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Discussion of historic territory flags (Papua New Guinea)

Last modified: 2019-06-25 by ian macdonald
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Flag of Papua design uncertainty

[Territory of Papua 1906-1949 (Papua New Guinea)] 1:2 image by Clay Moss

In 1906, the colony became the Australian Territory of Papua (the first territory of the Commonwealth government). Once the relevant legislation had passed in 1905, the Port Moresby administration was asked for a decision about the badge (a question which had been deferred since 1904 when the Empire-wide change to Tudor crowns had been communicated from London). On 23 January 1906, the Executive Council agreed the badge should be a "Tudor crown above the word PAPUA in plain capitals, and the whole surrounded by a laurel wreath". The endorsement of this badge by the Commonwealth government was sent to the Colonial Office on 23 February 1906. When new flags were required in November, London confirmed that the design had been approved.

After the new Acting Administrator of the territory received the 1907 Flag Book, two messages were sent to Melbourne on 30 November 1907. One expressed regret at the lack of historical or characteristic significance, especially in contrast with the Public Seal, and the lack of the wreath (presumably not understanding that the badge was shown without the wreath, which would still feature on the Governor's flag). The second was accompanied by a flag, presumably a blue ensign defaced with the former badge, and asked whether this was the flag (with badge replaced) that was to be used at the 12 government stations and whether government vessels and boats should continue to fly the same flag, or would the government prefer the use of a (possibly modified) Australian flag.

A memo dated 20 December 1907 from Atlee Hunt (Dept of External Affairs) to the Prime Minister seemed to treat both parts of the question together, recommending "that a rule be laid down that territories of the Commonwealth use the Commonwealth Flag (blue ensign) with some distinguishing badge in fly thereof; such badge is to be in the case of Papua, the word PAPUA in block letters on a white circular patch." A letter to the Papuan administration on 6 January 1908 tells us that the minister agreed, at the very least in the case of Papua.

In preparing drawings and actual flags as a pattern for the new design, Dept of External Affairs correspondence suggested different possibilities - red or black letters, disc 1/3 or 2/5 the width of the flag (see this image - a rough example included at some point, made simply by pasting a handwritten badge (no block capitals) on a recent print of the Commonwealth blue ensign). Instructions for making a similar image explicitly state that the vertical diameter of the badge is to be "in middle of flag, i.e. in line with outer edge of Jack".

A copy of the defaced Commonwealth ensign was sent to Papua on 14 July 1908, along with the information that "in all probability" the Commonwealth star was to be changed from 6 points to 7, the "Imperial authorities having been asked for the necessary authority" (see this Australian page). It seems that the Papuan ensign, and the general rule for territories, may have been forgotten very quickly. Whatever I have read suggests that the British crown and "PAPUA" ensign continued to be used. No details appear to have been sent to London, which probably didn't help the new design.

However, I do like to entertain the possibility that the questions about the flag of Papua had an impact on the design of the Australian flag. Atlee Hunt was dealing with the same issue at the same time as the design of the new arms of the Commonwealth. The proposed crest - a six pointed star, as on the Governor General's flag, was too similar to an existing crest. Just before the suggestion that Papua should fly Australian, rather than British, flags, Hunt communicated to London that adding rays to the star would be an appropriate difference, but by the time he prepared the memo about territorial flags, he was passing on a request for 7 points instead, one to represent the territories. This was approved, which led to the use of the same star by the Governor General, and the change in the blue and red ensigns to seven points.
Sources: National Archives of Australia A1, 1908/9191, digital copy at and A462, 828/3/8 PART 1,
Jonathan Dixon, 1 May 2012

There is plenty of evidence that the Flag of the Territory of Papua was the badged British Blue Ensign. But a report from the post-war P&NG Administrator was misinterpreted by Dept. External Territories staff, so that the above flag, which was being replaced in general use pre-war by the Commonwealth Blue Ensign, was 'combined' with it to form a PAPUA-badged Commonwealth Blue Ensign. I haven't found any hard evidence that this alleged badged ANF, or a matching ARE, existed.
Jeff Thomson, 24 October 2012

Firstly, as I remarked above, a 'PAPUA'-badged Commonwealth Flag was certainly approved by the Australian government in 1908, even if it was quickly forgotten or deliberately replaced. In the three NAA files, the earliest mention of flags in Papua is a Department of External Territories document dated 11 November 1949 which describes flag use before the war (during which Papua and New Guinea were jointly administered). (NAA barcode 102516, page 239)

This document describes the Flag of Papua as the "Commonwealth Blue Ensign with approved badge", and implies that this was the PAPUA + crown badge approved in 1906. It says the flag was used on administrative  buildings, by administration vessels, and on the mizzen mast accompanying the Administrator's defaced Union Jack on the main mast when the governor was aboard.

