This is the final installment of a 3-part series in honor of Flag Day exploring plausible connections between the first flag of America—the Grand Union flag—and its nearly identical twin, the official colors of the British East India Company, a flag which pre-dates its American cousin by more than a century. Part 1 and Part 2 include details about the Grand Union flag’s debut on the Continental Navy’s flagship, the Alfred, and how it was hoisted over the Continental Army by Gen. George Washington for the first time at the dawning of what would become known as the “Revolutionary Year” (New Year’s Day, 1776).
There are three particularly noteworthy accompaniments to this vexillological history:
1. Mystery—the reasons why the Grand Union flag was proposed and adopted have never been discovered;
2. Pedigree—the East India Company colors and Grand Union flag are virtually identical; and
3. Inspiration—the day after the Grand Union debuts at the hand of Washington, the words “United States of America” were written for the very first time by Washington’s Aide-De-Camp.
American historians have often attempted to divine when our national identity first congealed.
Was it the widely popular pamphlet Common Sense by Thomas Paine that inspired a nation to form?
Or were there earlier signs that pointed toward the eventual rise of the United States of America?
Increasingly, there is evidence that the Winter of 1775-1776 was the clarion moment in which a distinct national identity formed with those working within the heart of the revolutionary enterprise acknowledging that all-war was inevitable with either independency or utter devastation the result.
Far-reaching acts of sovereignty were launched during this period including the formation of an army, navy, marines, capital punishment for captured spies, and anti-royal state governments. In addition, the Continental Congress assumed legislative, judicial, and even executive powers with Congress at this time operating as a de facto war government. With Washington appointed commander-in-chief of the new Army, Esek Hopkins appointed commander-in-chief of the new Navy, new “Continental” (national) flags flying over both, and sparkling new phrases like “United States of America” being bandied about, the eventual Declaration of Independence is seen by some scholars as an almost perfunctory act.
There are hidden mysteries still to be discovered regarding the foundation of America and one of these mysteries is the missing origin story of the Grand Union flag, the first flag of America. Compounding the mystery is this flag’s identical resemblance to the corporate logo, if you will, of the East India Company. And although we haven’t discovered unassailable evidence of the East India Company colors influencing her American counterpart, examining the business dealings between some of the important British and American figures may begin to communicate a more plausible track connecting these two symbols.
“If I have shown any bias in favour of the Company’s flag [i.e. being connected to the American flag], I am at any rate justified in relying on one qualification that no other rival can claim, viz. the fact of its being identical with the Grand Union Flag. That this was due to mere coincidence, without the designers of the latter banner being aware of it, seems to me improbable.” ~ Sir Charles Fawcett, 1937
Earlier, in Part 2, we showed Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris—two figures uniquely positioned to have had an influence on the Grand Union flag’s adoption—were in business with East India Company officers in England. Many of these British business interests advocated for liberal trade and political leniency in dealings with the colonies despite the escalating war. It has been suggested that perhaps the adoption of the East India Company colors by the fledgling nation was a not-so-subtle message to those economic forces in Europe that would be negatively impacted by the American continent falling into anarchy and revolution.
Ben Franklin and Robert Morris were aghast at what had occurred during the Boston Tea Party and Morris made sure that the East India Company tea sent to Philadelphia was returned to England unharmed. It was then that Morris was introduced as a friend to officers within the East India Company, like Thomas Walpole, and consequently began expanding his already extensive international trading network. One of these partners was Sir Francis Baring, who would eventually become chairman of the East India Company.
“Robert Morris was the chief supplier of the Continental Army and Navy and the English Baring ‘family actually supplied the British forces in the field during the American War of Independence.’ In some sense, this co-mingling of war profiteering and nation-building by Morris and Baring could be seen as a pivotal development in the birth of the modern ‘military industrial complex.'”
The Barings first deal in North America was with Morris’s firm in 1774. Through the course of the revolutionary war, Morris was the chief supplier of the Continental Army and Navy and the Baring “family actually supplied the British forces in the field during the American War of Independence.” In some sense, this co-mingling of war profiteering and nation-building by Morris and Baring could be seen as a pivotal development in the birth of the modern “military industrial complex.”
