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Behind bountiful banners: pursuing a lifelong passion, Whitney Smith has documented the origins and significance of hundreds of flags of the hemisphere.

Many people might be vexed by the word vexillologist, but not Whitney Smith. Because that is what he is: one who studies the history and symbolism of flags. In fact, as a teenager, Smith himself coined the term vexillology, by combining the Latin word for flag, vexillum, with the Greek root for the study of logia. Today, it and related cognates have become accepted lexicographically.

"I am essentially someone who studies flags rather than waves flags," Smith once said in an interview in the Boston Globe. "I think of patriotism as doing things that are of benefit to the country: voting, working to change unjust laws, promoting something like the Equal Rights Amendment. The rest is nice, but it's not a substantive act."

Smith's interest in flags began in 1946, when at age six he received from his father a small, cotton United States flag on Patriots Day, in his birthplace, Lexington, Massachusetts. That sparked a childhood interest, which led to collecting flags, armchair exploration of the topic through books and articles, and constant correspondence to satisfy his boundless curiosity. After undergraduate studies in political science at Harvard University and a doctorate in the same field at Boston University (where he taught for a time), Smith cofounded a bimonthly journal, The Flag Bulletin which since 1961 has published more than two hundred issues for the benefit of scholars and amateur enthusiasts worldwide. In 1962 Smith also established a consulting service, the Flag Research Center, which he still operates from his home in Winchester, Massachusetts. He draws upon a collection of 13,000 volumes, 250,000 documents, and 2,000 flags--probably the largest of its kind in the world--to answer even the most arcane inquiries from clients: a filmmaker needs information on campaign banners during the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879, or a model kit company requires details regarding flags of a long-defunct shipping line. During his career Smith has written twenty-three books, including Flags Through the Ages and Across the World a widely regarded reference work.

Currently, he is serving as editor for an exhaustive two-volume, twenty-five-hundred-page Encyclopedia of National Symbols (over half of which he is writing himself), scheduled to be published by Harcourt Brace in 2005.

In a corner of his living room, Smith has a replica of a globe made in 1493. "That was a bad year for making a globe," he says with a smile as he traces his finger across its surface. "You come from Spain across the ocean and hit Japan and China. No Americas!" Other than the globe, which he bought for the tiny flags indicating each country, his house is remarkably devoid of flags. Still, a couple flag-related items matter to him in a personal sense. In 1964, as a logo for his Flag Research Center, he adopted a design proposed by British artist Louis Loynes. It is a heraldic zephyr consisting of a ship in the form of a swan, a reminder that at a very early date flags flew from ships. Significantly, the ship's ensign blows forward, whereas the head of the swan looks backward to suggest that to progress in the study of flags, one must examine the past.

"Numerous countries of the Americas adopted flags containing the so-called colors of liberty--blue, white, red," explains Smith. "The Dutch were the first to use this combination dining their uprising against Spain during the Eighty Years War, then it continued during the American Revolution, and finally the French Revolution with the tricolor, one of the most influential designs in a global sense. Under the aucien regime you had this terribly complex coat of arms: orders of knighthood and crowns, scepters, orbs, floating angels, fleur-de-lis, but the revolution comes in and sweeps all that away and sets up in orderly fashion three equal vertical stripes--liberty, equality, fraternity. They even did optical studies to adjust the proportions to make them look equal. An early Mexican flag (1821) mimicked the tricolor but changed the order of stripes to white, blue, red. In Uruguay another banner used from 1825 to 1828 and associated with patriotic heroes was the flag of the Thirty and Three, a blue-white-red tricolor inscribed with the words Libertad o Muerte. Paraguay also opted for a tricolor of horizontal stripes--red, white, blue--with coats of arms in the center, which dates from 1812. It hasn't changed much; it's one of the longest lasting designs in the world.

"In Haiti, the first flag retained the blue and red of the French tricolor but omitted the white out of a belief it symbolized white slaveholders. In the Dominican Republic the Trinitarians, a secret revolutionary society under Juan Pablo Duarte, superimposed a white cross upon a quartered field of blue and red in a flag that emphasized independence as well as religious faith."

As Smith points out, the stars and stripes of the United States flag have origins no longer clear to historians even though it developed into one of the world's best known symbols. "It also has had the most versions, mostly due to the addition of stars for new states," he adds. "Almost certainly it influenced the design of the Cuban flag, also red, white, and blue, which actually was created in New York City by Cuban revolutionaries in 1849."

