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The symbolism behind vintage sea flags

Published 1436 GMT (2236 HKT) April 25, 2016
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This eye-catching image of a man shooting a leopard dates back to 1894, and is the personal flag of West African Itsekiri chief Nana Olomu. It is one of hundreds of vintage flags housed at the UK's National Maritime Museum.
Courtesy National Maritime Museum, London
This West African flag, also believed to be from the Itsekiri ethnic group, was brought to the UK following the Benin Expedition of 1897. British troops invaded Benin City, in what is now southern Nigeria. Courtesy National Maritime Museum, London
The house flag of the India Rubber Gutta Percha and Telegraph Works Co. Ltd, London, dates back to 1911. A white telegraph cable runs through the middle.
At sea, flags can be used to denote the ownership of a vessel, or as a way of relaying messages. "Until the 17th century, signaling with flags was restricted to a handful of quite simple visual signals, sometimes supported by the firing of a gun," says James Davey, the National Maritime Museum's curator of naval history.
"However, by the end of the 18th century, ships were able to communicate as many as 300 different signals using flags, as signal technology grew ever more precise and complicated. A key part of any young officer's training was learning flag combinations by heart, as it was essential that they could read and pass on a message as quickly as possible."
Courtesy National Maritime Museum, London
This nautical flag from Nazi-era Germany features two crossed admiral's batons, and an eagle holding the swastika. National Maritime Museum, London
This whimsical 1910 flag belongs to Trinity House, the charity responsible for safeguarding Britain's seafaring community and managing its lighthouses. Courtesy National Maritime Museum, London
In 1837, Britain's General Post Office employed a steam boat to collect mail from sailing vessels detained in the entrance to the English Channel by weather conditions.
Courtesy National Maritime Museum, London
A 1920s version of Britain's White Ensign flag features the coat of arms of South Africa, Australia and Canada in the quarters, and the Star of India in the center. New Zealand is represented by four white stars on the red cross.
National Maritime Museum, London
This skull-and-crossbones flag probably appears more fearsome than the reality. Dating back to 1898, it was the official flag of a British recreational sailing group, the Pirate Yacht Club Bridlington.
Davey says you wouldn't want to come face-to-face with a real pirate on the high seas in the 17th and 18th century.
"Pirates sometimes used black flags illustrated with skulls and skeletons as symbols of mortality, and it seems likely that they adopted this as part of their attempt to strike fear into other ships," he explains.
"It has been suggested that by flying a black flag, the pirates were making a clear message to any opponent: It was a sign that if the ship put up a fight, the pirates would not take any prisoners -- even if the ship in question surrendered.
"It was threats such as these, communicated through a simple flag, that made pirates such a fearful prospect."
Courtesy National Maritime Museum, London
This ornate Imperial Chinese flag is made from silk and features a winged tiger crafted in gold foil. The mythical creature with wild green eyes holds flashes of lightning in its claws.
"In terms of aesthetics, this is probably my favorite flag in the collection," Davey says of the intricate textile, which is one of the few now on display to the public. "It was taken during the capture of Canton in 1857."
Courtesy National Maritime Museum, London
The motto "hope on hope ever" -- by British writer of maritime history John Barrow -- is embroidered onto this silk flag dating back to the 1850s. Courtesy National Maritime Museum, London