Also mentioned is the ensign required by the local customs regulations
- the "Flag of the Territory of Papua (Blue Ensign) with the addition in the fly of the letters "H.M.C." in black in bold character" (presented as a quote from the regulations), with the note that there is no indication that this flag was used before the war, and wasn't used afterwards.

The same document, when dealing with pre-1942 New Guinea, describes two flags: the flag flown by the Administrator when afloat as a 'Blue Ensign with Laurel Wreath enclosing the letters "T.N.G."'; and the customs flag as a "Commonwealth Blue Ensign with the addition in the fly of a white ball with the letters "T.N.G.C." in black in bold character". Whoever wrote the document seems careful to distinguish between badges on the British Blue Ensign and defacements to the Australian blue flag. This would add weight to the claim that Papua had a defaced Australian flag, although I note that the document is describing the situation of at least 7 years (and a war) earlier, and does not say what it was based on. Seeing as it is dated before the  P&NG administration responded to a request for comment (see below), I'd guess it was based on departmental records.

(Our sources for the territory flag, described on the overview page of PNG historical flags, include a crown in the badge, although Jilek (1989a) agrees with the DET document in not including a crown. I don't think we mention the customs flag, while Jilek does describe the badge without any mention of which flag it defaces. The document acknowledges that they do not know of any authority for the TNG flag, but the customs flag was defined in the customs regulations.)

The 1949 DET document also says that only the Commonwealth Blue Ensign had been used since the  resumption of (joint) civil administration of the territories, and I guess Jeff meant that it replaced the earlier flags post-war, rather than pre-war.

The Administration, replying to the department on 7 December (pp218-219), also uses "Commonwealth Blue Ensign" to describe the NG customs ensign, but describes the flags of both Papua and NG as simply Blue Ensigns with lettered badges without crowns, and the Papua customs ensign as an HMC-badged blue ensign, not HMC added to the territory flag. They were very keen to stress conformance with usual British practice, both in the past, and as a recommendation for the future, but detailed different flag usage (pre-war) on boats in the two territories, as well as suggesting that P&NG might deserve a bird of paradise badge rather than simply letters.

A memo from the department to the Prime Minister's Department on 20 February 1952 (p125) provides details of use at that time of the blue Commonwealth flag and the new "T.P. & N.G.C." badge defacing it for the customs ensign, and also another conflicting account of the pre-war Papua flag. It says the PAPUA+crown badge was used on a "British Blue Ensign", mentioning that approval for the badge was given in 1926. Given that that exact badge was approved for use on a normal British ensign in 1906, I guess that 1926 is a typo.
Jonathan Dixon, 26 October 2012

Indeed I believe it was a typo Jonathan, because I think I've found it in an on-line National Archives document, barcode 109104 page 46. At the bottom of a handwritten note is the date of British approval of the crown-over-PAPUA badge. However the 0 of 1906 looks much more like a 2, and it seems that someone in the Australian government had read it as such in the 1940s. All mentions in old government documents of a 1926 approval date for the PAPUA badge appear to be based upon this simple error. The true quoted date was 28 November 1906.
Jeff Thomson, 29 March 2019

[Territory of Papua ca 1903 (Papua New Guinea)] image by Ian MacDonald, June 2019

In 1907, Australian bureaucrats proposed "that a rule be laid down that territories of the Commonwealth use the Commonwealth Flag (blue ensign) with some distinguishing badge in fly thereof; such badge is to be in the case of Papua, the word PAPUA in block letters on a white circular patch." That this flag was to be used in Papua was confirmed in January 1908, but it wasn't recorded in the Admiralty Flag Book and I haven't come across any other mention of it.

Since we discussed this earlier in the year, I've come across a hint that there might be evidence of this flag in use, but it was replaced the same year (1908) by one "with crown". I am chasing that up and will let you know more details, but it's worth keeping in mind.
Jonathan Dixon, 27 October 2012

Some more details on the flags used in Papua between 1908 and WWII, particularly the Australian blue ensign defaced with "PAPUA" in a white disc which was chosen by the Australian government in 1908. There is, after all, evidence that this was actually used, and it seems likely that this or a variant was indeed used until 1942.

There is, after all, a photo of this flag in use, flying at The Residency, Kulumadau, Woodlark Island, "approximately 1908". The photo shows the seven pointed Commonwealth star and white disc with writing, although the other stars are not clear. Notes by Tessa Jones accompanying the photo confirm that the text is "PAPUA", and also comment that the flag was used only until  1908, and that one "with a crown" was used until 1940.

