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Zimbabwe: British South Africa Company (1890 - 1923)

Historical flag

Last modified: 2006-08-12 by bruce berry
Keywords: british south africa company | southern africa | rhodesia | rhodes (cecil) | cape to cairo | lion holding tusk |
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[Flag of the British South Africa Company] image by Martin Grieve, 04 Sep 2002

See also:

British South Africa Company : introduction

Between 1890 and September 1923 the territory now known as Zimbabwe was administered by the British South Africa Company (BSAC) in terms of a Royal Charter granted to Cecil John Rhodes by Queen Victoria.  The Charter empowered the BSAC to, inter alia, make treaties, promulgate laws, preserve the peace, maintain a police force, acquire new concessions and generally provide, at the Company's expense, the infrastructure of a new Colony.

The first flag of sovereignty flown over what is now Zimbabwe was the British Union Flag (Union Jack) raised at Fort Salisbury on 13 September 1890, which marked the beginning of prolonged British influence in the region. Instrumental in bringing European pioneers to the area was the 19th century British imperialist and financier, Cecil John Rhodes, whose British South African Company (BSAC) was later given prospecting and mining rights by the Matabele king, Lobengula. The company's own flag had not been received from England when the Pioneer Column - financed by Rhodes and whose mission was to establish 'control' of Mashonaland - set out from South Africa, so a Union Jack was carried instead, the first company flag only arriving in Fort Salisbury in 1892.

The flag of the BSAC was raised in the Matabele capital of Bulawayo on 04 November 1893 after the Company's forces led by Major Patrick Forbes drove the native Ndebele from the town. The flag consisted of a Union Jack emblazoned with the BSAC badge in the centre. The badge comprised a yellow lion holding an elephant's tusk and standing on a red and yellow wreath or torse; under the wreath were the letters B.S.A.C. in black. The badge was derived from the crest of the arms granted to the British South Africa Company twenty years after it received its royal charter. The blazon (10 May 1909) read:
Gules, the chief semee of besants, the base semee of ears of wheat Or, a fesse wavy argent between two bulls passant in chief and an elephant passant in base all proper; the fesse charged with three galleys sable, for the crest, a lion guardant passant Or, supporting with its dexter fore paw an ivory tusk erect proper.
The supporters (added 25 May 1909) were two springbok.

The company flag hoisted at the occupation of Bulawayo, and presumably used elsewhere in the area under company jurisdiction, was not described in detail in the royal charter and the lack of such a description probably accounts for the discrepancies and different versions of the company flag which exist. The most important anomaly in the flag design relates to the incorporation of a red ring surrounding the crest in some instances and being absent in others. From the drawing of the hoisting of the company flag in Bulawayo, it is not clear whether a red ring is present or not although actual examples of both can be found in museums today.

At about the same time as the creation of the Union Flag with BSAC badge, two other company flags were designed. They were the British Blue and Red Ensigns with the company crest in the fly. In the case of the Red Ensign the crest is depicted above the black initials of the company in the centre of a white disk while in the Blue Ensign the disk is omitted and the lettering is in gold and imprinted directly on the flag (see illustration below). Ensigns are primarily intended for use as maritime flags and although the company's possessions never included a coastline, it was empowered in terms of its charter to own or operate ships. In all probability these ensigns were never used although they do appear on flag charts from that period.

The Company Administrator who, in terms of the royal charter, was the Crown's representative in the territories under the control of the company, was also entitled to a distinctive flag for his personal use in common with British Governors in other parts of the world. The flag of the Administrator would have had the company crest in the centre of a Union Jack within a green laurel garland. There is no record of the Administrator's flag actually being used nor are any on display in local museums, so it is doubtful whether such a flag ever existed.
Bruce Berry, 18 June 1998

The lion on the BSAC flag is taken from the BSAC Arms. There is no official description of the BSAC flag, and it appears that several variants of the basic design were used. Most illustrations of this flag show a red ring around the white circle containing the crest, but original flags in versions with and without the red ring are to be found in various museums in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Original examples of the Company flag are found in a number of museums in both Zimbabwe and Zambia.  Important differences in design relate to the question of a red ring or fimbriation being found surrounding the crest in some cases and without this fimbriation in others.  From the drawing of the hoisting of the Company flag in Bulawayo in 1893, it is not clear whether the fimbriation is present or not.  However, the flag on display at the National Archives in Harare does not have any fimbriation, nor do the two flags on display at the Natural History Museum in Bulawayo, one of which was the last flag flown at the Magistrate's Court in Bulawayo on 11 September 1923.  A BSAC flag with fimbriation is on display at the Livingston Museum in Zambia and I have an example of such a flag in my collection which was a house flag used by the Company at its offices in Salisbury (now Harare).  In early British Admiralty books no fimbriation is found but a flag with fimbriation is illustrated in a Rhodesian Government booklet showing all the flags flown in the country.  So the evidence suggests that both versions were used.
Bruce Berry, 04 Sep 2002

