Communication is vital to understanding, a concept that does not end on our shores. On the vast waters of the world we call home, from the seas and oceans to our very own Great Lakes, it is something as basic as communication that makes life aboard a ship easier. Throughout history our Great Lakes have seen their fair share of war and trade, and even today you can not look out to the waters of the bays and lakes without seeing a sailboat or trawler moving through the waves. Our modern vessels come equipped with radios and a call for help is a button push away, but what about the ships of old? The schooners and dreadnaughts from the days of yore, how did they communicate with each other? The simple answer is flags.
It’s estimated that the use of signal flags began in the 1700’s as a necessity of war, but it is through Admiral Lord Howe that the first signal codebook was released in 1790. Later in 1799, Captain Home Popham would write his own book of signal code, using flags assigned to numbers 0-9 and an accompanying code vocabulary, which would be temporarily adopted by the Royal Navy. Certain single words were assigned a number and the corresponding flags were then raised to communicate one word or a full sentence.
The Popham technique was perfected in 1817 by Officer Frederick Marryat who would publish his own book, The Universal Code of Signals for the Mercantile Marine of All Nations (below centre). Unlike its predecessors, this code was not intended for military use, instead catering towards seafaring merchants, though it would be adopted by the British and French navies. This code served as a catalogue for every known merchant ship, Royal Navy war vessels, and maritime locations, each given a corresponding code. The accompanying vocabulary was extensive, with words, questions and responses all simplified into numbers.
Pictured below left is an example of Marryat’s Code in practice. This is one of the many coded phrases from The Universal Code of Signals for the Mercantile Marine of All Nations and reads “have you the Code of Signals?”, referring to Marryat’s code. Coded phrases were to be raised on whichever mast they could be viewed best by passing ships and without any distinguishing flags. Pictured below right is an example of signaling to meet at a specific lighthouse. The ‘rendezvous’ flag is flown above the number code for a specific lighthouse, in this example it’s the Gibraltar Point lighthouse in Toronto.
Though radios have been around for quite some time, the use of flags in maritime communication has not stopped. Nowadays, we use the International Code of Signals (ICS), a code system with 26 letter flags and numeral flags from 0-9. The ICS, though perhaps not as charming as the flags of the past, has been the accepted standard since the beginning of the 20th century for naval and commercial ships alike. So, as you look out to the waters of our Great Lakes, see if you can catch a glimpse of these brightly coloured flags. Though we do not always know what they are communicating to one another, remember that these flags will have much to say.
Collections Intern, Summer 2021