of British India from 1600 by Captain A.Rowand, Royal Indian Marine. The original 1909 typescript, which used to be in the Records Department of the India Office, is probably now in the British Library. There is a type-written, hand-painted, 1935 copy, in the Library of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

David Prothero, 27 January 2000

Note 1

"When the proclamation of 1674 authorized the red ensign for English merchant ships, the Honourable East India Company was restricted in 1676 to using their ensigns in eastern waters, and beyond St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean."

This is somewhat misleading, as it implies that the East India Company had the right to sail under their own flag, and that this right was being restricted. They had no such right, and being allowed to wear their own flag in certain areas was a concession, arranged, as far as I know, without the warrant, that was required by the Royal Proclamation of 18th September 1674:

"And His Majesty doth hereby further Command all His Loving Subjects, that without such Warrant as aforesaid, they presume not to wear on board their Ships or Vessels any Jacks made in imitation of His Majesties; or any other Flags, Jacks or Ensigns whatsoever, than those usually heretofore worn on Merchant Ships, viz: The Flag and Jack White, with a Red Cross (commonly called St George's Cross) passing quite through the same; and the Ensign Red, with the like Cross in a Canton White, at the upper corner thereof next to the Staff."
That the Company were not fully complying with this proclamation was apparently ignored until 1676, when, as Wilson puts it in 'Flags at Sea', "... ,the ever-busy Pepys took issue with the continued use on the Company's ships of the striped ensign ..."  Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty, was a personal friend of Sir John Banks, a Kent businessman, who was Governor of the East India Company, and it appears that the concession to allow, in certain areas, use of the Company Flag instead of the English flags, may have been an arrangement between Pepys and Banks.

The orders given to Captain Zachary Browne by the Shipping Committee of the Company Court of Directors on 17 February 1677 included the following. "On voyage to and from St Helena be most obedient to the King's Proclamation; wear only the usual English flag and ensign (the white flag with a red cross and the red  ensign with a red cross in a white field in the upper corner)."
[Court Minutes of East India Company published by Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1935.]

This order was constantly repeated in instructions to departing captains until September 1688, which was when James II fled to France, the future William III landed in England, and Pepys lost his position as Secretary of the Admiralty. The arrangement however, seems to have continued, without any formal authority, until 1824 when the Company's ensign was replaced by the Red Ensign.
David Prothero, 18 August 2004

Pepys was apparently under some pressure from officers of the Royal Navy over this issue, and he wrote to Sir John in December of 1676 which I quote from Perrin P.313: "...but forasmuch as it cannot be thought fit for me to remain under constant accountableness for any behaviour of his Majesty's officers different from his pleasure signified by a proclamation, I desire that you will take an opportunity of mentioning this thing to my honoured friends of the Company, to the end that (in case their service be indeed concerned in the continuance of this their usage) they may take some way of making their desires known to his Majesty...etc., etc."

Like David, as far as I am aware no such application was made nor required Warrant issued, but the fact remains that ships of the Honourable East India Company continued to fly the striped ensign despite its being illegal for them to do so.
Christopher Southworth, 18 August 2004

Possible Commodore's flag

[East India Company, commodore's flag?] by Martin Grieve

This East India Company 19th century masthead flag is from a black and white reproduction of a painting in the Science Museum of the East Indiaman "Earl Balcarras", which did nine voyages to China between 1815 and 1831. The colours are deduced from the corresponding shades of grey in the Red Ensign. My guess is that it is the flag of the Commodore of the Company's commercial fleet ?
David Prothero, 24 May 2005

Jack of the East India Company

[East India Company, Laurie's flag chart] by Blas Delgado Ortiz

"The Company's Jack was used as a Jack by the Company's regular traders, and by vessels of the Bombay Marine sometime prior to 1828, although the latter service appears to have frequently worn the Union Jack prior to 1828, it was never used as a Jack by the Indian Navy, but was flown at the peak to denote a court martial sitting, and was also used in conjunction with, but superior to, signal flags showing the name of the vessel in the list of the Indian Navy. It was of course used on dressing ship etc, and also as a Jack by the pattimars-of-war commanded by natives."

from from 'Naval and Maritime Flags of British India', written in about 1909, by Captain A. Rowand, Royal Indian Marine.

David Prothero, 26 June 2002

Arms of the East India Company

I have two books, The Honourable Company: the East India Company by Brian Gardner (Dorset Press, 1971), and The Honourable Company: a History of the English East India Company by John Keay (Macmillan, 1991). Both feature the arms of the East India Company, which I'll attempt to describe. A white shield with a red St George's cross with a small shield with something I can't make out in the upper left quadrant. A rampant lion on either side as supporters, holding a flag pole with the Union Jack flying behind. Above the shield, a rampant lion holding a crown. The motto is Auspicio Regis et Senatus Angliae which means "by command of the king and parliament of England".

Dipesh Navsaria, 18 November 1995