I did some research into the flags of the BSAC for a paper which I presented at the International Congress of Vexillology [brr99a] in Zurich in 1993.  What emerges is that the Company flag hoisted at the occupation of Bulawayo, and presumably elsewhere in the area under Company jurisdiction, was not described in detail in the Charter. The flag was referred to as being a British Union Flag charged in the centre, on a white roundel, with the crest of the Company, namely a yellow lion "guardant passant" supporting with its right forepaw an ivory tusk which was known to the irreverent as the "lion with the tooth-pick". The lack of a precise description resulted in a number of design anomalies, the most obvious of which is the question of the presence of a red ring surrounding the crest in some cases and being absent in others (see illustrations above and below). Actual examples of both variants survive.  Other less obvious differences relate to the lion and its features, these differences being attributed to the artistic licence of the manufacturers.

The end of the Company administration came following a referendum which was held in Southern Rhodesia.  The referendum was held in October 1922 to determine whether the European settlers wished to join the Union of South Africa or become a self-governing Colony with 'Responsible Government'.  The majority was in favour of the latter and consequently the administration of the BSA Company came to an end with the granting of Responsible Government to Southern Rhodesia by the British Government on 13 September 1923, while in April 1924 Northern Rhodesia became a British Protectorate.  After being relieved of its political obligations, the Company continued to manage a wide range of agricultural, mining and commercial interests in both Southern and Northern Rhodesia until it amalgamated with the Anglo-American Corporation in 1965.

Between 1923 and 1965 the Company continued to fly as a house flag, at its offices in London and the Rhodesias, the flag it used whilst being the administrative authority.
Bruce Berry, 18 Mar 2005

British South Africa Company Flag:
3 October 1902. Assistant Secretary A.P.Millar, British South Africa Company to Foreign Office.
Ref. section 19 of the Charter of the BSAC, 29 October 1889, ref flags:
BSAC owns a steamship on Lake Nyasa and sailing ships and boats navigating River Zambezi and the various lakes and rivers in N.E.Rhodesia. The vessels are not used for trading purposes but for inspection and transport of officers on duty. Mr.Codrington, the Administrator of N.E.Rhodesia has some objection to the Company Flag
being carried on the steamship on Lake Nyasa. The Directors consider that some rule should be laid down.
(1) Ashore. Union Flag with Company badge at centre.
(2) Afloat. Blue Ensign with Company badge in the fly.
(3) At anchor. (1) at fore.
(4) Administrator on board. (1) at foremast.

12 November 1889. Colonial Office to Foreign Office. View of the Department is that in any colony the Union Flag without badge should generally be used on shore when there is occasion to hoist a flag, but that there is no fixed rule on the subject.
David Prothero, 22 Mar 2005

BSAC flag - fimbriated version

[BSAC flag - fimbriated disk] image by Martin Grieve, 04 Dec 2002

In Andre Burgers' "Sovereign Flags of Southern Africa" (1997) [bur97] shows two images and the following text:
"After an Ndebele uprising in 1893, the Company annexed Matabeleland and hoisted the Company flag over Bulawayo. This flag was a Union Jack with in the center on a white roundel, the crest from the Company coat of arms. This was a lion passant gardant Or holding upright in his dexter fore-paw, an ivory tusk and there beneath the letters B. S. A. C.  Later a red circle was added around a white disc."
Jarig Bakker, 28 Feb 2002

BSAC - Blue Ensign

[Blue ensign of the British South Africa Company] image by Bruce Berry, 19 June 1998

For years charts and books showed red and blue ensigns of the British South Africa Company.  These were warranted in 1902 for ships in the service of the Company.  Alas, the Company never had any ships, as its sphere of operations was entirely inland.
Michael Faul, 23 Jul 2002

According to a letter of 11 November 1902 the defaced ensigns were authorised for boats and vessels that the company operated on the lakes and waterways of North Eastern Rhodesia; the Blue Ensign for company vessels not being trading vessels, and the Red Ensign for trading vessels.  The defaced Union Jack was for the Administrator when embarked in vessels belonging to the company.
Source: Public Record Office ADM 116/1063D.
David Prothero, 23 Jul 2002

BSAC seal

[BSAC seal] image sent by Bruce Berry, 05 Sep 2002 (Click on the image for a better view!)

Images of the BSAC seal (above) and the Arms (below) (Source: Flags and Symbols of Rhodesia, 1890-1980 (SAVA Journal 5/96) by R Allport. [all96]
Bruce Berry, 05 Sep 2002


[BSAC coat of arms] image by Bruce Berry, 05 Sep 2002

The Royal Charter establishing the BSAC was approved on 29 October 1889 by Queen Victoria. The blazon (10 May 1909) read:

Blazon: Gules, the chief semee of besants, the base semee of ears of wheat Or, a fesse wavy Argent between two bull passant in chief and an elephant passant in base all proper; the fesse charged with three galleys Sable.
Crest: A lion guardant passant Or, supporting with its dexter paw an ivory tusk erect proper.
Supporters: Two Springboks proper.
Motto: Justice, Commerce, Freedom.

