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Austro-Hungarian Empire: Honour Flags for Merchant Ships Captains

Last modified: 2014-04-11 by rob raeside
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A curious establishment Austria has is the so called "Honour Flags" for Merchant ships' captains, which were created in the year 1850. There are red and white Honour Flags. The former serves as a reward for skippers, who through nautical accomplishments and the propagation and furtherance of the Austrian shipping and the Austrian overseas trade in high degree have deserved well of their country or through the saving of castaways or other similar commendable acts have distinguished themselves. The Honour Flags are made of silk, have the black double eagle with an appropriate inscription and are after the death of the possessor preserved for all times in the municipal halls of the place of his birth.
Translated  from Siegel (1912) by Marco Pribilla, 2 December 2001

The white honour flag (for nautical merits) and the red honour flag (for warlike merits) bore the Imperial Double Eagle with a black diagonal band in the obverse that contained the words 'Merito navali' or 'Fortitudini navali' respectively. The reverse was decorated with the motto 'Viribus unitis'."
Translated  from Diem (1995) by Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 1 December 2001

The White Honour Flag

Obverse Reverse
[Austria-Hungary Honour Flag]    [Austria-Hungary Honour Flag]
 images by Željko Heimer, 12 October 2007

The Emperor Franz Joseph I established in 1850 two honour flags for the merchant marine. The white honour flag "Merito Navale" (Weisse Ehrenflagge für Hadelsschiffe) was to be granted to Austrian marine captains as recognition for civil services to the Empire. This included in the first place the opening of a new trade routes by the captain's voyage or his nautical science, or the considerable upgrading of the Austrian navigation or maritime trade in general or other valuable feat by leading the ship.

The flag consisted of a white field with the black imperial double-headed eagle, each head crowned and both topped with an imperial crown, with the escutcheon impaled Habsburg, Austria and Lorraine, bearing the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece and the series of other high Austrian decorations, surrounded with eleven coat of arms of the crown lands, holding in its talons a sword, a sceptre and an orb, and a black ribbon with yellow inscription. On the obverse it was inscribed VIRIBUS UNITIS (United we shall win - Motto of the Empire) and on the reverse MERITO NAVALE (Maritime merit).

The flag ensured to the awarded captains primary service in Austrian ports, and some other benefits. It was hoisted from the main mast. Even though some sources show it as rectangular, the flag was square, made of silk. The regulations provided that after the death of the awarded captain the flag would be preserved "for ever" in the assembly hall of his city of birth.

The only such flag was awarded on 31 July 1860 to Austrian Captain Ivan Vizin (a.k.a. Ivo Visin a.k.a. Johann Visin), a Croat born in Prčanj (Perzano) in Boka Kotorska (Cattaro), now in Montenegro, for his round-the-world voyage with the sail-ship "Splendido", the first Austrian merchant ship to do that and the sixth ship ever, in the period 1852 until 1859. The flag is preserved to this day in the parish church in Prčanj, together with a ceremonial chart inviting the Captain to the granting ceremony. The actual flag shows the charges in much cruder artwork then the intricate designs found in many flag books of the time, that is only appropriate for a flag that would be much used atop the main mast.
Željko Heimer, 12 October 2007

The honourary naval flags called Merito navali and Fortitudini navali were established in the Austrian-Hungarian navy [navy here means both military and merchant marine] as a symbol of appreciation of deeds at sea and special merit in the navy. The flags were established by the Imperial patent [decree] of 16 April 1850 and they were of two colours bearing the same symbol - the imperial double eagle [i.e. the coat of arms with shield, collar, shields of crown-lands around, imperial crown above, sword and orb] and were inscribed "Viribus unitis" [together we shall win - the motto of the imperial navy]. The white flag - Merito navali - was awarded in peacetime for the results and successes in navigation on distant seas, in development of naval trade, in rescuing at sea or some other exceptional deed. The other, red flag - Fortitudini navali - was awarded for evident courage and exceptional deeds in combat on sea.