A stickler for detail and possessed of a capacious memory, Smith then recalls that Narciso Lopez designed the flag and Emilia Teurbe y Tolon, the wife of Cuban writer Miguel Teurbe y Tolon, sewed the flag together. "The Panamanian flag also was created in New York City. An early proposed flag retained the red, yellow, and blue colors of Colombia, but the design too closely resembled the United States flag. Instead, a design proposed by the son of the first president, Manuel Amador Guerrero, was adopted in 1904: a quartered scheme of blue for the conservatives, red for the liberals, and white for peace between these competing parties."

Smith takes delight in the way flags can reflect competing traditions. "In the ease of Ecuador, you find two. Along the coast, in the province of Guayas, you have a blue and white striped flag in the Argentine tradition of Belgrano and San Martin, first raised in 1820 during a revolt in Guayauil. But revolutionaries in Quito favored three horizontal bands--yellow, blue, red--a design also common to Colombia and Venezuela because in the first years of independence, the three countries comprised a union called Gran Colombia. Often called the `Bolivarian' colors, with red for Spain, yellow for the gold of the New World, and blue for the oceans. You find something similar in Bolivia, but with green substituted for the blue to show they were part of the union but not quite."

As for the inclusion of stars in New World flags, Smith points out that "only the Brazilians follow the tradition in the United States of adding stars when a new state or territory is created. But from 1865 to 1912, El Salvador had a flag essentially the reverse of that of the United States--blue and white stripes with a red canton with white stars, one for each department. They added stars over time, starting with nine and ending up with fourteen. Ecuador is unique in having a special flag for use on governmental buildings, the national flag with a small circle of nineteen stars representing its departments. The Venezuelan flag contains an arc of seven stars symbolizing its original provinces.

"Flags can say so much!" smith enthuses. "For example, in the Bolivian war ensign a miniature version of the national flag fills a canton bordered by nine gold stars for its departments, but within the sea-blue field you find one more star adrift, which represents its lost littoral. In the flag of Brazil, an austral identity is expressed by use of the Southern Cross and other constellations which appear on the blue sphere in the center. You also find the Southern Cross on some provincial arms of Argentina. A vexillologist from that country wrote an article for The Flag Bulletin about this constellation as a motif. It appears early. I found a sixteenth-century engraving with Amerigo Vespucci and an Indian maiden in a hammock, obviously an imaginary scene, but he is holding a pole with a pennant, which bears the Southern Cross. So there you have a theme related to geographic position, not religion, language, nor culture.

"In some countries of the Americas you find two versions of the national flag," continues Smith. "Private citizens fly a civil flag of plain stripes, but those used by the government bear an additional national coat of arms. This may seem a subtle distinction, but it says something about what the flags means. In Argentina, for example, by law citizens were prohibited from using the flag with a sun until 1985, when President Raul Alfonsin abolished this tradition to emphasize that government is not above the people but rather beholden to the citizenry. Among national flags, that of Paraguay is unique in that its two sides are different (although this is true for the state flag of Oregon, with its state seal on one side, beaver on the other). The Paraguayan flag has the state arms on one side and on the reverse the treasury seal, a lion in front of a stick bearing a red cap. That's the liberty cap, also once popular in the United States: It appears in early paintings of a patriotic nature. It is sometimes called the Phrygian cap. The god Mithra wore a cap like that, and then in Rome so too did freed slaves, so it entered into the romantic classicism of the American and French revolutions as a non-monarchical symbol, often with the clasped hands--the foi--signifying fraternity. You also see the cap in the state arms of Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, and previously in the arms of Honduras, also Haiti, on a palm tree, until it was removed during the reign of Duvalier. The state arms of Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador feature a triangle, a Masonic device, because many revolutionary leaders were Freemasons. You also see it in the Cuban flag."

To celebrate the abundance of resources and natural beauty in the Americas, Smith says, one finds flags with things like nutmeg (Grenada), the quetzal bird (Guatemala), and the maple leaf (Canada), while others feature miniature scenes with distinctive geographic features: Mount Chimborazo (Ecuador), volcanoes (Costa Rica and Nicaragua), and a canal joining two oceans (Panama).