The colour of the field is red, the same as that in the Arms of England.  The besants (gold discs), in chief, refer to the gold abounding in Matebeleland, and the ears of wheat on the lower part of the shield refers to the rich agricultural potential of the area. The oxen refer to the beasts of burden employed there and to the abundance of cattle.  The fesse wavy refers to the Zambezi, Limpopo and other rivers flowing through the territory administered by the Company.  The galleys refer to shipping which can traverse the rivers.  The supporters and the crest indicate the wild animals found in the area.  The Lion also forms an allusion to the heraldic emblem of England, and the three galleys sable are from the Arms of the second Duke of Abercorn, the first President of the Company. (Source: National Archives of Zimbabwe as quoted by Berry, B, 1993: The Flags of the British South Africa Company, 1890 1923, paper presented at the XV International Congress of Vexillology, Zurich, 1993). [brr99a]
Bruce Berry, 05 Sep 2002

The 'Cape-to-Cairo' flag of Cecil Rhodes

[Cape to Cairo Flag of Cecil Rhodes] image by Bruce Berry, 19 June 1998

Cecil John Rhodes, the man who was ultimately to have a country named after him, was born on 5 July 1853 at the small town of Bishop's Stortford in England, where he attended school. Plagued by ill health during his youth, he went to South Africa in 1870 and soon established himself as an astute businessman, laying the foundations for the fortune he would eventually amass by investing in the gold and diamond industries. His great dream, however, was to expand the British Empire throughout Africa, and he dedicated the major part of his life to realising this goal. A flag symbolising this ambition is known as the "Cape-to-Cairo" flag. The flag unites the Egyptian flag of the time (a white crescent and star on a red field) with a gold anchor (heraldic symbol of the Cape Colony) on a green field. Linking these two elements, which symbolise the termini of the railway Rhodes intended to have built, is the British Union Flag. The "Cape-to-Cairo" flag was never officially used and the railway of Rhodes' dream was begun in southern Africa but never completed. This flag is preserved at Genadendal (formerly Groote Schuur), an official residence of the South African President, in Cape Town. Through negotiations with Lobengula, King of the Matabele, Rhodes was able to gain access to the lands north of the Limpopo and formed the British South Africa Company (BSAC) in 1889 under a Royal Charter for the purpose of settling the territory and bringing it under British rule. The Pioneer Column was formed and the territory of Mashonaland subsequently peacefully occupied. By 1890 Rhodes had become Prime Minister of the Cape, but continued to steer events in his new country to the north, adding Matabeleland to the BSACo's territory after the Matabele had been defeated in 1893. The name "Rhodesia" was first used in public by Mr. F.J. Dormer of the Argus Company in 1891. Dr. Jameson, friend and assistant to Rhodes, proposed adopting this name for the new country in 1894 at a banquet in Cape Town. On 23 April 1895 it was officially adopted. Joseph Chamberlain, then Secretary of State for the Colonies, issued a proclamation confirming the name to be official in 1897. Rhodes's political career survived the ill-fated Jameson Raid, an attempt to depose the Boer Government in the Transvaal by sending troops from Rhodesia into the Transvaal to support the rebels in Johannesburg in 1895. In 1896 Rhodes displayed his courage by riding unarmed and alone into the Matopo Hills to talk to rebellious Matabele chiefs, successfully avoiding another war. By 1902 Rhodes's health was failing and he died on 26 March at Muizenberg in the Cape Colony. He was buried at World's View in the Matopo Hills (near Bulawayo in Matabeleland). The arms of the Rhodes family date back to the 18th Century and are described in "Burke's Armory" of 1884 as displaying a lion between two acorns, the main colour of the arms being blue. In Rhodes's personal arms the main colour used was changed to red and the acorns were replaced by two thistles on either side of the lion. This charge was later adopted for the arms of the colony of Rhodesia.
Bruce Berry, 19 June 1998

Overview of the Flags of Southern Rhodesia / Rhodesia / Zimbabwe-Rhodesia / Zimbabwe

1890 - 1923                British South African Company (BSAC) flag
1923 - 1968                British Union flag (alongside various colonial flags)
1923 - 1953                Southern Rhodesia dark blue ensign (two variants - with and without white disc in fly)
1953 - 1963                Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland ensign (alongside British Union Flag)
1964 - 1968                Southern Rhodesian light blue ensign (alongside British Union Flag)
1968 - 1979                Rhodesian flag
Jun - Dec1979             Zimbabwe-Rhodesia flag (de facto until Dec 1979; de jure until Apr 1980)
Dec 1979 - Apr 1980  British Union flag (de facto although Zimbabwe Rhodesia flag in common use)
18 Apr 1980 to date    Zimbabwe flag
Stuart Notholt, 16 Mar 1996