Both of these flags, the white and the red, were awarded by Austria-Hungary only once each, and both were given to Croatian seamen. The white honorary flag was awarded to Captain Ivo Visin of Pranj (Boka kotorska, today in Montenegro). He was the commander of the barque [a two-masted sailing ship] "Splendido" on which he sailed around the world from 1852 to 1859. Visin was the first Croatian, and only the sixth sailor in the world to repeat what Magellan did. [He was shown on Yugoslav postage stamps of early 1980's together with his ship, though I don't remember if any flag was shown there.]
translated from [isa01] by Željko Heimer, 23 July 2002 / 14 November 2003

In an article on there is a brief reference on the present whereabouts of the only awarded white honour flag of Austria-Hungary. As I have reported previously, it was awarded to a captain born in Prčanj (Parzano, Parsano), Ivo Visin (also known as John Visin and Ivan Vizin; 1806-1868) for his round-the-world trip with his ship "Splendido" (also found "Splendito" e.g. in [leh86]).
As the regulations regarding the honour flags determine that the flag shall be preserved "for all the times" after the death of the captain who was granted it, in the city hall of his city of birth, I tried to track down if the flag still exists after all the turmoil.
I found a short reference on the pages regarding Prčanj at (translation by Željko Heimer):
Maritime Captain Ivan Vizin is the first among the South Slavs who sailed around the world with his ship "Splendido" between 1852 and 1859. For this he was granted by Austria with a white silk flag "Meritonavali", that is preserved in the parish church in Prčanj.
I contacted some people in Kotor in hope that I shall be able to find out more and eventually get a photo of the flag, but that may take time. In the mean time, anyone traveling to Montenegro might want not to miss that vex-jewel. I'll try to track down any reference to the red flag on the net, too.
Željko Heimer, 11 April 2004

I received some answer from the associations of Croats from Kotor (who, among other things, take care of the preservation of the rich maritime traditions of the Boka Croats). It happens that in that time, the flag was nowhere to be found - it was not in the church in Prčanj where it should have been and none was aware what happened. Although the flag was still being there in late 1980s - it was feared that in the turmoil of war the flag was "lost" (although, of course, there was no war in Kotor - the general situation surely led to diminished care for heritage) - it was even suggested that it was stolen or even sold to some unscrupulous collector who knows it true meaning better that the current caretakers.

Some year or more latter, I was contacted by the same people, who reported the glad news that the flag was located. Incidentally, it happens that sometime in 1990s it was sent to Belgrade to a woman who was a specialist for conservation and reconstruction of textile (so, also flags) for reconstruction, as it was already showing significant signs of wear. It happened that the lady passed away in the meantime, and her successors knew nothing of the meaning and the origin of the flag they now had. Anyway, eventually, the Kotor society managed to return the flag to Kotor - it was being displayed in the Kotor museum for a period and presumably returned to Prčanj church. The flag is quite expectedly in quite delicate state and it is difficult to display it properly, since it is a huge piece of silk - about 4×4 meter
Željko Heimer, 2005-2006

The Red Honour Flag

Obverse Reverse
[Austria-Hungary Honour Flag]    [Austria-Hungary Honour Flag]
images by Željko Heimer, 12 October 2007

The honorary red flag was awarded to Captain Antun Celestin Ivancic of Mali Lošinj, who together with his crew re-liberated by the French captured the brig [sailing ship type] "Eolo" in 1859.
translated from [isa01] by Željko Heimer, 23 July 2002 / 14 November 2003

The other honour flag established in 1850 was the red honour flag (Rothe Ehrenflagge für Hadelsschiffe) as a merit for merchant captains that show exceptional valour during an enemy or pirate attack. The design of the flag was entirely as the white honour flag, but it was made on a dark red (burgundy) silk, and the inscription on the reverse stated FORTITUDINI NAVALI (Maritime Courage).

The fate of the flag is, apparently, unknown, it is not preserved either in the Mali Lošinj nor Rijeka Museums. The ceremonial chart (showing the design of the flag) inviting the Captain to the ceremony is preserved in the Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral in Rijeka.
Željko Heimer, 12 October 2007


- Josef von Lehnert: "Beiträge zur Geschichte der k. k. Flagge. Vortrag, gehalten im militär-wissenschaftlichen Verein zu Wien am 13. März 1885", Organ der militär-wissenschaftlichen Vereine, nr. 31, Mayer, Wien 1886 p. 21
- Lothar Baumgartner: Die Entwicklung der österreichischen Marineflagge, Militaria Austriaca, Gesellschaft für Österreichische Heereskunde, Wien, 1977 p. 35
- Vladimir Isaić: "Pomorski običaji i tradicije", Adamić, Rijeka, 2001. pp. 49-5
- Miloš Lipovac: "Ivo Visin", "12 vjekova Bokeljske mornarice", Grafički zavod Matice Hrvatske, Zagreb, 1972. pp. 180-185 (thanks to Dario Musić, HGDCG=Croatian Civic Society of Montenegro)
- Pomorski leksikon, Jugoslavenski leksikografski zavod "Miroslav Krleža", Zagreb, 1990.
- Friedrich Heyer von Rosenfeld: "Die See-Flaggen, National und Provincial-Fahnen sowie Cocarden aller Laender", Verlag der kaiserlich-königlichen Hof- und Staatsdruckerei, Wien, 1883 pl. 2
- "Flags of Maritime Nations", U.S. Department of the Navy, Bureau of Equipment, Washington, 1899. pl. 7
- Moritz Ruhl: "Flaggenbuch", Reichs-Marine-Amt, Berlin, 1905. pl. II-49
- "Drawings of the Flags in Use at the Present Time by Various Nations", H. M. Stationery Office, Greenwich, 1907. pl. 54

