The Newfoundland Tricolor Pink, White and Green Flag

by John FitzGerald

[Based on a column originally published in The Sunday Independent, Vol. 1, No.1. (12 October 2003)]

The Newfoundland pink, white and green tricolor is one of the oldest symbols in continuous use in Newfoundland and Labrador. It predates its cousin the Irish flag by five years, and is the oldest flag in the world to use the color pink. It has a long history, one embodied in a myth publicized by J.M. Byrnes in 1931:

In the early 1800s, sealers from around Newfoundland converged on St. John’s in winter, awaiting the departure of vessels for the annual seal hunt. Public institutions benefitted from this available labour by sending rival teams of sealers into the woods to haul out sleds of wood to heat the public buildings. Competitions ensued over which team had the largest “haul of wood”, the piles marked by flags flown from the top of the pile as it was hauled through the streets of St. John’s. Inevitably, strong disagreements ensued. The winter of 1843 was particularly violent. After several altercations, an English team bearing a pink flag, and an Irish team bearing a green flag decided to appeal to Bishop Michael Fleming, the nearest authority, to settle the matter. He took out a white handkerchief, announced that the white was in memory of his recently departed friend the Scot William Carson, a founder of the House of Assembly, tied the rival flags together, and bid them go in peace.

As convenient as this legend is, there is not a shred of evidence to support any aspect of it. It is pure myth. The subsequent history of the flag, though, is well-documented.

The Newfoundland Natives’ Society flew the tricolor until the society disbanded around 1847. By then, the flag was gaining wider acceptance. Historical geographer John Mannion notes that the first documentary reference to the flag was when St. John’s captain Walter Dillon flew the flag from the mast of his schooner, circa 1845, as he sailed between St. John’s and Waterford. The flag exploded in popularity when the governor of Newfoundland asked Dillon to remove it, and Dillon refused. Even the Irish seem to have been inspired by our flag. Dillon moored his schooner at Meagher’s Quay in Waterford in front of the merchant premises of Thomas Meagher – the Mayor of Waterford who had been born in St. John’s; in 1848 his son Thomas Francis Meagher gave Ireland its own tricolor – Orange, White, and Green – before being convicted of treason as a Young Irelander, deported to Tasmania, escaping to the United States, and ending up as Governor of Montana before drowning in a river.) But back to our flag.

In 1860 the Prince of Wales was greeted at the Newfoundland Parliament at Colonial Building in St. John’s by the sight of alternating Union flags and the Newfoundland tricolor. In 1897, the tricolor flew at the ceremony to lay the cornerstone of Cabot Tower. Historian Paul O’Neill notes that when Ms. Frances Foster sang the Ode to Newfoundland for the first time on 21 January 1902, between acts of Mam’zelle at the Casino Theatre in St. John’s, the audience wildly applauded when two soldiers brought out the Pink, White, and Green and the Union Jack. In the May 1909 general election, Robert Bond promised if elected to make the tricolor the official flag, and the Ode to Newfoundland the official national anthem. (Unfortunately for the tricolor, Bond lost the election to Edward Morris.) And at a dinner tendered in his honor in New York, the celebrated Captain Robert Bartlett was presented with a tricolor by a Miss Phelan, aunt of the St. John’s lawyer Edmund Phelan, to take to the North Pole.

When World War I was declared and Newfoundland went to war, the tricolor flew alongside the white ensign and the Union Jack. In 1945, at the end of World War II, Newfoundland troops marched past Governor Walwyn on Military Road; he stood under a Newfoundland tricolor. After confederation, Smallwood (who had campaigned on a “British Union” platform) adopted the Union Jack, but by the 1970s, even the British government was complaining that Newfoundland should get its own flag.

In the 1970s, the Newfoundland Historic Trust, the Newfoundland Historical Society, and the St. John’s Folk Arts Council submitted a joint brief to the Flag Committee of the House of Assembly unanimously recommending the adoption of the tricolor as the flag of Newfoundland. Instead, the present provincial flag as designed by Christopher Pratt was adopted. Since then the tricolor has undergone a renaissance in popularity. Rugby teams sport it. Teenagers and adults with not a shred of rebel, separatist or republican understanding or heritage wear it. Newfoundland nationalists fly it and wear it, but so do firmly committed Canadians. Tories, Liberals, NDPers, and the non-committed fly it. Athletes who row in the St. John’s Regatta receive their medals hanging from official pink, white and green ribbons, and the cultural and arts community fly it from the legendary LSPU Hall. Ironically, many people call it “the Republic of Newfoundland Flag” – but this is a misnomer. Newfoundland never was a republic, and is not likely to become one. The flag is properly called the Newfoundland tricolor, or simply, the Pink, White and Green.