Naturally, one might wonder whether native Americans had flags before the European conquest. "We will never know for sure," says Smith, "because so much was destroyed at the time of the Conquest. In general, nomadic peoples, those without cities, have been slow to adopt flags. In that sense, the native peoples of North America don't seem to have had flags and thus did not become vexilliferous until the Europeans arrived. For the Incas we know the sun motif was important, and in the case of the Aztecs the Codex Mendoza does include scenes of tribute being paid by figures who appear to hold staffs bearing some sort of emblem at the top, what might be called a vexilloid, probably not a flag in the true sense, but perhaps something involving heraldry, a clan symbol, a totemic animal. As to the Mexican flag itself, the three vertical bands doubtless were inspired by fhe French tricolor, although the red-white-green combination may have its origins in the standard of the Virgin of Guadalupe hoisted by Father Hidalgo as he issued his battle cry of Dolores in 1810. In a way, this tied the flag to the tilma [the cloth on which the Virgin appeared) itself, to suggest divine inspiration for the colors.

Early in the past century, the Bulletin of the International Bureau of the American Republics did excellent articles under the series title Flags and Coats of Arms of the American Republics, reports Smith. The 1908 edition covers the Argentine flag, which was more influential than one might expect, according to the vexillologist. Flag Day in Argentina, June 20, is the anniversary of the death of General Manuel Belgrano who, according to some historians, in 1812 came up with the design of three horizontal bands--celestial blue, white, celestial blue--inspired by the color of the sky just before going into battle near present-day Rosario. Smith says," I don't think we'll ever know for sure. Some have said the colors were influenced by the national patron, the Virgin of Lujan, often portrayed in a white dress and blue robe. During Spain's struggle against Napoleon, at Cadiz those were also the colors of Ferdinand VII, who had a following in the Rio de la Plata region. Another possible source may have been the cockades--rosettes or bows worn on a hat or coat--which were popular patriotic symbols in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We know that already on May 25, 1810, sky blue and white cockades were distributed among revolutionaries on the plaza in Buenos Aires as they deposed the viceroy in favor of a popular form of government. It is said that as a favorable omen clouds overhead parted, revealing a so-called `Sun of May,' a symbol that, was added to the official national flag in 1818. The following year, Jose de San Martin used the same colors in his flag for the Army of the Andes as he marched north to meet up with Simon Bolivar."

Across the river in Montevideo, during the Patria Vieja period (1810-16), Jose Artigas used a version of the Argentine flag with a red diagonal stripe across it to symbolize Uruguayan independence from Argentina, but by 1828, when the eastern province obtained definitive independence, it opted for blue and white stripes with a canton containing a golden sun, much like that of the Argentine flag.

"Curiously, one sees the same color scheme in Central America," continues Smith. "In 1818, a French-born privateer, Luis Aury, as commodore of an Argentine squadron, raised that country's flag on Providencia Island, off the coast of Nicaragua, proclaiming it the first independent state in the region. In 1823 the Central American Federation adopted the same general design after Manuel Jose Arce, chief of the militia in El Salvador, had selected it for the banner of his province. With minor variations Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Costa Rica followed suit, and such remains the case to this day, but for the latter which in 1848 added a red stripe in tribute to the French revolution of that year."

"All people want to feel their flags are ancient," says Smith, "even though the country may not be all that old. The Flag of the Three Guarantees--religion, freedom, union--issued by Agustin de Iturbide in 1821 has three diagonal strips--red, green, white, with a crown at the center because he had imperial ambitions, which proved short lived. Upon his demise in 1823, the crown was replaced by the eagle, serpent, and snake motif of the Aztecs, with a half-wreath of oak and laurel leaves below, centered on a flag of vertical green, white, and red bands, much as we see the Mexican flag today. This flag has gone through minor changes since then--during the reign of Maximilian, the crown returned above an eagle, much like one on the imperial arms of France. In 1968, for the Olympics, the flag was modernized in a graphic sense, and in 1988 the color of the eagle was changed to gold.

