Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Voice of Vexillology

This site is dedicated to the study of flags in all its colours: serious, frank, funny, and satirical. I, Christopher Maddish, am a vexillologist: a person who scientifically studies flags and gives talks about them. Vexillology often crosses over into history and my favorite oxymoron, political science.

Any questions? Or would like me to talk about your favorite flag? Please post it to me!

But first a word about the origins of vexillology. YES, 'Vexillology' is a real word since the 1958. Most spell checkers in 2009 still recognize it as an incorrect word. Dr. Whitney Smith is responsible for the creation of this word. Dr. Smith is a Harvard Man (A.B.) born February 26, 1940. He was instrumental in designing the flag for a South American Country more famous for mass suicides, by the unfortunate episode at Joneston November 18, 1978 led by Jim Jones.

designed by Whitney Smith

This country of course is Guyana, snuggled in between Venezuela and Brazil. A more positive fascinating fact about this fabulously lush, beautiful tropical nation hidden from the eyes of the Media, is it is South America's only English Speaking Nation. Perhaps someday soon your customer care calls will be outsourced to Guyana? The new India. Coincidentally when the British took over Guyana, slavery was not cool anymore. The need for cheap labor was solved by shipping India Indians to America to work the fields of Guyana. Because of this Guyana has one of America's oldest and thriving Hindu and Islamic communities, established long before the US Civil War.

But just before the American Revolution, Guyana was heartily colonized by the British Empire in the early and mid 1700s, thus you can think of Guyana as being America's Little Brother in South America.

The Dutch joined the 'allied cause of liberty in 1781' against the British Empire. The British lost 'Guyana' but later gained control just after the Napoleonic Wars in 1814. Guyana became a 'Gen-X Nation' with independence in 1966. Although most people of the Guyana Gen-X generation never grew up on sitcoms, games shows, and video games. But there wouldn't be a language barrier if they did.

I have met Dr. Smith, and he is friendly, intellectual, and very much an approachable person willing to talk to anyone about flags on any topic. Although a PhD. and Harvard Man, he is an earthy man you could easily enjoy a glass of wine, cold beer, nachos, or a burger and fries with. He is more like an Uncle Smith. If you were to dress Dr. Smith with top hat, white goatee, blue starred jacket and striped red and white pants you'd get the spitting image of Uncle Sam.

Dr. Smith holding my prototype
book at the 2008 NAVA Congress
at the Quintana Inn, Austin TX

I first met Dr. Whitney Smith at the 42nd North American Congressional Congress of Vexillology in Texas in 2008. Dr. Smith informed me back when Ike was the president the academic study of flags was basically non-existent. Dr. Smith invented a word (VEXILLOLOGY) and allowed his passion for flags lead him on his unknown destiny. Like a dreamy trite Hollywood movie, his passion enabled him to be of the select few persons chosen to design the colours of nation, an abundance of wealth, and enabled him to live happily ever after.

Amazingly a US Citizen from Massachusetts was chosen to design a flag for another nation. This gives one more bragging right for Massachusetts. Likewise the only ruling King Born in the USA too, came from Massachusetts. Any guesses of who that is? Currently this King Born in Massachusetts is the longest reigning sovereign of the world as of 2009. Post a reply if you know who it is!

This puts Dr. Smith in a small club along with Betsy Ross. Unlike Betsy Ross, there is no controversy as to who actually designed a particular flag for an American Nation. But since were on the topic, I'm in the camp the believes Betsy Ross did indeed sew the 'first' American flag and shaped the stars into a five pointed form. Also, Betsy Ross went to church with George Washington and it's only natural he would appoint her to make the first of American Colours!

At the 2009, 43rd North American Vexillological congress I was honored to follow literally in the gargantuan footsteps of Dr. Smith. I was scheduled to speak after the friendly and honorable 'Dr. Whitney Uncle Smith.' It would be my first official presentation to the North American Vexillological Association. Dr. Smith spoke about a loosening of Vexillological definitions to include quilts under the subject of Vexillology. After his thoughtful presentation I was reminded of the Underground Rail Road, whereby quilts were used as signaling devices for the passengers and conductors of this most precious of American Rail Roads. Essentially the variously patterned quilts acted like signal flags as guides for persons who risked their lives in the pursuit of freedom. Some patterns were warnings that bounty hunters were in town, others patterns meant that it was safe to come in and that a friendly soul was waiting to feed, clothe, and help you on your journey to liberty. Up until Dr. Smith's lecture on October 9, 2009 quilts were not considered to be a part of the flag-vexillological family.

Thus with Dr. Smith's broadening definition of 'What the hell is a flag?' these officially 'out-law' subversive quilted-flags that aided and abetted sentient 'stolen-property' to freedom are vexillology's newest branch of important vexillological symbols. Most of these now recognized quilted flags were made by women.

There is an on going debate as to the fact that the secret underground rail road quilts were ever used in this manner. Obviously since it was a secret code, it would have been foolish for the rail road operators to keep records. Word of mouth was the best ways to protect sources. But many times over the Underground Rail Road operators were busted and spent time in jail and had to pay heavy fines.

It's a good bet everyone working on the Under Ground Rail Road did not have knowledge of these secret quilt-flag signals. Like the legend of Betsy Ross, I suppose it will be the fodder for scholars and history buffs.

learn more about Dr. Smith at his Research Center

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