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Earliest flags over South Africa (ca. 1488 - 1876)

Last modified: 2022-10-22 by bruce berry
Keywords: voc | cape colony | batavian republic | south africa |
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Portuguese Explorers (ca. 1488)

Flags were first brought to South Africa by the European explorers trying to find a sea route from Europe to India and the Far East. The first to reach what is now South Africa was the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão. He reached the mouth of the Orange River.  Later, the Portuguese explorer and navigator Bartolomeu Dias de Novaes rounded the Cape in 1488 and landed at what is now Mossel Bay. Ten years later Vasco da Gama finally reached India.

image by António Martins, 19 Feb 1998

These explorers belonged to a military order known as the Military Order of Christ. Its badge was a red cross on a white background (which is still used as the badge of the Portuguese air force today). In addition to the flag of the Order, the Portuguese sailors flew the royal flag of Portugal. The designs of both these banners were also painted on the sails of their ships as was the common practice amongst sailors at that time. 

The Portuguese erected stone crosses (padrão) at prominent points along the coast to proclaim sovereignty of the Portuguese realm by right of discovery.  Dias erected his first cross on Dias Point (since renamed Lüderitzbucht in what is now Namibia), at Kwaaihoek on the easternmost limit of Algoa Bay and on his return voyage at Buffels Bay near Cape Point.  No permanent Portuguese settlement was established at this time.
Bruce Berry, 28 Mar 2003

The English Annexation (ca. 1588 - 1650)

The first attempt to claim sovereignty over the Cape by a European power was by the English, although the Dutch had already considered the possibility.  On 03 July 1619, captains Andrew Schillinge (captain of a Royal Ship) and Humphrey Fitzherbert (commodore of a trading fleet) happened to meet in Table Bay and decided to claim it for England. They hoisted the cross of St George and proclaimed the surrounding territory to be English in the name of King James I.  King James was not interested in acquiring this new territory and so the "claim" lapsed as no permanent settlement was established.

About a century after Vasco da Gama found the sea route from Europe to India round the Cape of Good Hope, other countries became interested in trading with the east.  The English East India Company was founded in 1600 for this purpose and used a flag of red and white stripes with the Cross of St George in the canton.   This was later changed following the merger of the England and Scotland and the British East India Company was formed.
Bruce Berry, 28 Mar 2003

Dutch East India Company (VOC) (1652 - 1795)

image by Mark Sensen, 14 Nov 1996

There is some controversy as to what was the first flag to be flown over what is now South Africa. On 05 April 1652, Jan van Riebeeck anchored in Table Bay and on the morning of 06 April 1652 he stepped ashore and proclaimed the territory surrounding the Bay to be henceforth the property of John Company with himself as Commander of the settlement.

image by Mark Sensen, 26 Feb 1998

Van Riebeeck makes no mention in his Journal whether he hoisted a flag, but it is assumed that he did. There is some controversy as to which flag he may have hoisted. The flags generally used by Dutch vessels at that time were those of the House of Orange in honour of William Orange, the stadholder of the Netherlands which was an orange, white and blue horizontal tricolor (known as the Prinzenvlag). Later the upper orange stripe was changed to the more distinctive red which has been used as the Dutch national flag ever since.

What is not in dispute is that van Riebeeck came representing the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC for short). The company's flag was the Dutch tricolor with the company monogram/cipher in the centre. The monongram was the letters VOC intertwined. Later a small "c" was added above the monogram to represent the Cape although it is doubtful whether this appeared on flags. The company had other business chambers which followed a similar tradition (i.e. A for Amsterdam, M for Middelburg etc).

A permanent European settlement was established by VOC and thus the Dutch-based VOC flag is considered to the first South African flag.  The Dutch and VOC tricolors flew until the first British occupation of the Cape on 17 September 1795 following the capitulation of Dutch troops and the British Union Flag replaced the Dutch tricolor.
Bruce Berry, 28 Mar 2003
[Dutch East Indies Company flag] image by Jarig Bakker, 28 Mar 2003

There were a few different VOC flags, for use by the different Chambers (places of settlement).  This flag was for the Cape Colony. There was a cipher for the Cape which was a  small "c" but it is unknown if it was ever used on flags."
Jarig Bakker, 28 Mar 2003

The version of the VOC flag on this page really should not have been placed on the Homepage of an article dealing exclusively with the Dutch East Indies, as the cipher used on this flag refers in particular to the Cape of Good Hope (Caab de Goede Hoop in 17th Century Dutch).

In "National and Provincial Symbols" by F.G.Brownell (1993) [brl93], it states on page 10:
"More common was the use of the company's cipher, a combination of the letters VOC (Vereenigde Nederlandsche Oost Indische Compagnie), over which a small letter C for Cabo (Cape), was sometimes placed. The flag flown (in the Cape) was either that of the Netherlands, or that of the Company, which was the Netherlands flag bearing the Company's cipher".

[VOC-Capetown seal] sent by Mark Sensen, 30 July 1998

Note that the above does not specifically mention a flag with the Company's cipher with above it a small letter "c".  It does show us that such a cipher combination existed, however, and that its use on flags used on ships with the Cape of Good Hope as their homeport must assumed to have been in use.  The cipher can also be viewed on the same page in the above mentioned book, as well as in C. Pama's Lions and Virgins (1965) [pam65] as Fig. 12.

Caabse Vleck was a very early name for Cape Town (Kaapstad) but I have not been able to find the material relating to this.  I have a few photocopies of early paintings of the Cape of Good Hope. The first is a water colour dated 1655/56 and is the oldest known painting of the settlement. It is headed: Aldus Verthoont hem de TAFEL BAY Geleegen Aen CABO de BONA SPERANCA.