In December 1942, after the territory had been placed in military administration, there were enquiries in Canberra about flag use, seemingly inspired by General Blamey's observation of the use of the Union Jack (rather than an Australian flag) at Government House in Port Moresby, saying the locals had been taught to revere it. The Department of the Army consulted with the Department of External Territories. The first response, on 21 December, referred to instructions from the Prime Minister's Department from the 1920s (circulated in Papua in 1931), which dealt with use of Australian and state flag, but not specifically territories, and were reported that the Commonwealth flag and British Ensign Papua flag (with 1906 badge) were used. (NAA barcode 109104, p40)

[Territory of Papua ca 1942 (Papua New Guinea)] image by Ian MacDonald, June 2019

On 23 December, after "further research and enquiry" Mr Halligan at the DET, corrected this, saying that the UJ that was used at Government House and the Papuan flag used at all other buildings was not as previously described, but the defaced Australian flag. Only the word Papua is mentioned for the badge, no crown. A handwritten note included in NAA file barcode 109104 notes the use of the Papuan flag on government vessels as well as at outstations, and describes the badge with crown used with a laurel wreath on the Union Jack when the Governor was afloat. (pp. 38-39)

The original opinion of the Department of the Army was that in general circumstances, the Australian flag should be used rather than the Union Jack. This remained unchanged when the current situation was better explained, and they advised that the flag should be used whenever it would be in Australia, removing any reference to existing Papuan flags from the draft letter to the Commander-in-Chief. This seems to be how the Papuan flag met its demise, as well as the use of the Union Jack at Port Moresby and possibly Norfolk Island. (pp36, 24-5)

[Territory of Papua 1906-1949 (Papua New Guinea)] image provided by Jonathan Dixon, 20 November 2012

After the war, Papua and New Guinea were administrated jointly. On 19 July 1946, the administrator, J. K. Murray, proposed a flag for the combined territories which "more or less fits with the precedents in Appendix 6 of the Colonial Regulations". This proposal was an Australian blue ensign with a laurel wreath in the lower part of the flag, enclosing the inscription "T." above "P.-N G." (line drawing above). This prompted more inquiries into what flags had been used pre-war. Once again, notes at the Dept of External Territories assume Papua followed the standard British colonial model with the badge adopted in 1906, while other territories use simply the Australian flag (although they note customs regulations). In contrast, the reports from PNG (in Jan 1947) describe the flags other than the UJ used pre-war both in New Guinea and Papua as based on the "Blue Ensign", understood to be the Australian version. Once again, the badge for Papua is described without reference to a crown. (pp. 19,12-13,9)

The idea of a new flag for the combined territories was rejected, at least partly because it was thought the Commonwealth flag would be adequate (except where an alternative was required by customs regulations) until a permanent administration was established. (pp6-7)

Where does that leave the 1908 flag? It was adopted and used with the 7 pointed star version of the Australian flag. The reference to a new flag with a crown is possibly consistent with reverting to standard British colonial flag with Admiralty approved badge. It is certainly consistent with the descriptions of PAPUA and crown on an Australian flag in Department of External Territories documents from 1949 (see my 27 October post), although the basis for those descriptions seems a bit shaky. In any case, it may be that someone decided the Australian ensign should be defaced with the Admiralty-approved badge, rather than simply the name. However, by the 1940s the administration do not mention this. I would say it's very unclear whether (or when?) this defaced Australian ensign was used with a crown or not, but given the reports in 1942 and 1946/7, it was probably used in some form until 1942.

National Archives of Australia series A518 item Z918/1 barcode 109104,
Photo with notes by Tessa Jones, Papers, 1897-2006, from Papua New Guinea Association of Australia, UQFL 387, Box 8, Folder 8, Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library.
Jonathan Dixon, 20 November 2012

Ensign misunderstandings - British or Australian?

This is a discussion regarding the confusion within the Commonwealth government during the 1940s and 1950s, as to whether the Blue Ensigns and Red Ensigns being referred to as Papua and New Guinea territory flags in various official documents were the British or Australian types. In those days it appears that many government officials in Australia and in the territories saw no particular difference between these flags as we do today, and saw no need to draw the distinction. As a result there are dozens of documents rendered largely useless because they provide us with no clear clue as to exactly which flag they meant.

