Myths are part of the history of every nation, and have been since time began. Many of them fade over the years, and are forgotten. But some persist, and indeed grow ever stronger. Newfoundland’s history is filled with myths. But none among them has shown more vitality and more strength than the belief that the Pink, White and Green banner was Newfoundland’s national flag.
Many myths are founded in fact, but this one isn’t. Its history, allegedly, began in St. John’s in the winter of 1843, when rival national groups of wood-cutters began to compete to see who could cut the largest pile. Each group flew a different coloured flag — pink for the English and green for the Irish. The rivalry became intense, and Michael Fleming, the first Roman Catholic Bishop of St. John’s, intervened to make peace. He joined a white flag with the English pink and the Irish green together as one banner.
As local historian John Fitzgerald put it, “there is not a shred of evidence to support any aspect of the tale."
But myths mutate, and it soon became a common belief that the Pink, White and Green flag was the emblem of the Newfoundland Natives’ Society. The Society, founded in 1840, sought the allegiance of Native-born Newfoundlanders of every religious belief. (By “Native”, the Society meant “Newfoundland born, of British or Irish descent”; there is no record that anybody ever asked the Beothuks or any other aboriginal inhabitants of the Island to join it.)
The society had a flag, as did every similar group. Theirs was a tricolour — red, white and green. It won wide acceptance, and survived the disappearance of the Native Society in the 1860s. But the native society's flag never won any official sanction, and it was red, not pink.
The Pink, White and Green flag actually was born early in the 1870s, as the official flag of the Star of the Sea Association. Carolyn Lambert, a young Newfoundland historian, established this definitively in an article published in the Spring 2008 issue of Newfoundland and Labrador Studies. Her research found no evidence of any flag that was even partially pink being flown in Newfoundland before the society was established. Lambert’s diligent review of all the available evidence, both documentary and pictorial, and her scrupulous examination of it, establish the facts clearly.
Once created, however, the Pink, White and Green flag soon won considerable public favour, together with the strong support of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The most powerful, and brilliant, demonstration of this came in the form of a song by Michael Francis Howley, then the Roman Catholic bishop, and later the first archbishop, of St. John’s. We have heard it sung, time and time again:
"The pink, the rose of England shows,
The green St. Patrick’s emblem, bright
While in between, the spotless sheen
of Andrew’s Cross, displays the white
Then hail: the pink, the white, the green,
Our patriot flag! Long may it stand — our
sirelands wine, their emblems trine
To form the flag of Newfoundland."
Lambert acknowledges that both the Red, White and Green and the Pink, White and Green were flown by citizens of every ilk on many occasions. She acknowledges, too, that the Native Society’s Red, White and Green was supplanted by the Star of the Sea’s Pink, White and Green in the 1890s. In 1896, the St. John’s police and fire departments (then one organization) began to fly a version of the Pink, White and Green as their official flag. There are reports, too, that the Fishermen’s Protective Union, founded in 1908, displayed it on occasion.
But neither the widespread acceptance nor the popularity of Howley’s song gave Pink, White and Green official standing, however. The simple, and incontestable truth is Newfoundland never had an official flag of any standing or any sort until 1931, shortly before the collapse of Responsible Government.
Robert Bond, Newfoundland’s prime minister between 1900 and 1909, became associated with the Pink, White and Green in the latter years of his career. In 1909, standing in the general election held to break the 18 to 18 tie in the 1908 contest, he promised to make it Newfoundland’s official flag.
Unfortunately, the electorate did not support his cause, and Bond and his Liberals lost the election decisively. Edward Morris and his People’s Party took over the reins of power. Morris made no move to give official status to any flag beyond the Union Jack which flew throughout the British Empire. The Newfoundland legislature declared it to be the national flag of the Dominion of Newfoundland in May 1931.
The province of Newfoundland — now Newfoundland and Labrador — flew the Union Jack as its official flag for more than 40 years after Confederation. Brian Peckford, in his first campaign in 1979, promised Newfoundland her own flag, and moved quickly after his election victory to honour his promise.
Although a number of historical organizations and many individuals argued strongly in favour of the Pink, White and Green, the House of Assembly committee charged with recommending a design decided in favour of our present flag, an entirely new design by Christopher Pratt, one of Newfoundland’s pre-eminent artists. The House of Assembly voted in favour of the new design in May 1980.
The Pink, White and Green lives on. Many Newfoundlanders — and even a few Labradorians — claim it as their historic emblem. Some still fly it in front of their homes, and more wear it on T-shirts emblazoned with the legend “Republic of Newfoundland." But our island home, Britain’s oldest colony, was never a republic. And the Pink, White and Green was never an official emblem of either the Colony, the Dominion, or the Province of Newfoundland.
Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008.