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History of the Philippines Flag

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Article by Manuel L. Quezon III

History of the Philippine Flag

The effort to trace the history of the Philippine flag has been marked by controversy and a paucity of reliable sources. Much of the commonly accepted evidence relies on anecdotal sources. This is due to the loss of the first Philippine flag, and the lack of actual flags dating back to the proclamation of Philippine independence and the subsequent Filipino-American War (known as the 'Philippine Insurrection' in American history.)

The Philippine Revolution began with the founding of the hitherto secret Kataastaasang Kagalanggalang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan ('Highest and Most Honorable Society of the Sons of the Nation') or Katipunan, a pseudo-Masonic revolutionary movement, on August 19, 1896. A few days later, the Supremo or head of the Katipunan, Andres Bonifacio (Nov. 30, 1863-May 10, 1897), proclaimed the end of Spanish sovereignty, to which the Spanish Governor-General responded by placing eight provinces under martial law.

[Flag of Philippines] by Jaume Ollé, 7 September 1996

[Flag of Philippines] by Jaume Ollé, 7 September 1996

The Katipunan's flag is commonly depicted as simply three white "K's" arranged on a field of red, the three K's representing the initials of the Katipunan, the red field symbolizing the blood with which members of the Katipunan signed their oaths upon being inducted into the secret society.

In an attempt to adapt the evolution of the American flag for Philippine purposes, it has been the fashion since the 1960s to trace the development of the flag to the various war standards of individual Katipunan leaders. However, historians have disputed the Philippine government's efforts as misleading. What is certain is that the Katipunan had a flag, and leaders, such as the Supremo Andres Bonifacio, and leading generals such as Emilio Aguinaldo, had their war standards. It is also clear that some symbols common to Katipunan flags would be adopted into the iconography of the Revolution. What is less clear is if all of the war standards can be deemed the precursors of the Philippine flag.

1898 Flag

[Flag of Philippines] by Manuel L. Quezon III, 2 April 2002

The Philippine flag was sewn by the revolutionary junta in Hong Kong and first displayed in battle on May 28, 1898. It was formally unfurled during the proclamation of Philippine independence on June 12, 1898, by President Emilio Aguinaldo. The design adopted the mythical sun (with a face) common to many former Spanish colonies; the triangle of Masonry; the eight rays represent the first 8 provinces that revolted and were put under martial law by the Spaniards during the start of the Philippine Revolution in 1896; the flag was first unfurled with the blue stripe above, but was flown with the red stripe above upon the commencement of hostilities between the Filipinos and Americans in 1899.

According to historians, based on anecdotal evidence and the few flags from the era that have survived, the color of the original flag was the same blue and red as found on the Cuban Flag. In addition, this writer suggests that one can trace the characteristics -the triangle at the hoist, the stripes, to the Spanish colonial navigational flags for the Philippines. The original symbolism of the Philippine flag is enumerated in the Proclamation of Philippine Independence:

"Moreover, we confer upon our famous Dictator Don Emilio Aguinaldo all the powers necessary to enable him to discharge the duties of Government, including the prerogatives of granting pardon and amnesty;
"And, lastly, it was resolved unanimously that this Nation, already free and independent as of this day, must use the same flag which up to now is being used, whose design and colors are found described in the attached drawing, the white triangle signifying the distinctive emblem of the famous Society of the Katipunan, which by means of its blood-compact inspired the masses to rise in revolution; the three stars, signifying the three principal islands of this Archipelago -Luzon, Mindanao and Panay where this revolutionary movement started; the sun representing the gigantic steps made by the sons of the country along the path of Progress and Civilization; the eight rays, signifying the eight provinces -Manila, Cavite, Bulacan, Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, Bataan, Laguna and Batangas- which declared themselves in a state of war as soon as the first revolt was initiated; and the colors of blue, Red and White, commemorating the flag of the United States of North America, as a manifestation of our profound gratitude towards this Great Nation for its disinterested protection which it lent us and continues lending us.
"And holding up this flag of ours, I present it to the gentlemen here assembled...
"Who solemnly swear to recognize and defend it unto the last drop of their blood."
(as translated by Sulpicio Guevara).

Unfortunately, the drawing mentioned in the proclamation of Philippine independence, which would settle, once and for all, all controversies concerning the original design of the Philippine flag, seems to have been lost. However, from the photographs and images that exist, it is possible to reconstruct most of the details of the Philippine flag, and point to the various components of the flag that have changed over time, some of the changes becoming the basis for controversy.

