The history of the white flag and its use for surrender was something I was contemplating, so I thought I would do this week’s blog on the subject. The universal sign of surrender has been a white flag for hundreds of years. But do you know the history of where the white flag originated from? I didn’t either so I started to look.
The first known record of a white flag being used to signal surrender was from Livy, a Roman historian. He wrote about a Carthaginian ship that displayed “white wool and branches of olive” as a signal of defeat in the Second Punic War. The historian Tacitus also wrote that white flags were displayed at the Second Battle of Cremona in 69 A.D, when the Vitellians surrendered.
The colour white has also been used in battle rather than just in flags. In Medieval warfare, heralds used to carry white-coloured standards and wands to be more easily distinguished from soldiers. Prisoners of War (though they did not bear that official title at the time) were decorated with the colour white, usually by placing a piece of white paper in their helmet. Troops who had surrendered and been granted safe passage were also ordered to carry white batons.
The use of white flags continued to spread throughout Europe in the coming centuries. In the 1550’s, the Portuguese historian Gaspar Correia wrote that the Zamorin of Calicut, an Indian prince, had peace negotiators carry “white cloth tied to a stick” as a “sign of peace” in 1502. The white flag also made it into Hugo Grotius’s De jure belli ac pacis, an extremely influential text about international law, in 1625. He described it as “a tacit sign of demanding a parley, and shall be as obligatory, as if expressed by words.”
The white flag was written into the Geneva Conventions in the 19th century as the official international symbol of surrender. According to the Geneva Conventions, it is illegal to feign surrender with a white flag.
The white flag is still the international standard and it is used both in combat situations and popular culture.