October 24

Coat of Arms Linked To Trafalgar

In my last column I wrote of the importance of Trafalgar to Australia.

Not everyone agrees. During his term, Mr Keating was said to have attempted to change the traditions of the armed forces, including any celebration of Trafalgar.

I have just learned of another crucial link between us and Trafalgar. But before I do, I should report that the bicentenary of Trafalgar was celebrated in Sydney at a lunch for over 200 people (there was a waiting list) at Parliament House. Hosted by the Australia Britain Society and the Navy League, the keynote speaker was the former and highly respected NSW Governor, Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair. Admiral Sinclair was accompanied by his wife, Mrs Shirley Sinclair, who was greatly admired for her work as the Governor’s consort. They were the last residents of Government House in Sydney, before the then Premier, the Honourable Bob Carr, took the decision without consulting the cabinet, his caucus or parliament to expel future governors from their home.

As if to demonstrate that the French defeat was of no disadvantage to our cuisine, the lunch began with “Salmon Victory” followed by “Beef Nelson” and ended with “Barvarois Lady Hamilton”, all served with excellent Australian wines.

And now for that addtional link with Trafalgar.

I learned this because the State Library of NSW wants to solve one of the mysteries of Australian symbolism: the very earliest origins of the national coat of arms which is closely related to the Trafalgar victory.

Bowman Flag 

According to James Woodford, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald of 21 October, 2005, (“VICTORY BANNER FLAGGED AS EARLY INSPIRATION FOR OUR COAT OF ARMS”) the library has put on display one of its most precious possessions, the Bowman flag. The 2.2-metre-long, 91-centimetre-wide silk flag is the first known depiction of the kangaroo and emus together supporting a shield and is also considered to be the first Australian-made flag.

The report says the banner was born out of the surge of Empire patriotism at news that the British had defeated the French at Trafalgar and the simultaneous outpouring of grief at the news of the death of Admiral Nelson.

“No one knows for sure when John Bowman commissioned it, nor what motivated him to employ two of the continent’s most famous creatures as central motifs. But it was named after the Bowman family, free settlers who lived on the edge of the colony on the Hawkesbury River.”

The report quotes the senior curator at the State Library, Paul Brunton, as saying that the execution of the flag is very sophisticated and must have been done by a professional painter of which there were a number in Sydney.

"It’s a very accomplished piece of work, painted with water colours onto silk probably from India or China. Family legend says it was made using the silk from the wedding dress of John Bowman’s wife."

According to the Herald, Mr. Brunton is especially impressed by the scroll, which repeats Nelson’s famous order before the battle of Trafalgar began: "England expects every man will do his duty."

"It’s really clear on the flag that we were celebrating a British victory and an Empire victory but we were doing it in an Australian way," Mr. Brunton said. "The flag portrays a defiant Australianism, identifying with this new land."

The Herald observes that Commonwealth coat of arms, which bears a striking resemblance to the Bowman flag, was granted in 1908 and was almost certainly influenced by the Trafalgar memorial flag. Interestingly, on the Bowman flag the kangaroo and emu are in reverse position to how they are placed on the coat of arms.

The curator hopes that by putting the Bowman flag on display it may flush out more information about the origins of the kangaroo and emu shield. The Bowman flag will be on display at the State Library in Sydney until 6 November 2005.

The flag is of course yet another confirmation of our heritage, a heritage which should not be lightly dismissed by those who want change for the sake of change.

Until next time,

David Flint


Australian Britain Society, Australian Flag, Bob Carr, Bowman Flag, Coat of Arms, John Bowman, Nelson, Paul Keating, Trafalgar

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