The original design of the Philippine flag differs from what is familiar today, in the following details:

  • The sun: The eight-rayed Philippine sun was a mythical sun, with a face. There seems to have been no definitive representation of the sun, however, beyond its having a face and eight rays. Different numbers of minor rays, from one on either side of the main ray, to three on either side of the main ray, and so on, have been observed in photographs and prints.
  • The stars: Besides having three, five-pointed stars, the positioning of the stars does not seem to have been applied consistently or uniformly either.
  • The triangle: It is clear that the original design of the Philippine flag did not have an equilateral triangle.
  • The shade of blue: This is the main controversy surrounding the Philippine flag. A good synopsis of the debate has been written by Philippine historian Ambeth Ocampo: "In 1955, the Heraldry Commission issued the official specification for the Philippine flag. The shade of blue given was United States Cable 70077, or navy blue. Earlier, all flags had been using navy blue. However, the late Domingo Abella, the Director of the National Archives and a member of the NHI [National Historical Institute] believed that the shade of blue should be light blue, because he says that at the turn of the century when the Philippine flag was finally allowed to fly and be displayed after years of suppression, flag makers didn't have a supply of light blue cloth. Thus, they used dark-blue cloth instead, perpetuating the mistake. No documentary evidence was presented by Abella and so, he was not taken seriously till the late Teodoro A. Agoncillo also supported the camp battling for the light-blue flag. E. Aguilar Cruz, another member of the NHI stated in his monograph of [Philippine revolutionary and artist] Juan Luna that he found a watercolor by Luna which showed a Philippine flag with a light-blue field. [Aguinaldo's first Prime Minister] Apolinario Mabini in one of his letters even proposed that the blue in the flag of the Revolution be "azul celeste", or sky blue. The navy-blue camp is supported by all extant flags having this color, plus the testimony of Marcela Agoncillo, the only surviving daughter of Marcela Agoncillo, who made the original flag which Aguinaldo waved to the crowd outside his mansion in Cavite when he declared Philippine Independence. However, both sides may be wrong, because in a letter to [sympathizer of the Filipino cause and friend of Jose Rizal] Ferdinand Blumentritt in 1898 [Filipino revolutionary] Mariano Ponce sent a drawing of the Philippine flag which showed that the blue is "azul oscuro" which is in between "azul celeste" (sky blue or light blue) and "azul marino" (navy or dark blue). So the blue in the flag is not sky blue but a shade lighter than the present navy blue. This caused confusion among the people. Someone mistook "lighter than the present blue" to mean sky blue, which is wrong. The issue would have ended here had Ponce kept quiet because in 1899, in one of the few letters he wrote in English, he told a Mr. Y. Fukishama, "My dear sir, I am sending you, by parcel post, one scarf pin representing our flag: please accept it as a poor souvenir. The blue color of the sky means our hope in future prosperity through progress..."
    Noted historian Carmen Guerrero Nakpil asserts that the original color was "Cuban blue", although this assertion is itself subject to different interpretations since there isn't an official shade for the color blue in the Cuban flag. [See also: our page on the blue of the Philippines flag.]
  • The dimensions: contemporary photographs from the Assembly convened at Malolos, Bulacan, to ratify the proclamation of independence and Aguinaldo's
    status as president, point to the Philippine flag having the dimensions of the Spanish flag. That is: 2:3 up to 1:3.

Having been proclaimed, first, dictator-president of the Philippines, and then formally elected President of the (First) Republic of the Philippines, Emilio Aguinaldo quickly called for a Constitutional Assembly which in turn promulgated a Constitution and established a Congress. However, in 1899, hostilities broke out between the Philippines and the United States. Thus on February 4, 1899, General Aguinaldo, in the name of the Republic and people he headed, declared war against the United States. The Filipino flag was flown with the red field up, to show that a state of hostility existed. On March 23, 1901, Aguinaldo was captured by the Americans. On April 1, 1901, he swore allegiance to the United States, and ceased being president. Resistance continued, however, and while the "Philippine Insurrection" was deemed ended in 1903, armed resistance continued for some years after.

In 1907, as the elections for the First Philippine Assembly were to be held, Fernando Ma. Guerrero, journalist and poet, decided to run as a candidate in Manila. Guerrero wanted to be a candidate of the Gran Partido Nacionalista, but he and Justo Lukban would not be nominated by the party to be its official candidates for the South and North Districts of Manila. Guerrero and his supporters decided to walk out of the Gran Partido Nacionalista . Guerrero set up the Liga Popular Nacionalista and won an overwhelming victory. As one of Guerrero's young supporters, Teodoro M. Kalaw later wrote, "During the tumultuous celebration of his [Guerrero's] victory, the Filipino Flag was very openly displayed, and with great emotion. In contrast, the American flag received very little attention. Many American officers considered this an aspersion cast on the American sovereignty of the Islands. As a consequence, the Civil Commission, a few days later, declared illegal the display of the Filipino flag, and, in general, the use of any emblem used in the Revolution." This was the Sedition Act of August 23, 1907.

