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Cartel Flags

Last modified: 2004-09-18 by phil nelson
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I didn't know there were such things until I read the following in The Royal Navy by William Laird Clowes, volume 4, page 51.

"On May 1st (1780) the cartel ship "Sartine", John Dallis, master, with the French officers and soldiers who had surrendered at Pondicherry, after a ten months' voyage arrived off Cape St. Vincent, where she was sighted and fired upon by the "Romney", 50, Captain Roddam Home. She carried a French flag and a cartel flag. At once she lowered her French flag, but she was again fired upon, with the result that Dallis and two French soldiers were killed and twelve wounded. Strong complaint was made by the French of the Romney's conduct, but as it appeared at the court of inquiry that the "Sartine" had hoisted a broad pennant, contrary to the custom of cartels, and failed to lower it, Captain Home was acquitted of all blame.
Footnote reference. Chevalier, 105; C.M., 55, July 17th.

I don't know which of Chevalier's books this refers to.
David Prothero, 27 November 2001

The Oxford Manual of the Laws of Naval War (1913) says:

"Art. 45. Cartel ships. Ships called cartel ships, which act as bearers of a flag of truce, may not be seized while fulfilling their mission, even if they belong to the navy. A ship authorized by one of the belligerents to enter into a parley with the other and carrying a white flag is considered a cartel ship."

In 1814, Francis Scott Key was aboard a cartel ship under a flag of truce when he observed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry, inspiring him to write "The Star Spangled Banner." So the usage goes back at least that far.

I would assume the same was the case at Pondicherry in 1780, although whether the flag of truce at that time was white I don't know--a white truce flag on a French ship in 1780 would seem rather easily confused with a white French ensign.
Joe McMillan, 27 November 2001

Flags of truce are complicated.

In "Flags", 1881, A.MacGeorge wrote, "A flag of truce is white, both at sea and on land, but on board ship it is customary to hoist with it the national flag of the enemy -- the white flag at the main and the enemy's ensign at the fore."

Presumably the "Sartine" was a French ship, but the master, John Dallis, appears to have been British. Perhaps he was confused as to which national flag be should fly with the flag of truce. Further complicated by the broad pennant, whatever that was in this case.

There is an entry under "Cartel" in "The Sailor's Word Book", written by Admiral W.H. Smyth, and published in 1867. "Cartel. A ship commissioned in time of war to exchange the prisoners of any two hostile powers, or to carry a proposal from one to the other; for this reason she has only one gun, for the purpose of firing signals, as the officer who commands her is particularly ordered to carry no cargo, ammunition, or implements of war. In late wars, ships of war fully armed, but under cartel, carried commissions for settling peace, as flags of truce."

I don't understand the last sentence.

Under "Truce", Smyth wrote, "Truce. The exhibition of a flag of truce has been religiously respected amongst civilized nations. It is a request by signal to desist from further warfare, until the object of the truce requested has been acceded to or rejected."

No reference to what the flag might look like.

It was also a sign of truce, it seems, if a ship flew the enemy's flag in addition to its own national flag.

MacGeorge again. "On one occasion during the war in 1814 when the French frigate "Clorinde" was about to be attacked by the British frigate "Dryad", the commander of the former, being desirous to ascertain what terms he would be granted if he surrendered, hoisted French colours aft and English colours forward."
David Prothero, 29 November 2001

The following is an extract from a U.S.-U.K. agreement entitled "Cartel for the Exchange of Prisoners of War between Great Britain and the United States of America," dated May 12, 1813. It can be seen in its entirety at the Avalon Project website, a project in which Yale University is putting a huge inventory of historical documents on the web, at


To carry on a regular exchange of prisoners between the two countries, four vessels shall be employed, two of which shall be provided by the British government and two by the government of the United States ... and shall each carry one signal gun with a few charges of powder, and shall carry a white flag constantly at the fore top-mast head; the British Cartel ships shall carry a British ensign at the gaff end, or ensign staff, and the American ensign at the main top-mast head and the American cartel ships shall carry the American ensign at the gaff end or ensign staff, and the British ensign at the main topmast head....


Commanders of all public ships of war of either of the two nations shall be permitted to send flags of truce into any of the established stations for exchange of prisoners of the other nation....

This agreement tells us two things: (1) how cartel flags were flown, and (2) that arrangements for their use were negotiated between the belligerents and subject to their agreement. I suppose that means that something other than a white flag might have served as a flag of truce or cartel flag in other wars.

I also found a handwritten note in an American signal book of (I believe) 1813, changing the meaning of the number zero flag--plain white rectangle--to be a flag of truce, no hostilities to be conducted while this flag is hoisted. I'll find the exact reference in my notes.
Joe McMillan, 14 December 2001