A visitor to my FAME site provided some further insight into the Red Honour Flag granted to Cpt. Celestin Invančić in 1859 on which a bit can be read at The Red Honour Flag was established as a symbol of merit for a merchant (i.e. non-military) captain of the Austrian marine in 1850 and was granted only once, in 1859 to Captain Antun Celestin Ivančić (a.k.a. Celestin Ivancich), born in Mali Lošinj (Lussinpiccolo). It was granted for the deed he and his crew did on board of his brig (or brigantine) "Eolo" on his home voyage from Cardiff to Rijeka. While at sea, war had started between Austria and France and his ship (ignorant of the peril) was captured by the French in Adriatic near Dugi otok. The French ordered the ship to sail to Toulon, but soon, near the island of Lastovo, the captain and the crew took the opportunity of inclement weather and they overwhelmed the French soldiers on board and regained the ship.

The Red Flag was ceremoniously given to the captain on 14 August 1859 in Trieste by the commander in chief of the Kk. Navy on board the frigate "Radetzky" together with the Order of Chivalry of Franz Joseph. A document, an invitation for the ceremony is preserved in the Maritime and Historical Museum of Rijeka and the Croatian Littoral ( under inventory number 358 and is depicted in their catalogue "Stari jedrenjaci" by Nikša Mendeš [med00] on page 110. The document includes depictions of the Red and White Honour Flags in the heading, showing them in square form (unlike the rectangular form shown in numerous foreign flag books of the period!)

Beside the honour it undoubtedly was, the Red Flag enabled the captain and his ship certain privileges in ship's handling in the Austrian ports. The flag was probably very similar to the White Flag granted to Visin, preserved in Prčanj, that is huge in size (about 4x4 meters), made of silk and on it painted emblems - and was hoisted from the main mast of the ship.

The regulations regarding the Honour Flags prescribed that the flag, after the death of captain granted with it, is to be preserved
"forever" in the church of his birthplace.

The original charter - document granted to Cpt. Ivancich providing him with the right to bear the red flag is today preserved in Rome, in the Museum of Fiume - Rijeka, established by Esuli (Optanti - those who "opted" to move to Italy after Yugoslavia gained Istria, islands and Zadar after World War II). The people who went to Italy at the time took with them numerous valuable cultural artefacts among which are several flags of our interest. Some are shown in this Museum and several others in Italy (I believe one is in Venice). A photo where the document could be seen, although it is hardly readable, is visible at (fourth photo from the top), although this charter apparently does not depict the Red Flag. It may well be that the flag itself is also preserved somewhere in Italy as well, since it is nowhere to be found in  Mali Lošinj or Rijeka museums, archives and churches.

The Museum in Rome includes some other interesting flags from the beginning of 20th century and Italian rule of Rijeka and surroundings, judging from the few photos at and the list of inventory One may especially mention the originals: the historical flag of Fiume of 1905,  the flag from ship Dante Alighieri and the flag of the Fiume Free State of 1920s as well as the reproduction of the D'Annunzio's banner of Fiume (cf. Fiume on FOTW). One may note that the reproduction there is considerably different from the reconstruction of the gonfalon made by Mario Fabretto. Knowing Mario's meticulousness, I wonder if that reproduction is not
erroneous (the photo of that reproduction) as Mario gives his sources: Vexilla Italica V,2-3 (1978), Photographs of the actual
gonfalon and description made by its author: G. D'Annunzio, and notes about its authenticity: Authenticated design and use from contemporary sources.
It may be interesting to know the source for the reproduction.

The documents I refer to are both written in Italian and refer to this flag as "Imperiale Bandiera D'Onore Marittima Rossa", where Rossa seems to have been additionally printed into a previously printed document form for both the white and the red flag, where space for this additional colour determination was left blank - at least it seems by a different shade of red printing of the first words and the word Rossa - however, I wander if this was really a case, I do not see reason to expect these forms to exist - the flags were not often awarded).
Željko Heimer, 20 July 2008