Filipinos never gave up their loyalty to their flag; the national colors had already been used in zarzuelas [a typical Spanish form of musical theater] in the costumes of actresses as an allegory of the real thing. This was evidenced by the suppression of Zarzuelas under the sedition act. On October 30, 1919, Governor General Francis Burton Harrison signed into law the Philippine Legislature's Act repealing the Flag Law. The bill had been sponsored by Senator Rafael Palma, whose brother, Jose Palma, had written the lyrics for the Philippine National Anthem.

General Aguinaldo, in quiet retirement, made a statement and said, "The most historic Filipino flag was the one we raised in Kawit, Cavite, it having been recognized and saluted by the American squadron. It was the same flag that we used in Malolos, Bulacan, and was defended by ours hosts [and] which, I believe, was finally deposited in the caves of the northern Carballo mountins in Nueva Vizcaya." As a sign of appreciation, a young businessman named Vicente Madrigal went to Malacaņang to present the Governor-General with a Philippine flag. A photograph was taken of the occasion, showing Harrison flanked by Senator Palma and Madrigal, with the American and Filipino flags behind them.

[Flag of Philippines]

The flag in the picture, it can reasonably be assumed, followed the proportions of the previously-banned Filipino flag.

[Flag of Philippines] by Manuel L. Quezon III, 2 April  2002
[Click on drawing for a larger image.]

For example, the above shows an actual photograph of the original design of the Philippine flag, with the original design of the mythological sun, the dimensions of the triangle, etc. However with the legalization of the Philippine flag, some historians argue, the cloth available in most stores was the red and blue of the American flag, so that the Philippine flag from 1919 onwards adopted the navy blue and shade of red of the American colors. However, a process of simplification soon began. This is evidenced by:

[Flag of Philippines] by Manuel L. Quezon III, 2 April  2002

which shows the still-original dimensions (note triangle and shape of sun), the adoption of the American shades of blue and red, but still a slightly more ornate sun. The adoption of the American colors is further evidenced from a party flag from the year 1922, which used the by-then well established Philippine national symbols of the sun and red, white, yellow and blue.

On March 26, 1920, the Philippine Legislature passed Act. No 2928 which provided for the adoption of the Philippine flag as the official flag for the Philippine Islands. From 1919 until the eve of World War II, Flag Day would be celebrated on the 30th of October, the day the ban on the Philippine flag had been lifted in 1919.

With the inauguration of the autonomous Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1936, the president of the Philippines issued an Executive Order specifying the dimensions, etc. of the Philippine flag. A copy of the order is shown in full on Executive Order No. 23 issued by Manuel L. Quezon, as President of the Commonwealth, on March 25, 1936, contained the official description and specifications of the Filipino flag, the need for which he based on the following grounds

  1. Article XIII of the then-Constitution "prescribes what the Philippine National Flag should be without giving descriptions and specifications";
  2. Act. 2928 described "the construction of the Philippine Flag without the necessary specifications of the different elements of the flag";
  3. "[C]ompliance with this Act has not been uniformly carried out and has caused the making of Filipino flags in disproportionate sizes with different allegorical symbols of the flag.

In the Executive Order, various specifications were enumerated, which have come down, more or less unchanged, to the present. Among the "changes" laid down by the E.O. were the use of a plain sun ("solid golden sunburst without any markings") with eight rays composed of one major beam and a minor beam on either side, and an equilateral triangle ("Any side of the equilateral triangle is as long as the width of the flag"). However, the colors of the flag were not defined in detail. The result was the standardization of the flag, whose specifications have remained unchanged and in effect from 1936 to the present. The new dimensions and standardization, together with the American blue and red, can be seen below:

[Flag of Philippines] by Manuel L. Quezon III, 2 April  2002

The changes to the 1898 design were:

  • Sun: The mythical sun was abolished and the number of rays standardized.
  • Stars: The angle of the stars was codified.
  • Color: No color was specified; the official colors would only be codified in 1955 by the National Historical Institute of the Philippines.
  • Triangle: An equilateral triangle was codified.
  • Dimensions: The ratio was made 1:2.