The tricolor was the subject of a poem and a song composed by Michael Francis Howley in 1903:

The pink, the rose of England shows,

The green St. Patrick’s emblem, bright

While in between, the spotless sheen

of Andrew’s Cross, displays the white.

Then hail: the pink, the white, the green,

Our patriot flag! long may it stand. –

Our sirelands twine, their emblems trine,

To form the flag of Newfoundland!

Chorus:

Fling out the flag, o’er creek and cragg.

Pink white and green, so fair, so grand.

Long may it sway, o’er bight and bay,

Around the shores of Newfoundland!

Whate’er betide, our “Ocean Bride”

That nestles ‘midst Atlantic’s foam

Still far and wide, we’ll raise with pride

Our native flag – o’er hearth and home. –

Should e’er the hand of Fate demand

Some future change in our career; –

We ne’er will yield; on floor or field

The flag we honor and revere!

Chorus: Fling out, & etc.

The most remarkable part of its history is that in 160 years, the Newfoundland tricolor has yet to receive any official state recognition. One former lieutenant-governor incorporated its colours into his personal coat of arms, to the delight of vexillologists who study flags, but they also were shocked that the tricolor had yet to receive any official sanction or recognition by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. That day in our tricolor flag’s history is yet to come.

Since October 2003, when the Independent newspaper first appeared with the Newfoundland tricolor on its masthead, the popularity of the flag has grown steadily. I many ways, flags are personal things. To me, the Newfoundland Tricolor speaks of the greatness of Newfoundland’s past, and the potential of its future, of defiant old Dillon, of the greatness of Bond and Bartlett, the sacrifice of our veterans, and the richness and vibrancy of the best of our cultural communities from Frances Foster to Rick Mercer to Codco to Anita Best and Donna Butt. By flying our tricolor, I hope that the flag will encourage us to think and debate about our cultures and our histories, and their relationships to our present and future.

Dr. John FitzGerald is a historian who teaches in the Department of History and in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University of Newfoundland

6 Responses to “The Newfoundland Tricolor Pink, White and Green Flag”

  1. Pat Hawco 21 June 2012 at 11:38 am #

    I did not know that and a lot more Newfies don’t know that I like to get a good one. My grandfather was in the First WW with that flag and he was in that Battle of Beaumont-Hamel.

  2. Chris Brynner 6 June 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    Almost all of the contents of this article is myth and falsehood. See Carolyn Lambert’s article, “Emblem of our Country, Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, Volume 23, Number 1, 2008”. The history is well known. The Pink, White and Green was the flag of the St. John’s Roman Catholic fraternal organization, the Star of the Sea Association. Nothing more. Some people have tried desperately to make it something it is not or never was for whatever personal reasons.

  3. Joshua 21 September 2015 at 1:29 pm #

    I think it was started as a rebel flag to go against joining Canada. Not too sure tho… You also see a few of the United States confederate flags around newfoundland… I think its just the rural way of life thing tho and for others its the dukes of hazards.

  4. zeze 9 April 2016 at 5:31 am #

    This blog was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I’ve
    found something that helped me. Cheers!

  5. Carl Kelly 8 October 2017 at 9:15 pm #

    the pink white and green were definately the colors of the star of the sea catholic organisation in the late 19 century…for this reason it had no chance of becoming the nfld. flag in the 1970s competition as it was considered a catholic symbol which did not historically represent all the nfld. population dispite all the fanciful tales of inclusion of england and ireland in its tri colors…was never a national or provincal offical flag…and of cource we were never a republic.

  6. carl kelly 4 May 2018 at 11:06 am #

    one last point on the pink white and green…the colors are traditionally called from the pole out…therefore the pink should be on the pole ad depicted on the cover of Jack Fitzgeralds book Remarkable stories of Nfld.and in Fred Adams book,Potpourri of Old St. Johns..it is also displayed correctly in Dr.Whitney Smiths book on flags…he is considered a world authority on the subject having written 27 books on the subject!


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