Misunderstandings happened because of the habit most people had of referring to 'blue ensign' or 'red ensign' without explaining whether they were talking about the British or Australian flags. 'The Papuan 1917 Customs Regulations (repealed 1951) specified a Blue Ensign, as far as I know, never the Commonwealth one. So it remains interpreted as the badged British flag, to me at least!
Jeff Thomson, 24 October 2012

I think there was such a misunderstanding later on in 1954. A 19 August letter from Port Moresby to the Department of Territories, forwarded directly to the Prime Minister's Department, (NAA barcode 1863037 pp238-239) outlined the current use the Australian National Flag and Australian Red Ensign in the combined territory (in line with post-Flags Act norms), and also saying that the official flag of Papua remained a blue or red ensign with the crown and PAPUA badge. The reader is referred to the Admiralty Flag Book for an image of the badge, and the pre-1906 BNG flag is described in the same way, so I would expect that they meant a British ensign rather than a Commonwealth one.

However, it seems this information caused the Papua flags to be listed as one of the officially used defacements of the Australian National Flag or Red Ensign in a table distributed by the Prime Minister's Department on 22 December. (many copies in NAA e.g. barcode 7853923, p44) Especially since the description was given in a response to a request for information specifically about defaced national flags/ensigns, this can easily have been caused simply by a different interpretation of "blue or red ensign", whether or not the compilers had any other reason to think a badged Australian flag for the territory existed.

It seems to me, though, that the authors of the 1949-1952 documents are at least partly aware of the possibility of confusion, and that they have tried to get it right. At least, if any of the disagreement is caused by simple confusion regarding the term "blue ensign", it's not clear which way it went. Even if all the documents were based on reasonably reliably sources, it's just as plausible that the Port Moresby administration were righting about flags as used 7 years earlier, while the DET were basing their conclusions on their records of approvals given or passed on by them. In particular, until we get to further evidence, the difference could be explained by Papuan authorities relying on the Flag Book at any time between 1908 and 1949.
Jonathan Dixon, 26 October 2012

The trouble is that at the highest levels of Government post-war, the existence of a PAPUA-badged Blue or Red Australian Ensign became accepted as fact. Even worse, in the 1950s they were used as a precedent to develop a  policy for ANF/ARE use in separately-administered external territories.

The various 1950s groups working on the 'flags question' supported the undefaced ANF/ARE being used for all non-Customs purposes in all the Territories. Pre-war flags, such as badged British Blue Ensigns and Union Flags were not reintroduced under the post-war combined administration. However a policy formed that where there was a separate administration, a badged ANF and badged ARE were to be used by the Administration, but not by the public in general. Although often stated, this was expected to be a later development, with undefaced flags to be used in the Territories for the foreseeable future.
Jeff Thomson, 24 October 2012

The discussions we've been talking about were occurring in the context of a committee developing policies on flag flying, many of the recommendations of which were incorporated into the Flags Act in 1953-4. Section 6 of the act allows for warrants for use of defacements of the flags governed by the act, and was included because of the recommendations that government bodies (including state bodies interacting with foreigners!) use national flags/ensigns defaced with their badge (see briefing note for 1960 committee meeting: barcode 1863037 start p14.) Recommendation 13 dealt with territories and read (can be found on p29 in file):

Regarding Australian territories other than the mainland and Tasmania, the committee suggests that generally the Australian National Flag should be used. Where, however, a separate administration has been set up for any territory, the Australian National Flag and the Australian Red Ensign defaced by the badge of the territory may be approved for use on its establishments and vessels in accordance with the normal usage.
My impression is that this policy was developed by the DET fairly early on, and it's possible they mistakenly believed that this was the normal in Papua. Having said that, it is a fact that the policy proposed and presumably adopted in 1907 was very similar. I don't think reimposing it would have been very drastic.

As Jeff says, actually adopted defaced ensigns were put on hold, presumably waiting for them to be done under the Flags Act. Once the act was passed, there was some question about whether any flags and ensigns adopted apart from it were valid, with the Attorney-General's Department concluding that while they were legally unaffected, they "should" be appointed or given warrants under the act. In considering applications for warrants for defaced flags from both government bodies (although not the Dept of Territories) and private groups such as the Boys' Brigade, the bureaucracy reached the point where in the 1960 meeting of the Departmental Committee on Flags it agreed to a non-defacement policy (apart from not changing some well established flags), to the extent of suggesting deleting references to defacement in the Act. (pp5-9).
Jonathan Dixon, 26 October 2012

The idea of adding territory badges to the Australian National Flag and Australian Red Ensign for the use of territories with a separate administration, seems to have remained as a 'dormant policy' until about 1960 when it was in effect replaced by the policy of discouraging defacement of the Australian flags which applies to this day. Eventually the territories adopted their own flags of novel design under their own processes, and not based upon the British or Australian ensign format. Papua New Guinea was the first territory to do so in 1971, several years before any others did.
Jeff Thomson, 11 May 2019