"Today, the Chicano flag bears a black Aztec eagle on a white central disc with a red field, sometimes with the words Viva la Huelga. It began with Cesar Chavez but became an ethnic flag of pride, not a Mexican flag, although it is flown by Mexicans in the United States. Within the Americas but not widely used you also have la bandera de la raza created to promote Latin American solidarity. Invented in 1932 by a Uruguayan officer, Angel Camblor, and often displayed on el Dia del Descubrimiento [October 12], it has half an Inca sun and three purple crosses representing the ships of Columbus. In Peru, as a symbol of ethnic identity, native peoples have adopted a flag which they associate with the Inca empire--horizontal stripes of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple, a design that happens to resemble the international gay pride flag, so this has caused some problems--nothing new when it comes to flags.

"In the twenties," continues Smith, "a fellow from the United States went to the San Blas Islands off Panama, where he stirred up Kuna nationalism and even created a Kuna flag of three horizontal bands--red, yellow, red--colors associated with Spain, horizontal bands in Spanish colors but with a black reversed swastika, a traditional symbol among the Kuna. During World War II, a United States plane flying over the so-called Republica de Tule saw the flag and reported back that Nazis had landed. Eventually pressured to modify the design, the Kuna added a gold nose ring to the swastika because they know Germans don't wear nose rings." (At least not then!)

The Americas have not been without their share of unrecognized pseudo-states. On several occasions Europeans--soldiers of fortune, con artists, individuals suffering from illusions of grandeur--have succeeded in establishing private kingdoms complete with flags, coats of arms, and other regalia. For example, in 1860 a French adventurer named Antoine-Orelie de Tounens, with the support of locals chiefs, founded a constitutional hereditary monarchy, the kingdom of Araucania and Patagonia, for which he designed a flag of blue, white, and green stripes, which flew briefly until he went into exile.

There is also Counani, over 135,000 square miles of Amazon jungle between the Araguari and Oyapock rivers that, was "lost" or at least contested by France and Brazil due to imprecision in the Treaty of Utrecht. In 1886, two European adventurers fleeing French justice established a Republic of Independent Guiana (also called Counani), assigned themselves ministerial posts, and then decided to install as president-in-exile Jules Gros, a novelist and municipal official they knew back in France. The bogus republic never enjoyed credibility, although its creators generated several coats of arms (one featured two toucans) and flags, including a green one with a canton consisting of the French tricolor, which, earlier had flown over the region. Arbitration in 1900 eventually awarded the territory to Brazil.

"Then you have Gregor McGregor," says Smith with a chuckle, "another con man, a Scotsman, whose personal flag was a green cross. In 1817, he first declared himself Lord of Amelia Island along the coast of Florida, then a Spanish possession, which of course got him thrown out. Three years later, in an area along the border between Nicaragua and Honduras, he set himself up as Principe Gregor I, Cacique de Poyais, a local tribe, and there he invented a `national flag,' which began to appear in books of the period. Eventually he fought as a general in the independence movement of Venezuela, where he would award comrades in arms his own `Order of the Green Cross.'" (He died in 1845 in Caracas, where he is buried in the Panteon Nacional.)

Smith himself has been involved in the creation of several flags, especially those of new countries. "Before independence officials in Suriname considered a flag with five colored stars representing Indians, Asians, American Indians, Africans, and Europeans, but they felt it emphasized race too much, so they contacted me regarding possible designs. Nothing came of it, but when Suriname became independent in 1975, the year my book came out, I decided to reward myself, so I went there and was in Parliament when they adopted the flag. I also visited the Bahamas when they became independent and saw that flag when first raised. Before Guyana became independent, I wrote the future president, Cheddi Jagan, to inquire what the flag was going to be. He wrote back that one had not been created yet and asked if I had any ideas, so I came up with a design, sent it in, then didn't hear anything. Six years later--by then Forbes Burnham was prime minister--I was a grad student, married, had kids, had other things on my mind, but I wrote and inquired about the flag, and they sent me a picture, and I said, `My God! It's my flag!'"

In 1960, Smith designed his own personal flag: square like a heraldic banner, two halves separated diagonally from the staff downward, with an open book in white outlined in black on the lower, red half "because I am a historian who writes books, also because three open books grace the flag of my alma mater, Harvard University." On the white half there is a black hammer, the tool of a smith. Smith who, through flags, retains the sense of adventure and excitement he has known since boyhood adds: "The white and black come from the Templars, and I have adopted their motto: `Dear to my friends; drear to my foes.'"

Caleb Bach is a former teacher of art history and Spanish and a regular contributor to Americas.
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Author:Bach, Caleb
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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