On June 12, 1941, Presidents Quezon and Aguinaldo, who had been political enemies since 1922, publicly reconciled, and June 12, the anniversary of the proclamation of Philippine independence and the unfurling of the Philippine flag and the first playing of the Philippine national anthem, was commemorated officially for the first time since the Filipino-American War. June 12 was made flag day, a proclamation that would be reiterated over many subsequent administrations. However, with the Japanese invasion and occupation of the Philippines in 1941, the Philippine flag was once more banned. It was allowed to be hoisted again with the establishment of the puppet (or Second) Philippine Republic. Accounts of the ceremonies held in October 1943, in which General Emilio Aguinaldo, first President of the first republic, hoisted the flag, point to the 1936 flag being replaced with the 1898 design; At the same time, the Commonwealth government-in-exile in Washington continued to use the 1936 flag.

Thus on October 14, 1943, in front of the Legislative Building in Manila, Jose P. Laurel was inaugurated president of the Japanese-sponsored Republic of the Philippines. The ceremony was, in many respects, identical to the ceremonies inaugurating the Commonwealth of the Philippines almost eight years earlier. Like his predecessor, Laurel wore a cutaway; a Filipino, not foreign prelate, gave the invocation; and, according to one eyewitness, the crowd counted the exact number of cannon shots that boomed after President Laurel took his oath of office - echoing the resentment that had ensued over the American decision to grant Manuel Quezon only 19 guns in 1935. This time, Laurel would get a 21-gun salute. And, this time, the Philippine flag would be hoisted to fly alone, as befitted a sovereign nation, which is what the Japanese said the Philippines had become.

An eyewitness, Antonio M. Molina, a teacher at the Colegio de San Juan de Letran, later described the event in his memoirs. Among other things, he wrote:

"Some five minutes before ten o'clock Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo and Gen. Artemio Ricarte, both of our defunct Revolutionary Government of 1898, hoisted the Philippine Flag in the huge staff, to the tune of our national anthem, both hitherto banned. This time the applause was deafening. For my part, I must confess that I was unable to restrain some tears, even as I felt a knot in the throat. They were, indeed, the expression of the conflicting sentiments that assaulted me: on the one hand, the irrepressible satisfaction upon seeing our national flag flutter alone, at long last, and, on the other hand, the fear of the shame that we might be making this flag participate in such sickening histrionic exhibition. I was somewhat comforted, however, upon recalling that, allegedly upon the suggestion of the Filipino leader, Manuel Roxas, the navy blue of our flag - "the good, the genuine" as Spanish poet Peman would say - had been substituted by a pale sky blue and that the proportion of the triangle dimensions in relation to the rest of the flag had been altered. This was the subliminal message of our protest, whereof the Japanese remained unaware, to make manifest that our people are far from being gullible in the least."

There seems to be no other record of Manuel Roxas having suggested pale blue be substituted for the dark blue previously in use; what seems more probable is that Generals Aguinaldo and Ricarte had suggested that the specifications of the old flag of Malolos be restored. After all, the flag that had been banned by the Japanese after their conquest of the Philippines had been codified only under the Commonwealth, in 1936. The two Generals of the Malolos Republic, who had been reduced to obscurity and political impotence during the American Regime, would have understandably leaped at the chance to turn the clock back, restoring the symbol of their former glory.

The 1936 flag, with the navy blue, was restored upon the return of American forces in October, 1944 and it was this flag and those colors that were hoisted upon the recognition of Philippine independence by the United States on July 4, 1946. This remained the case until 1985, when President Ferdinand Marcos ordered the colors restored to the original Cuban blue and red. However the historians involved say that the flag factories at the time only had a pale sky blue available in quantity, and so this became the de facto official color. After the People Power Revolution in February,1986, the Marcos colors and presidential seal and Marcos-era new national motto were abolished and the pre-1985 flag restored.

[Flag of Philippines] by Manuel L. Quezon III, 2 April  2002

In 1998, for the centennial of the proclamation of Philippine independence, a law was passed changing the color of the flag not to Cuban blue, but to royal blue, as a compromise after a furious debate among historians and members of the public. The law, Republic Act 8491, approved on February 12, 1998, specifies the following:

SECTION 4. The flag of the Philippines shall be blue, white and red with an eight-rayed golden-yellow sun and three five-pointed stars, as consecrated and honored by the people.

SECTION 26. The period from May 28 to June 12 of each year is declared as Flag Days, during which period all offices, agencies and instrumentalities of government, business establishments, institutions of learning and private homes are enjoined to display the flag.

SECTION 27. The flag shall have the following proportions. The width of the flag, 1; the length of the flag, 2; and the sides of the white triangle, 1.

SECTION 28. The technical specifications shall be as follows: The blue color shall bear Cable No. 80173; the white color, Cable No. 80001; the red color, Cable No. 80108; and the golden yellow, Cable No. 80068.

The 1936 specifications in all other respects, however, remain in force.

Manuel L. Quezon III, 2 April 2002