Further, to fully understand the magnitude and significance of the Barings’s role in the quickly maturing nation, they were actually the entity that sold the Louisiana Purchase to America acting as the go-between Napoleon and the United States. This land acquisition doubled the size of the United States of America and represents the single most significant expansion of American power since her birth. Although often characterized as enemies of America, there were business interests in England that were aware of the expansive prosperity and unique opportunities that a new nation decidedly detached from royal entanglements could offer. In fact, it might be surmised that these forces in England helped behind the scenes to establish the independent progeny of Mother England in part because of the profitable opportunities that would emerge. The Grand Union / East India Company flag could certainly be seen as a symptom of that hidden collaboration. But this is just speculation.
“The Barings were actually the entity that sold the Louisiana Purchase to America acting as the go-between Napoleon and the United States. This land acquisition doubled the size of the United States of America and represents the single most significant expansion of American power since her birth.”
The business relations between Morris, Franklin, Walpole and Baring reveal that at least awareness of EIC interests were in close proximity to American leaders. The fact these men were in business together makes the possibility of a real connection between the EIC and Grand Union flags more plausible. As mercantile interests continued to cleave apart from royal control, the EIC flag, perhaps, in some way, symbolized a new, independent economic paradigm that was emerging on the world’s stage.
In fact, the red-and-white stripe convention had long been associated with merchant trade and in a way that was decidedly detached from royal control. A few decades before the formation of the East India Company, the Hanseatic League’s flagship, the Adler Von Lubeck, sported a red-and-white striped banner in addition to her hull being adorned with horizontal red-and-white striping. The Adler Von Lubeck, or “Eagle of Lubeck,” was the most powerful warship of its day with Lubeck as the capital city of a vast trading network that had dominated Northern European trade for hundreds of years.
The Hanseatic League operated under the Law of Lubeck, which, in 1226, was a constitutional framework granting political power to a council of merchants, as opposed to tribal monarchs, dukes or kings. Eventually, about 100 cities in the league adopted governments based on Lubeck Law. London was a trading partner of the Hanseatic League with the wharves and offices of Die Hansa located in an area known as Steelyard.
Possibly derived from the colors of the Adler Von Lubeck and other Hanseatic cities like Bremen, the red-and-white stripes of the East India Company standard may have carried this propitious attitude toward the emerging reign of trade forward. It has been suggested that the stripes may have been representative of the shipping lanes throughout the trading network. Although conjecture, the independent nature of both the Hanseatic League and what would become the British East India Company would seem to suggest a level of shared interest and common philosophy that may have contributed to the EIC incorporating Hanseatic symbolism into their own designs. If so, as the striped symbolism made its journey from Die Hansa to the EIC and then to the American republic, it embodied a sense of a new modus operandi—no longer would kings be kings, but rather business was now “king.” It is interesting to note that this new American economic model—based upon constitutional law and trade—was quite possibly influenced more by Lubeck Law than its contemporary cousin, the well-known Magna Carta (1215).
In the 1937 seminal work concerning the two flags, Sir Charles Fawcett states:
“The distinguished American leader, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), was another who must have known of it [East India Company flag]. He came to London as a young man to finish his education as a printer (December 1724 to July 1726), and made two other long stays in England from 1757 to 1762 and from 1764 to 1774. During the latter period he acted as London agent for the opposition to the King’s Government in four of the American colonies. In 1761 he made a trip to Holland and during his third period of residence he visited France and Germany. He thus had opportunities of seeing the Company’s flag; and even if he did not himself see it, it did not need the omniscience of Macaulay’s schoolboy for him and hundreds of other English settlers in America to know of it. He would naturally be interested in the East India Company, for (in addition to its prominence as a mercantile body) it was concerned in the agitation that was going on in the American colonies. Thus in a letter of 5 January 1773 Franklin mentions a report that the Company had tea and other goods to the value of four millions in its warehouses, for which it wanted a market, and says that he had remarked on the imprudence of keeping up the duty on tea, which had thrown that trade into the hands of the Dutch and others who smuggled it into America. On this point the Company was in agreement with Franklin, for in 1667 it had advocated an alteration of the duties to prevent smuggling, and in the beginning of 1773 it urged the abolition of the duty of 3d. a pound on tea in America, which Lord North’s ministry insisted on retaining. Franklin, therefore, far from having reason to dislike the Company, could properly regard it almost as an ally. Another thing that might dispose him to favour its flag was that it symbolized independence, in the sense that the Company’s administration in India was not then directly controlled by the King’s ministers, for it was not till 1784 that the well-known “Board of Control” was established. Franklin was Chairman of the “Committee of Conference”, consisting of himself and two others, which was appointed by the second continental congress on 15 June 1775 to confer with General Washington on the organization of the land forces. He is likely, therefore, to have had an influential voice in settling their flag.”
