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Lay-Osborne Flotilla (China)

Last modified: 2020-07-31 by ian macdonald
Keywords: lay-osborne fleet | dragon | saltire |
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Lay-Osborne Flotilla Ensign
[Lay Osborne Flotilla ensign] image by Ivan Sache and Mario Fabretto

Lay-Osborne Flotilla Command Pennant
[Lay Osborne Flotilla pennant] image 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 19th 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 civilization, 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 19th 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 Peking 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 imprisonment. 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 fought against the T'ai-p'ing. These volunteers were attached 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 designed 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 Commander of the flotilla. The Imperial dragon flag was used as jack only. The so-called "Lay-Osborne" flotilla, including seven steam cruisers and a resupply vessel, left England flying the above described ensign on 13 February 1863 and reached China in September 1863.

In June 1863, Kong came across the convention signed by Lay and Osborne on 16 January 1863. On 18 October 1863, Osborne refused to be subordinated to a Chinese officer, claiming that the convention stipulated that he should receive orders only from the Emperor, provided they were transmitted by Lay. The convention was so absurd that the Imperial court never ratified it. On 9 November 1863, Osborne resigned in T'ien-tsin. He disbanded the flotilla and sent back the vessels, which had not been involved in any war action, to England. The ensigns of the flotilla were also suppressed. Lay was fired by the Chinese government and Hart replaced him as General Inspector of the Navy.

Similar ensigns were 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

One of three extracts from a memorandum sent to the Marine Department of the Board of Trade in connection with revisions to the pages of national ensigns in the International Code List published in 1879. [Public Record Office MT 9/183] China.

28 Aug 1862. Mr. Lay reported that China had no national flag. Ensigns on board Chinese vessels vary in hue and colour dependent upon the tastes of the commanders.

22 Oct 1862. Establishment of Anglo-Chinese fleet. Ensign agreed upon after correspondence with Chinese Government between Prince of Kung and Mr. Bruce. Flag to be three-cornered. For large vessels ten Chinese feet in the perpendicular, and for small vessels seven or eight. Length to be varied at discretion. Ground yellow on which will be designed a dragon with the head towards the upper part of the flag. Drawings of all flags of the Anglo-Chinese fleet published in London Gazette 13 Feb 1863.

18 Jan 1869. Correspondence between Her Majesty's Consul in Canton, British Admiral China Station and Governor Hong Kong on subject of shape of flag. Arranged that pending decision of Government at Peking the flag to be recognized would be square not three-cornered. Notice inserted in Hong Kong Gazette. No response from Peking Government.

These dates do not agree with those given in Whitney Smith's "Flags Through the Ages etc." page 108, where the three cornered flag is dated 1872-CA.1890 and the rectangular flag CA.1890-1912.
David Prothero, 17 April 2001

When the steam yacht 'Thule', which had been purchased to act as a dispatch-boat for the fleet, arrived in Shanghai in July 1863, ahead of the Flotilla itself, it was reported in a "private letter" from Shanghai of 8 August that "She flies the Imperial ensign at the mizzen, green with an orange cross and the dragon in one corner."
[Buchan Observer and East Aberdeenshire Advertiser - Friday 2 October 1863, page 4]
Whether the un-named writer of the letter made a mistake one cannot tell.
David Asprey, 10 December 2017