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Lay-Osborne Flotilla (China)

Last modified: 2003-08-09 by phil nelson
Keywords: lay-osborne fleet | dragon | saltire |
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Lay-Osborne Flotilla Ensign
[Lay Osborne Flotilla ensign] by Ivan Sache and Mario Fabretto

Lay-Osborne Flotilla Command Pennant
[Lay Osborne Flotilla pennant] by Ivan Sache and Mario Fabretto

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Lay-Osborne Flotilla

Vexillacta #12 (June 2001) includes a paper by Roger Baert entitled "Les pavillons de la flotille dite 'Lay-Osborne', 1863" [The ensigns of the so-called 'Lay-Osborne' flotilla].

Below is my summary of the most relevant parts of R. Baert's paper.

The Chinese Empire did not have any specific flag until the middle of the XIXth century and the beginning of foreign interferences in the Chinese affairs. China, as the 'Empire of the Middle' was governed by the 'Son of the Sky', and considered itself as the top of the civilzation, therefore not requiring a specific distinctive emblem. Anyway, the dragon has been for centuries the most evident Imperial symbol The emblem of the Son of the Sky was the blue eastern dragon, the image of returning strength, spring, and fertilizing vitality of water. The dragon should have the body of a reptile, the head of a camel, the eyes of a rabbit, the ears of a cow, the antlers of a deer, the scales of a fish, the claws of an eagle and a long beard. When symbolizing the Emperor, the dragon should have five claws instead of four, and was usually represented playing with a blazing pearl symbolizing the Yin-Yang dual energy.

In the middle of the XIXth century, the European powers forced China to sign treaties which established diplomatic relationships on the European standard. In reaction, the Manchu emperors decided to adopt the European technology and to set up a modern Navy able to protect the Empire from invaders. During the same period, the T'ai-p'ing revolt (1851-1864) threatened the State monopoly on maritime commerce. The Imperial court decided to set up a fleet in order to reconquer Nanking, which had been seized by the T'ai-p'ing in 1853.

In 1861, Sir Frederic Bruce, the British ambassador in Pekin supported the proposal of Robert Hart (1835-1911, interpret of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs) to purchase British gunboats. The Emperor, exiled with the court in Jehol, accepted the proposal in July 1861. On 14 March 1862, Horatio Nelson Lay (1832-1898, General Inspector of the Customs until 1863), went to England with written instructions of Prince Kong (1833-1898, a.k.a. Yi Sin, head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Tsong-li ya-men - from 1861 to 1884 and from 1894 to 1898). On 2 September, Queen Victoria allowed him to equip the vessels and hire their crews. The vessels should fly a recognized ensign in order to avoid any risk of capture and emprisonment. Lay appointed Captain Sherald Osborne (1822-1875) as Commander of the flotilla.

Lay also proposed the Chinese court to adopt an ensign made of a green field charged with a yellow saltire. Green was selected because it was rarely used and should avoid any confusion. The saltire might have been proposed by Hart, who was of Irish origin. Smith (1975) claimed that green and yellow were the family tartan colours of Charles Georges "Chinese" Gordon, who trained the Chinese troops and commanded the European volunteers who faught against the T'ai-p'ing. These volunteers were rattached to the Army of the Green Flag, a kind of militia commanded by Chinese officers and in charge of the provincial police.

The British Admiralty refused to sanction the ensign proposed by Lay without the explicit consent of China. Prince Kong answered that Emperor T'ong-tche (1854-1875) had stated by decree of the 22 October 1862 that the Chinese flag should be a yellow rectangle triangle charged with a blue dragon trying to catch a red ball. Anyway, Kong did not mention this decree when he sent his instructions to Lay in 24 October 1862. Therefore, Lay decided himself of the ensigns to be used by the flotilla. The vessels of the Anglo-Chinese flotilla used on stern the green flag with the yellow saltire, with a small version of the triangular Imperial dragon flag in the middle. This ensign is shown in Steenbergen (1965), along with a command pennant asymmetrically swallow-tailed. The pennant was probably used by Osborne as Commnder of the flotilla. The Imperial dragon flag was used as jack only. The so-called "Lay-Osborne" flotilla, including seven steam cruisers and a resupplying vessel, left England flying the above described ensign on 13 February 1863 and reached China in September 1863. Similar ensigns wre used by the Yang-Tseu fleet.

On 10 November 1872, the Imperial dragon flag was officially adopted as State and war ensign.
Ivan Sache, 17 July 2001