Although mentioned in some of the Grand Union origin fables, the East India tea involved in the Boston Tea Party was not transported to the colonies by East India Company ships. Therefore, as Fawcett concludes, the merchant ships involved in the incident most likely flew “the ordinary British mercantile flag, viz, the red ensign. […] It follows that the theory favoured by some English and American writers that the Company’s ships were frequent visitors to American ports and its flag a familiar sight to the colonists is a pure myth.”
“There is evidence of the prominent placement of the East India Company’s flag in the colonies.”
Some vexillologists and historians strongly disfavor exploring hidden possibilities or conjecture as somehow being completely invalid. Without direct documentary evidence showing that the Grand Union flag was derived from the East India Company colors, they say it’s folly to even suggest a connection. There are even some historians that suggest that no one in the American colonies even knew what the East India Company flag looked like, so the similarity must be a mere coincidence. But this is not the case, because there is evidence of the prominent placement of the East India Company’s flag in the colonies—at least an iconographic depiction of the device.
Peter Ansoff, in his excellent sleuthing paper for the North American Vexillological Association entitled A Striped Ensign in Philadelphia in 1754?, reveals the background story on a persistent mystery in American vexillology. In 1754, an engraving of the Philadelphia waterfront included in the foreground of the image a large merchant ship flying a striped ensign with the British Union Jack in the canton. The flag strongly resembles the Grand Union flag because, as Ansoff surmises, it is the East India Company’s flag from an older illustration copied over to the new engraving. The original image was from a painting of Bombay, India, made in 1732. That painting included a large East India merchant ship flying the company flag which featured thirteen red-and-white stripes and a British Union in the canton. As Ansoff discovers, evidently, a London engraver, in a kind of low-tech Photoshop technique, copied the illustration of this earlier ship as a mirror image when engraving the Philadelphia waterfront years later.
The 1754 engraving of the Philadelphia waterfront was the brain child of Thomas Penn, one of the sons of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. It was a marketing effort to match other contemporary engravings of New York and Boston showing those ports as bustling centers of American trade and commerce.
Ansoff states that two printing runs of the pertinent Philadelphia engraving were made—one of 500 copies and another of 250. The waterfront engraving was fairly large—6 ft. 10 in. wide by nearly two feet tall—and copies were undoubtedly displayed in prominent locations in the colonies. This places the East India Company flag—in an iconographic marketing push for Philadelphia—in the colonies at least 21 years before the American Revolution.
“If I have shown any bias in favour of the Company’s flag [i.e. being connected to the American flag], I am at any rate justified in relying on one qualification that no other rival can claim, viz. the fact of its being identical with the Grand Union Flag. That this was due to mere coincidence, without the designers of the latter banner being aware of it, seems to me improbable.” ~ Sir Charles Fawcett
Although no direct evidence of the two flags being connected has yet to emerge, this new circumstantial evidence helps fill out the potential for the two devices being related. The fact that Robert Morris, Benjamin Franklin, and key principals within the East India Company were in business together before and after the revolution would at least seem to indicate the possibility of shared interest. The symbolism of the East India Company flag may have been seen as a desirable and transitional step toward the economic independence that made up a large portion of colonial grievances against parliament, and eventually, King George. Adopting it as the standard of united opposition to British policies may have been a subtle telegraph to the rising mercantile class on both continents. There is also the possibility that as a symbol of economic independence, the EIC flag design communicated a novel fashion sense, so-to-speak, and the red-and-white stripes, as the merchant’s banner, just looked cool. These red-and-white stripes may have originated with the flag of Bremen and Lubeck, two capital cities in the Hanseatic League, which maintained a trading house, Steelyard, in London. The Adler Von Lubeck, in its day the most powerful warship in the world, featured red-and-white striping on its hull and a red-and-white striped ensign. As the flagship of Die Hansa—the most advanced trading network in Europe—the Adler may have contributed to the perception of the red-and-white stripe convention as being the “merchants’ colors.” It would be natural for the EIC to adopt this convention, and then later, the United Colonies, as a republic born from England but based on religious and economic freedoms.
If you hadn’t seen the earlier installments of this series, click for Part 1 and Part 2.