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United Kingdom: Origin of the Royal Navy's colours and sunset routine

Last modified: 2013-07-30 by rob raeside
Keywords: royal navy | colours |
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When did the naval practice of raising one's colours at sunrise and striking them at sunset begin?

Our foremost authority on British naval flags - Perrin 1922 - is, unfortunately, remarkably reticent on the subject of both (the ceremonies of) 'Colours' and 'Sunset'. He does, however, give an example confirming that the practice was universal in the RN by the end of the 18th Century, and goes on to state that it "is not older than the seventeenth".

It is certain that the practice of wearing ensigns was firmly established (for all ships of the English Royal Navy) by the end of the 16th Century, and jacks by the 1630s. It is also certain that by the 1660s (and the Second Dutch War) striking such in the presence of an enemy vessel was considered a sign of surrender. This causes me to wonder if the ceremonial aspect of the procedure came about in order to demonstrate that (particularly if the vessel was moored in a foreign port) lowering its colours was not in anyway dishonourable?
Christopher Southworth, 6 July 2010

In the past it was usual to hoist or "heave out" the colours only at sea when there was some special reason for doing so. Orders for Drake's fleet in 1589 and the "Brief Notes" of John Young around 1596 show that there was then a routine for hoisting the flag in harbour. Anyone absent without leave at the time was deprived of his aftermeal, (the second meal of the day).
"At sunrise every ship in the fleet hoists her colours viz. the ensign and jack, unless it blows hard and the yards and topmasts are struck, in which case the colours are not hoisted but when some vessel is coming in or passing; at half past 7 o'clock the drums begin to beat and continue till 8, when the ship on board which the commander-in-Chief hoists his flag, fires a gun." [William Spavens, 'The Seaman's Narrative', Chatham, 1796]

Hoisting colours at sunrise was was probably not introduced before the 17th century. In 1844 the time was fixed at 8 a.m. from 25 March to 20 September and 9 a.m. for the rest of the year. The ensign was hoisted earlier or later than these hours when the ship was coming to an anchor, getting under way, passing or meeting another ship, approaching a fort or town, providing there was sufficient light for it to be seen.
All the above based upon an item in "Customs and Traditions of the Canadian Navy" by Lt.(N) Graeme Arbuckle, Nimbus Publishing, Halifax, N.S. 1984.

In KR&AI, 1913, Sunrise for ships abroad was "at 8 or 9 o'clock as the Commander-in-Chief shall direct ; and they shall be kept flying, if the weather permit, or the Senior Officer present see no objection thereto, throughout the day until sunset, when they are to be hauled down, the sentries firing their rifles."
The origin of the latter practice was to ensure that the muskets were in working order. [1951 Manual of Seamanship]
David Prothero, 7 July 2010

Following the 1797 mutinies in the British fleet at Spithead, Admiral Lord St. Vincent established the practice in the Royal Navy of raising and lowering the colors--the ensign and jack--at a formal ceremony with the band and guard of the day paraded.

Flags were certainly taken up and down at dawn and dusk before this, for the simple reason that they were all thought of as signals, and there was no point to fly a signal that no one could see. This is why ensigns, for example, were not flown out of sight of land unless another ship is nearby. But the ceremonial aspect--"colours and sunset routine"--was introduced later, and by all accounts it was Lord St. Vincent who introduced it.
- RN official website, (under "Colours")
Joe McMillan, 7 July 2010

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