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5 things you should know about Sarawak’s flags throughout the years

Did you know that the current Sarawak flag was inspired by the state’s old flag when it was under the reign of the White Rajahs?

Over the years, there have been several changes to the Sarawak flag with the current design becoming official in 1988.

And who could forget the Trisakti that was designed and first hoisted by the then Chief Minister of Sarawak Abdul Rahman Ya’kub in 1973?

The Trisakti flag: The blue was supposed to symbolise Sarawakians being unified in pursuit of national aspirations; the red to symbolise their perseverance and determination; and the white to reflect honesty and purity.

The current design retains the same colour scheme as the flag of the former kingdom, except with two significant changes. The cross was replaced with two diagonal bars while the crown was substituted with a nine-pointed star.

Here are 5 things you should know about the history of previous Sarawak flags before all these changes:
1.Before there was an official flag, there was the flag of St George.
Brooke’s personal standard was the flag of St George’s Cross. Photo credit: The Sarawak Gazette.

When the first White Rajah James Brooke came into power, he originally used St. George’s Cross as the state’s flag.

It was a red cross on a white background in the form of swallow-tailed pennant. James flew this flag over his first fort at Berlidah, not far from Siniawan.

2.The first official Sarawak flag was designed by James Brooke.

Finally in 1845, James decided to give Sarawak a flag of its own. However, he only hoisted it three years later on Sept 21, 1848.

The flag was made up of a half blue and half red cross of his Armorial Bearings on a yellow background.

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So what did the first White Rajah do after there was an official Sarawak flag? In 1845, he applied to the British Ministries for Foreign and Colonial Affairs in order for them to recognise Sarawak by allowing a Protectorate flag to be displayed.

However, it took the British government 15 years (January, 1864) to recognise Sarawak as an independent state and another 35 years (June, 1888) before Britain expressed its protection.

James was reported to have regretted that the flag did not contain a quartered Union Jack (like you see in today’s New Zealand and Australian flags).

3.Was it blue or purple?
The first official Sarawak flag caused some debate over whether it was a blue and red cross or a purple and red cross. Photo credit: The Sarawak Gazette.

The only recorded account of the first hoisting of the Sarawak flag can be found in “Letters from Sarawak” in 1851 by Harriette McDougall, the wife of Bishop McDougall.

She wrote a letter to her son Charley who was at school in England, which was later published to help raise missionary funds in Sarawak.

Unfortunately, Charley passed away a year after this letter was written due to a blow from a cricket ball.

Going back to the Sarawak flag, this was what Harriette wrote to her son:

“The Sarawak flag is a purple and red cross, out of Sir James Brooke’s armorial shield, on a yellow background, yellow being the royal colour of Borneo. It was given by the Rajah to his people on his return from England in 1848 and I remember well what a grand occasion it was. HMS Meander was at Sarawak (the old name for Kuching) at the time, and their band played ‘God save the Queen’, as the flag was the first time hoisted on the flag-staff before the Rajah’s house.

All the English (probably only men) were assembled there, and a great crowd of natives, Malays and Dayaks, whom the Rajah addressed in the Malay language telling them the flag which he had that day given them would he hoped, be their glory and protection, as the flag of England had been hers. The Malays listened with love and reverence to his words and from house across the river, I could hear their acclamation.”

Although Mrs McDougall here pointed out that the flag was a purple and red cross, the second White Rajah Charles had clarified in a letter that the cross was in fact blue and red.

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But that did not stop many of the early writers from the late 19th century stating that the colours were purple and red.

4.The first recorded official notification regarding the Sarawak flag was issued on May 7, 1870.

According to archivist W.J Chater, the first official notification regarding the Sarawak flag was concerning the dimensions of the flag.

It also stated, “Black bunting to be used in place of blue” denoting the change from the cross’ blue colour to black and quash the rumours that it was purple instead of blue.

5.The three bodies that first used Sarawak flags officially

While it is common to see the Sarawak flag hoisted up in front of government buildings these days, back in the olden days the Rajah first gave the Sarawak flags to three bodies, namely the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (S.P.G) in 1871, the Borneo Company in 1874 and the Roman Catholic Mission in 1906.

The Roman Catholic Mission hoisted the Sarawak flag for the first time on Vyner Brooke’s birthday (Sept 26, 1906).

Meanwhile, the Kuching branch of the Borneo Company Limited hoisted the flag only for a short time. Then they refused to do so reportedly because they found ‘it was too ugly’ and the blue border being a Chinese sign of mourning might have been considered unlucky for business.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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