The main lecture of the evening, "The Evolution of Regimental Colours in South Africa", was given by Brigadier Professor Deon Fourie, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Museum.
Vexillology, the study of flags, is an esoteric discipline, and indeed few people even know the meaning of the word. Yet flags, along with other distinguishing emblems, have played a long and colourful role in military and political history. Virtually every military unit has at one time or another had a flag, or "colour", to serve as a rallying point and to bear its battle honours.
South Africa has been host to the development of a vexillological culture dating from 1652, which has and passed through several distinct phases corresponding to the successive stages of the political domination of the country.
The first regimental colours appeared in the period of the Dutch East India Company among the foreign mercenary units that were hired to garrison the Cape. These were followed by the colours of the French regiments that occupied the Cape after the American Revolutionary War, and these, in their turn gave way to those of the Batavian Republic which preceded the British occupation. The extended British period was a particularly fruitful one for the development of regimental colours as innumerable regiments of the British Army served their time in the country, and frequently handed on their military culture to the many military units raised locally.
The two independent republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State both had their characteristic colours, before they in their turn were superseded by the flags of the Union and Republic periods. The holding of full democratic elections in 1994 was followed by the choice of yet another national flag to symbolise a different kind of national union.
The flags of each period have had their own characteristic forms. For example, flags of the British period tended to feature a central emblem, often made up of local fauna and other domestic objects, surmounted by a crown and enclosed in floral wreaths entwined with battle honours. The wreaths could be of local flora, such as the protea, or foreign ones such as the rose and the thistle. In the Union period the crown disappeared, although not always the wreaths, which were sometimes retained unchanged. Later the wreaths might be dispensed with and the battle honours placed symmetrically around the central feature, which could often be a local animal. The union flag, which was often placed in the top lefthand quarter during the British period, also tended to disappear as the country progressed to complete independence.
The Black nations of South Africa have not been noted for the development of flags and similar emblems, although at least one can be identified among Moshoeshoe's baSotho. It consisted of a pole projecting from the top of the small, bird-shaped shield and decorated with ostrich feathers. It probably bore a closer resemblance to the Roman and Napoleonic eagles than to the traditional regimental flag, although it doubtless served a similar purpose.
The evolution of regimental colours in South Africa has now entered yet another phase, which can confidently be expected to produce its own historically distinguishing characteristics.
The December 1998 edition of the Military History Journal will be a special Anglo-Boer War edition, and suitable contributions are invited from the public. These should be submitted as soon as possible, but in any case no later than end-August.
George Barrell (Chairman/Scribe) (011) 791-2581