The History of Australian Flags

Early Colonial History

For the first 166 years of Australia’s colonial history, from 1788 up until 1954, the Union Flag was the flag that Australians used to represent themselves, at home and abroad. During this period, most Australians of British ancestry identified as overseas Britons, rather than simply as Australians. Even from a legal point of view, Australian citizens were actually British subjects, up until the passing of The Australian Citizenship (Amendment) Act in 1984.

Union Flag 1707-1800

The Union Flag, 1606 – 1801

When the First Fleet arrived on 26th January 1788 at Sydney Cove, led by Captain Arthur Philip, this was the flag that was planted on Australian soil to symbolise the claiming of the Australian continent for the British Crown. With the devastating loss of its thirteen American colonies just a decade earlier, Britain was eager to stake new territorial claims and grow its empire.

Arrival of the First Fleet

The arrival of the First Fleet

Not long after, a union of Ireland and Great Britain in 1801 was established, forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. To mark this change, the Union Flag gained the Cross of St Patrick, thereby taking on the form that has carried through to this day.

Union Flag from 1801 onwards

The Union Flag, from 1801 onwards

The Southern Cross

Colonial Flag, 1823

The Colonial flag, 1823

The first flag designed specifically to represent Australia was known as the National Colonial Flag, a joint effort between Royal Navy Captains John Bingle and John Nicholson in 1823. It was the first time the Southern Cross, which had long been associated with the Southern Hemisphere, had been depicted on a flag.

Federation Flag, 1831

The Federation Flag, 1831

Several years later, in 1831, the Federation Flag appeared. It was similar to the Colonial Flag, as it featured the Union Flag in the top left corner (the “canton”) with the Southern Cross, although differed in that the primary cross was blue, not red, and had five stars, rather than four. This flag was popular across the colonies for over 70 years but was never adopted for official use. The flag found supporters among those in the political movement pushing for Federation, under the slogan "One People, One Destiny, One Flag". Both the flag, and the Federation movement, had the support of prominent politicians of the time, including Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin, who later became Australia’s first and second Prime Ministers, respectively.

The Eureka Stockade

Swearing allegiance to the Southern Cross

The Eureka flag, first flown in 1853, was used by gold miners rebelling against the British colonial administration on the Victorian goldfields, primarily around Bendigo and Ballarat. The flag’s design was essentially an inverted Federation Flag (minus the Union Jack), which by that stage had already enjoyed widespread use for some 20 years across the colonies. The miners’ rebellion is an interesting part of Australia’s colonial history, for the parallels that it has with the much earlier and far larger American War of Independence. Similar to the American rebels of New England in the 1770s, the miners on the Victorian goldfields were objecting to what they believed were unfair laws and taxation (through mandatory licensing) imposed by the colonial government of Victoria. The licenses were a tax on prospecting for gold, rather than a tax on striking gold, making it unfair on less fortunate prospectors. Miners found by police without a license were likely to be fined or arrested.

To protest these laws, about 500 miners formed a group known as the Reform League, and elected Irish-Australian Peter Lalor as their leader. The Reform League organised a Charter, which pushed for greater democracy in the growing colony, including demands for full and fair representation, the right to vote (for men), and removal of the requirement to own property for members of the Legislative Council. They also united behind the Southern Cross flag, which later became known as the Eureka flag. In Peter Lalor’s famous speech to the miners in 1854, he declared:

“We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties.”

The miners built a stockade (a small wooden fort) and took their positions inside. On 3 December 1854, surrounded by colonial troops (redcoats) and police, a short battle ensued, in which the miners were defeated. The death toll was estimated at 22 miners and 5 troopers, and Lalor survived but suffered serious injuries. Although the rebellion was quashed, it successfully led to the passing of reforms in later years, which served to address the concerns of the miners.

As revolutions go, the Eureka stockade pales in comparison to events such as the American War for Independence or the French revolution, in which tens of thousands lost their lives in an effort to overthrow an incumbent regime. Eureka does, however, in the context of Australia's relatively peaceful history, stand out as a turning point in the forging of a unique Australian identity.

Federation

Australia's new federal cabinet

The first Federal cabinet, with both Barton and Deakin, in 1901

When the new design was announced in 1901, it was poorly received by the wider Australian public. The flag was never actually chosen by the Australian people in a popular vote. King Edward VII approved the design after it was selected in a competition that only considered proposals which featured the Union Jack. The Australian flag is a defaced British Blue Ensign, based on the British Royal Naval Ensign.

King Edward VII

King Edward VII gave royal assent to the Australian flag

This was the time of Federation, when Australia found strength in the unity of its 6 founding states, and its economy and its population were booming. The idea of Australia having a separate national identity to that of the motherland (Great Britain) was gaining traction. Popular magazine The Bulletin described the design as "a staled réchauffé of the British flag, with no artistic virtue, no national significance" and a "Bastard flag". Even the Prime Minister at the time, Chris Watson (of the Labour party, as it was then known) disliked the flag and wanted to delay adoption of a national flag until a more suitable design could be found.

Australia's original Blue Ensign

The defaced Blue Ensign which won the design competition in 1901

So if it's accepted that the Blue Ensign was poorly conceived of and not well received by Australians - then how did it stick?

Quite simply, it is because no popular alternative has appeared - and inertia set in.

There was actually some confusion around whether the Red Ensign or the Blue Ensign was Australia's official National flag, up until 1950, when Prime Minister Robert Menzies proclaimed the Blue Ensign as the National flag. Monarchists and those loyal to the British Empire took measures to ensure the flag became entrenched.

On the other hand, debate on choosing a new national flag continued among Republicans over the years. Various competitions were held with the objective of identifying and then popularising an alternative national flag, although none successfully. Prime Minister Paul Keating is quoted as saying "I do not believe that the symbols and the expression of the full sovereignty of Australian nationhood can ever be complete while we have a flag with the flag of another country on the corner of it."

More recently, Labour Member of Parliament Tim Watts spoke out about the need for a new Australian flag, stressing the importance of a national symbol in reflecting a nation's identity. Watts argues that Australia needs a new flag which represents the "modern, multicultural, Southeast Asian nation we have become".

Australia’s National Colours

Australia's national colours

Green and gold have been used as Australia’s sporting colours since the late 1800s, perhaps most famously with the Australian cricket team’s baggy green which was first worn in 1899. The Australian Olympic squad in 1908 unofficially adopted “green and wattle” as their colours, and in 1912 it became official, with the Australian team’s uniform featuring green vests with gold trimming, and white shorts with green and gold trimming. Green and Gold is a distinctive combination, with the combination only being used by South Africa (and only in sports) and Brazil, in addition to Australia.

This is in contrast to the large number of countries whose national colours or national flags consist of red, white and blue – numbering roughly 20. That list includes well known flags, like those of the USA, the UK, France and Russia, but also includes many other smaller countries like Chile, Cuba, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Panama, Samoa and Thailand – whose flags also consist exclusively of red, white and blue. Reminiscent of the Australian landscape, its beaches, its eucalypt forests, its sunshine, and the national floral emblem (the golden wattle), Green and Gold has a much more Australian feel to it than the somewhat demure red, white and blue.

Green and Gold became Australia’s official national colours on 19th April 1984, on the advice of Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Hawke was also a proponent of changing the Australian flag, although clearly his approach was to take things one step at a time!

For further reading:

See other proposed designs for a new Australian flag