The true story of the Pink, White and Green
I am responding to a letter by Moses Barrett of Spaniard’s Bay that appeared in the Aug. 23 edition of the Compass, headlined “ Under the Union Jack and the Pink, White and Green.”
While I echo Mr. Barrett’s patriotism to Newfoundland, his letter also made me re a l i z e that something should be done to inform more Newfoundlanders of the true story of the “Pink, White and Green,” rather than the myths that have taken root in people’s minds in place of actual history.
Most Newfoundlanders seem to be completely misled about where the Pink, White and Green actually came from. It is a story that, as far as I’m aware, has never been truthfully told in public print.
The flag of Newfoundland
The past decade or so has seen an incredible rise in the popularity of the flag that has become known as the “ Pink, White and Green.” It has become a symbol of our heritage, individuality and national pride. Most of what is believed about the origins of that flag and its symbolism, however, is false.
I think many Newfoundlanders will find this abbreviated history of the “Pink, White and Green” as illuminating as I did when I began my research.
Popular myth tells that Roman Catholic Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming inspired the flag in 1843 to quiet tensions between Protestant and Catholic sealers during the yearly wood haul.
Sealers, waiting for their vessels to leave port in St. John’s, would get embroiled in competition to supply wood to the Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals. The Protestant English marked their wood piles with pink banners while the Catholic Irish used green. The threat of violence was so great that the Speaker of the House, William Carson, enlisted Bishop Fleming as a peacemaker. Fleming persuaded the two factions to adopt a common flag, tying together the pink and green banners of the two groups with a white handkerchief symbolizing peace.
Though this may be a heart-warming story, it is completely false — a product of a healthy myth-making machine fueled by modern tourism and commercial industries, anti-confederation sentiments of the early 20th century and the Catholic clergy. The current version of the myth reached maturity in an article written by Paul O’Neill in a 1976 edition of the Roman Catholic archdiocese newsletter “ The Monitor”
O’Neill did not claim it as historical fact at that time. The legend still grows, however, with additional claims and supposed validations being added seemingly regularly.
O’Neill’s story was itself an evolution of an earlier myth presented by historians Devine and O’Mara in 1900 and mentioned briefly in the Evening Telegram in 1902. In that version the pink panel represented either members of the Newfoundland Natives’ Society (a non-denominational organization formed in 1840 to represent native-born Newfoundlanders) or Newfoundland-born Catholics who were opposed to the newly arriving Irish settlers to the St. John’s and Southern Shore areas. Devine and O‘ Mara also conceded that this account was based on oral tradition and not supported by actual historical evidence.
In 1902, then future Roman Catholic Archbishop Michael F. How- ley redesignated the pink panel to represent the Protestant English in his song “ The Flag of Newfoundland,” which he proposed as an alternative anthem to Sir Cavendish Boyle’s “Ode to Newfoundland”
“ The pink, the rose of England shows, the green St. Patrick’s emblem, bright...” The rest, as they say, is history, or, in this case, myth.
Star of the Sea
In actual fact, the flag originated exclusively within the Roman Catholic fraternal group the Star of the Sea association sometime after 1875 and bears a striking resemblance to the nearly identical Irish flag, which was used as an unofficial symbol of Irish nationalism from 1848 until being adopted by the Irish Republican Army in 1916.
The origins of the pink panel of the PWG are uncertain, but it has been claimed by some that it came from the flag of the Natives’ Society. There is no evidence, however, to support that the Natives’ Society ever used a flag incorporating pink, and history indicates that their actual flag was a tri-colour of RED, white and green. This tricolour was the original “Natives” flag, possibly symbolic of peace between the red rose of England and the green of Ireland, and also likely the first widely recognized “ flag of Newfoundland.”
It has also been speculated that pink was chosen simply because red was already in use, the Irish nationalist flag used orange, or because “rose” is one of the liturgical colours of the Catholic Church.
The pink, white and green colours were first displayed publicly by the Star of the Sea association when they marched alongside the Benevolent Irish Society through downtown St. John’s in 1875 during their centennial celebration parade of Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell’s birth. Sometime shortly after that, with the support of the clergy, the tri-colour of pink, white and green was adopted by other Catholic groups in the St. John’s area and flown as a symbol of resistance to Confederation with Canada, possibly in analogy to the Irish use of the orange, white and green flag against Britain.
The PWG’s popularity grew within St. John’s Catholic communities until in 1902 Michael F. Howley, himself an Irish nationalist, further popularized the PWG in his song “The Flag of Newfoundland,” yet at this time the pink was changed to represent the rose of England.
While this may have been merely a ploy to gain Protestant English support for an Irish-based flag or it may have been a genuine attempt to incorporate the Protestant portion of the population into the PWG, as the orange panel did on the Irish flag. It was not accepted by many of the province’s Protestants, who continued to see the flag as a symbol of Irish Catholic nationalism — a sentiment further bolstered by the fact that the rose of England is red, not pink.
Shortly afterwards, the Evening Telegram published rare snippets of the evolving myth until sometime in the 1950’s when it appears to have been forgotten until O’Neill’s resurrection of it in the “Monitor” during the provincial flag debates of the 1970’s.
Despite commonly repeated claims, the PWG flag was not flown during the Prince of Wales’ visit to Newfoundland in 1860, the administrations of Murray and Boyle did not fly the PWG at Government House, and Bob Bartlett did not plant the PWG within six miles of the North Pole on his expedition with Admiral Peary in 1909 or at any other time. (In fact, Bartlett and crew were never closer than 150 miles of the pole, with Peary, his crewman, and four Eskimo guides continuing on sled from there.)
There is no actual evidence to support these and much of the other evergrowing list of claims attributed to the PWG. Historical texts and photographic evidence from the period show only the Union Jack and governmental ensigns flown in an official capacity by government offices and vessels.
Passed into legislation
From 1907 onward the Union Jack, Newfoundland Red Ensign and Newfoundland Blue Ensign were enforced as the Dominion of Newfoundland’s national flag, civil ensign and governmental ensign, respectively.
In 1931, this was officially passed into legislation with the National Flag Act and these flags remained the only officially recognized national flags of Newfoundland until Confederation with Canada in 1949. In 1952, the Union Jack was officially legislated as the provincial flag of Newfoundland and served in that capacity until 1980, when it was replaced by Christopher Pratt’s design based on a deconstructed Union Jack.
Only in recent years has misdirected nationalism and pride combined with misleading advertising and the erosion of actual history caused much of the Newfoundland population to unknowingly believe that the PWG was the “old Newfoundland flag” — something it never was.