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The Colours of History: Tim Marshall on Flags and their Hidden Significance

Posted on 2nd May 2017 by Martha Greengrass

'There’s always a story behind a colour, even if sometimes its veracity is lost in the mists of time.'

Undoubtedly one of Waterstones' standout non-fiction titles of 2016, Tim Marshall's Prisoners of Geography quickly established itself as one of our most enduringly popular Non-Fiction Book of the Month choices, turning a legion of readers from a techno-centric view of history to a topographical one and redefining contemporary geopolitical thinking through an engaging survey of ten maps of the world. Now, in his latest book, Worth Dying For, he turns his attention to history's most tangible and politically divisive totem: the flag. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, he considers the significance behind the symbol.

Cover Image: Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Leutze, Metropolitan Museum of Art

As with pictures, so with flags; every one tells a story. 

We began using these strips of painted cloth several thousand years ago. When the Chinese invented silk they also came up with a way of making symbols recognizable at distance, and portable enough to be carried on long journeys. The Silk Route ensured the Arabs picked up the idea, and when Christendom and Islam collided in the Crusades the practice spread to Europe. 

These flags became synonymous with nationhood, character, spirit and power. We learn what the colours and the design of our flag mean, and imbibe that meaning in our youth, often without realizing it. Take the Union Jack: we don’t often stop to deconstruct it, except when we are forced to think about it. We are now in a period of introspection, asking how tight are the ties that bind the various lines and colours in the flag. In the event of Scotland leaving this Union, the flag would have to be redesigned without the cross of St Andrew. Would the subsequent flag then have the same power and meaning for those left in the Union?

Worth Dying For considers these questions, and more, and does so in a time of renewed nationalism, tribalism and identity politics. 

It opens with the best-known flag – the Stars and Stripes – and asks, ‘Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light’, to which the answer is a resounding yes! The USA is a riot of red, blue and white patriotism. This can be traced back to the Revolutionary War against the British. It was fought by the thirteen colonies, hence the thirteen stripes in the flag. The concept of freedom is woven into the pattern of the flag and, no matter your opinion of the USA, the flag still stands for freedom and democracy in its essence, if not always in the practice of those in authority. 

There’s always a story behind a colour, even if sometimes its veracity is lost in the mists of time. Red, gold, green and black are associated with Africa, and are seen in many of the continent’s flags, but their popularity is because of one particular country.

The Ethiopian flag is red, gold and green, with a five-pointed star in the centre, which unofficially is the Star of Solomon dating back three thousand years. Ethiopia was the only African country not to be colonized, and when the other countries began to break free from colonialism many of them chose red, gold and green, in various designs, in honour of Ethiopia.

The propensity for green, black, red and white in the Arab flags can also be traced to a single source: the pan-Arab flag of 1916. It was intended to represent one huge Arab nation for the post-colonial era. The white was for Islam’s Umayyad dynasty, the black for the Abbasid, and the green for the Fatimid. The red is probably for the Hashemite tribe and offers a clue to why the pan-Arab nation never came about. Why would such disparate peoples come together under one tribe? Nevertheless, we see echoes of the pan-Arab dream in the flags of Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and others. 

There are 193 nation states; I don’t mention each one in Worth Dying For, as that would make it a reference book. Instead there are examples of terrorist flags (ISIS), military flags (NATO) and social flags (rainbow) flags. Each, in its own way, tells its own story; and each of us brings to each flag our own feelings about what it means. 

Tim MarshallTim Marshall

A journalist and former Diplomatic Editor of Sky News, Tim Marshall is the author of Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know about Global Politics and Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags (Elliott & Thompson), available in paperback now.

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