Three other drawings by Johannes Rach dated 1762 have handwritten underneath: Gezigt van Cabo de Goede Hoop.   So more than a Century after the landing of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape it is still known as "Cabo". This is probably why a letter "C" was added to the cipher and not a "K", which would have been the obvious choice if the settlement had been known as Kaap de Goede Hoop.

Although we know the cipher with the "C" was in use at that time by the Company in the Cape, I have never been able to find any evidence that a flag with such a cipher was ever used, whether on land or on ships, but one would presume that when the Governor of the Cape boarded a ship for travel he would use such a distinctive flag. Other ships operating from the settlement might have used such a flag as well.
Andre van de Loo, 29 Mar 2003

The French Annexation of Saldanha Bay (1666 - 1667 ; 1670)

The French East Indian and West Indian Companies used Madagascar as their rendezvous for the trade with India, but a refreshment station was required in the south Atlantic. On 12 December 1666 a fleet of French ships arrived in Table Bay. On 18 December 1666 the French ship Saumacque carried out an inspection of Saldanha Bay and its environs, . On coming ashore, a party erected a small wooden post, or marker, with an attached leaden plaque on which was engraved the coat of arms of King Louis XIV and with the inscription: Ludovico Decimo-quatro regnante, Franciscus Lopius Montevergius in Orienten Legatus posuit anno 1666 (in the reign of Louis XIV, Francis Lope Mondevergue, Viceroy in the East erected this in the year 1666). The French party departed in January 1667 without leaving a garrison, apparently of the view that the pole and plaque was enough proof of their claim.

In 1670 another French expedition arrived at Saldanha Bay and a flag was hoisted on 30 September to a salute and cries of “Vive le Roi de France” and the VOC soldiers in the area were captured. However, the French presence was temporary and the expedition had left by 12 October 1670 when messengers sent by the VOC arrived to protest their actions.

image by Pierre Gay, 19 Oct 1999

While there is no description of the French flag used at Saldanha Bay, the royal arms on the plaque contained three fleurs-de-lis. On the royal standard these were yellow on a blue field. The French naval ensign at the time was white with several small golden fleurs-de-lis. Which of these flags was hoisted at Saldanha Bay is a matter of speculation, but it is thought that the naval ensign would have been the most likely given that the fleet was a naval expedition under naval command.
Bruce Berry, 28 Mar 2003

The first British Occupation (1795 - 1803)

The British occupied the Cape following the capitulation of Dutch troops on 17 September 1795 in order to prevent the French from taking control and the British Union Flag replaced the Dutch tricolor, which had flown over the Cape for almost a century and a half.

 image by Edward Mooney, 04 May 1996

The Union Flag at that time was that which had been adopted in 1606 and bore the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew to signify the union of the English and Scottish kingdoms in 1603.

image by Clay Moss, 16 Dec 2006

Following the Act of Union in 1801, Ireland united with England and Scotland and the cross of St. Patrick was added to the Union Flag to give it the design we know today. This flag was also flown in the Cape until the First British Occupation ended in 1803.
Bruce Berry, 02 April 2003

The Batavian Republic (1803 - 1806)

image by Mark Sensen, 19 Jan 1999

The First British Occupation of the Cape ended in 1803 with the Peace of Amiens in terms of which the Cape was returned to the Dutch. The Dutch East India Company had been liquidated in 1796 and the Dutch state, under the influence of the French, was now known as the Batavian Republic.

The Constitution of 1798 determined that the Batavian Republic would possess a centralized government patterned after that of the Directory in France and bound to the newly formed Republic to France by alliance.

The flag of the new republic was the Dutch tricolor of red, white and blue with the Hollandsche Maagd (Dutch Maiden) added to the canton. The Dutch Maiden was a seated woman, facing a reclining lion, holding a shield and a staff crowned by the Cap of Liberty. The Hollandsche Maagd on a white field was also used as the Batavian Republic Naval Jack.

At the Cape she became known as the Bataafsche Maagd (Batavian Maid) and later, the Lady of Good Hope, appearing in the crest of the Arms of the Cape Colony and in the shield of the South African coat of arms used between 1910 and 2000.
Bruce Berry, 02 April 2003

The Second British Occupation (1806 - 1815)

image by Clay Moss, 16 Dec 2006

The British returned and seized the Cape of Good Hope area in 1806, for the same reason as in 1795.   The Second British Occupation lasted until 1815, when the new Dutch kingdom ceded the Cape permanently to Britain in a treaty following the Napoleonic Wars. 
Bruce Berry, 02 April 2003

The Cape Colony (1815 - 1876)

image by Clay Moss, 16 Dec 2006

The Cape Colony flew an undefaced British Union Flag until it formally adopted a distinctive colonial badge in 1876, whereafter defaced British ensigns were flown.

The new British administration was more efficient than that of the previous VOC.  This together with the perceived view of the failure of the British to deal with the increasing incursions of the Xhosa tribe on the eastern frontier and the abolition of slavery, led to many of the original Dutch settlers (the Boers) trekking north into the interior of what is now South Africa in what became known as the Great Trek in 1835.  Between 1835 and 1845 over 10,000 Boer families, who became Voortrekkers, left the Cape and trekked north over the Orange and Vaal Rivers and eastwards across the Drakensberg mountains into Natal, establishing small independent republics along their way.
Bruce Berry, 02 April 2003