Brief History of Color and Symbolism in National Flags

By

Aaron Larrimore

 

Flags are an important symbol, if not the most important symbol, of a nation’s identity. For the citizens of a state,the flag is instantly recognizable and it represents the binds that hold society together. Of course, the flag serves a representative purpose of the ideals and identity of the state and does not specifically promote them, nor are those ideals and identities represented only in the flag. Nevertheless, a state’s national flag is a powerful symbol.

The flags chosen for the paper were chosen randomly. In order that they were not skewed towards one region or continent at the expense of others, the randomly chosen flags were taken from each continent. These continents include North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Australia was omitted because only Australia and New Zealand can be grouped in the region as "Australian" states and because the countries are primarily made up of European immigrants, and therefore do not represent an indigenous difference from flags found in Europe and to a lesser extent, North and South America. Antarctica was omitted because there are no countries located on the continent.

The five flags discussed are the Colombian flag (South America), the Haitian flag (North America), the Macedonian flag (Europe), the Ghanaian flag (Africa) and the Vietnamese flag (Asia).

The flag of Colombia is one half yellow, one quarter blue and one quarter red. There are two interpretations on the meaning of the flag. The first states that yellow stands for sovereignty and justice, the blue stands for nobility, loyalty and vigilance and the red stands for valor, honor, generosity and victory. The second interpretation states that yellow stands for universal liberty, the blue stands for equality and the red stands for fraternity. It is distinct from the Spanish flag, which would have been prevalent before independence

The history of the Colombian flag dates back to the country’s independence in 1819, though the present flag would not be adopted until 1861. The flag is expected to be flown on national holidays by private citizens.

 

The Flag of Colombia

Colombia

 

The flag of Haiti has changed frequently since the country reached independence in 1801. A common element in all the flags has been "mimicry" of the French flag. France had been the colonial power that ruled over Haiti pre-independence. French culture has remained a powerful force in Haiti and the French language remains the lingua franca of the island. The present flag is one part dark blue and one part red. The French tricolor has white as well. The tricolor features the colors in equal bars running vertically. The Haitian flag’s two colors are placed horizontally.

 

The Flag of Haiti

Haiti

 

The creation of the contemporary Macedonian flag dates back to 1992, after the country gained independence from Yugoslavia. The flag is very distinctive, featuring a red background and a yellow sun and rays in the foreground. This is rooted in Macedonian history and previous flags before the union with Yugoslavia and the adoption of communism. The flag dates back to the legendary Macedonian figure of Phillip II and his dynasty (his son was Alexander the Great) and his called today the Vergina dynasty. The sun was the ancient symbol of the royal house.

The flag clearly serves as a unifying national symbol in this case, as it hearkens back to history and nationalism.

The Flag of Macedonia

Macedonia

 

The flag of Ghana presents a strong statement of political unity and in contrast to Haiti, a break with its colonial past. The colors of the flag are red, yellow and green and each are one third of the flag, laid out horizontally. The three colors are the colors of pan-African unity. In the period after WWII, the pan-African movement was a political force that in its mainstream form did not endorse a mega-state of African states, but instead advocated strong political, economic and cultural ties between the new African states. Ghana was the first African state to be decolonized and its first leader, Nkrumah, was determined to make Ghana a leader in the emerging African political scene. Nkrumah wanted Africa and the world to view Ghana as the beacon of African independence and unity. This drive is reflected in the flag of Ghana, which not only has uses the pan-African colors, but also features a prominent black star in the middle. The black star represents the fact that Ghana was the first African country to receive independence.

The Flag of Ghana

Ghana

The Vietnamese flag is also overtly political, perhaps more so, than the flag of Ghana. It features a deep red color that encompasses the entire flag with a single yellow star in the middle. The colors and the star are reminiscent of other communist states, including the Soviet Union and China. The use of the red/yellow combination belies the intense identification with the state and nation with communist ideology. Whereas other communist states in Eastern Europe used symbols like the star in their flags, the deep red color was often absent, replaced by colors used in the flags of the nation in years past. For many nations that experimented with communism, the national colors remained the same. The flag as a representation of the country remained the preserve of national and or ethnic identities.

The Vietnamese flag represents a break with the conception of national identity and instead promotes an ideological identity rooted in the beliefs of communism. Given that Vietnam had been a French colony prior to its independence, there was no "prior" flag to work with. All the same, the Vietnamese flag shows that flags can also represent ideology as opposed to less mutable ideas as nationhood or ethnic identity.

The Flag of Vietnam

Vietnam

National flags serve one overriding purpose, the symbol of national unity. This can veer from the ideological binds of the state in the case of Vietnam, ancestral ethnic binds in the case of Macedonia, or a combination of the two, as in the case of Ghana. Flags can be influenced by other nations in the case of Haiti, or they can differ greatly from previous cultural milieus in the case of Colombia.

 

Works Consulted:

Birmingham, David. Kwame Nkrumah. Athens : Ohio University Press, 1998.

Brown, Keith, The Past In Question. Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford : Princeton University Press, 2003.

CIA World Factbook: http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/

Colombia: http://www.colostate.edu/Orgs/LASO/Colombia/colombia.html

http://www.1uptravel.com/flags/largeflags/colombia.html

Ghana: http://www.ghana.gov.gh/index.php

http://www.1uptravel.com/flags/largeflags/ghana.html

Haiti: http://www.haiti.org/

http://www.1uptravel.com/flags/largeflags/haiti.html

Harding, Colin. Colombia . London : Latin America Bureau ; New York : distributed in North America by Monthly Review Press, 1996.

Macedonia: http://www.macedonia.org/

http://www.1uptravel.com/flags/largeflags/macedonia.html

Vietnam: http://flagspot.net/flags/vn.html

http://www.1uptravel.com/flags/largeflags/vietnam.html

 


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