For this year’s Flag Day, did you know that the first flag of America—the Grand Union flag—and the official colors of the British East India Company, are virtually identical? Despite the East India Company’s colors pre-dating the American republic for more than a century? This abiding mystery is only further compounded by the fact there has been no historical document yet discovered which explains the purpose or reason for adopting the Grand Union flag as the first flag of our nation.
The Grand Union flag, composed of thirteen red-and-white stripes with the British Union in its canton, is nearly identical to the flag utilized by the British East India Company in use in one form or another for 150 years prior to the Grand Union’s adoption as the “first flag of America.”
Although we don’t have any “smoking gun” evidence of any direct connection between these two flags—aside from their nearly identical appearance—examining the business interests and connections between East India Company principals and key revolutionary leaders may begin to illuminate a track connecting the two. Certainly, as the following records will show, there was at least a comprehensive awareness of the East India Company’s affairs and interests held by both Robert Morris and Benjamin Franklin—two American decision makers positioned to have been instrumental in any decision to adopt the striped flag as our “national” standard.
“The assertion that the Grand Union Flag was copied from the East India Company’s flag has prima facie probability.” —Sir Charles Fawcett, 1937
Morris was the previous owner of the first flagship of the Continental Navy which debuted the Grand Union flag on 3 December 1775, in addition to being the procurator (through Willing, Morris & Co.) of the wharves and staging area where the first American fleet was outfitted. The day before the Grand Union debut on the Alfred, Esek Hopkins accepted the position of commander-in-chief of the new navy and orders were given by Congress to send a military detachment to the “wharves of Messrs. Willing and Morris…to take care of the ships and stores belonging to the United Colonies.” The following day, the hoisting of the Grand Union ensign on the Alfred essentially inaugurates the new navy. More than a month earlier in October, Franklin was on the Continental Congress’s committee of conference which travelled to Cambridge to review and advise Washington’s rebuild of the Continental Army.
On New Year’s Day, 1776, a military ceremony was conducted by General Washington at Prospect Hill overlooking Boston hoisting the new American flag in an inauguration of the “new establishment” of the new army. What has perplexed vexillologists (flag experts) for hundreds of years is the fact that this new American flag was virtually identical to the colors of the East India Company, and only further compounding the mystery is the absence of any historical documents describing why the Grand Union flag was adopted for our fledgling nation.
Together, Morris and Franklin were the only two men to serve on both secret committees of congress which dealt with foreign relations and the United Colonies’ pursuit of international trade networks to supply the revolutionary effort. As primary records show, both men partnered and worked with principals of the East India Company in England—one of the first successful transnational corporations of the modern era.
“What has perplexed vexillologists (flag experts) for hundreds of years is the fact that this new American flag was virtually identical to the colors of the East India Company, and only further compounding the mystery is the absence of any historical documents describing why the Grand Union flag was adopted for our fledgling nation.”
There have been many colorful narratives connecting the dots between the American flag and the East India Company colors, but the seminal academic work covering this topic is Sir Charles Fawcett’s 1937 paper, “The STRIPED FLAG of the EAST INDIA COMPANY, and its CONNEXION with the AMERICAN “STARS and STRIPES”.
“For the sake of completeness I have given incidents in its history after 1800, but they do not affect the main purpose of this article, which is to establish that the Company’s flag was identical with the one generally known in the United States of America as “the Grand Union Flag”. This was the first banner displayed in the American War of Independence to indicate a union of the thirteen States in revolt, each of which had previously used a flag of its own. […] On the above basis, the assertion that the Grand Union Flag was copied from the East India Company’s flag has, prima facie probability.
Its striped flag had been flying for nearly two centuries, and it would at any rate be familiar to Englishmen. It seems probable that it was also well known to American seamen, who made voyages to Dutch and other European ports for various purposes, including the large traffic in smuggling tea and other heavily taxed goods into America. Thus Esek Hopkins (1718-1802), who was commissioned in December 1775 as Commander-in-Chief of the new navy of the thirteen States and on whose flagship the Grand Union Flag was first hoisted would almost certainly be acquainted with it, for not only had he been one of the leading colonial seamen, but also a privateer captain, who had made brilliant and successful ventures during the Seven Years’ War (1756-63).”
Certainly Lt. John Paul Jones, the first man to hoist the Grand Union flag on the Alfred, was familiar with East India Company ships, and most likely, their colors. Born in Scotland, Jones mentions EIC ships in 1775, “…he had suggested that if the Continental navy seized St. Helena in the mid-Atlantic, the “the vessels of the British East India Company [that dropped] anchor at that spot on their homeward trip… would inevitably fall into American hands.” Lt. Jones must have been struck by a tinge of irony when he had the distinction of raising the East India standard—as the “Flag of America”—for the first time on the Continental Navy’s flagship, Alfred. Jones’s later command, the Bonhomme Richard, was a former East Indiaman (albeit the French Compagnie des Indes Orientales) and was named after the protagonist of Benjamin Franklin’s classic, Poor Richard’s Almanack.
There are even more compelling reasons to associate the Grand Union flag’s unveiling on the Alfred with the British East India Company. As mentioned, the Continental Navy’s first flagship, the Alfred, was formally a merchantman named the Black Prince, built in 1774, and owned by Willing, Morris & Co…. (to be continued).
Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3 of this series in honor of Flag Day 2015 concerning Robert Morris, an unsung primary mover in the American Revolution, and his potential role in the creation story of the first flag of America, the Grand Union flag, and its connection to one of the world’s most significant early transnational corporations, the East India Company.
Click here for Part 2 and Part 3.