Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Nail Your Colours To The Mast

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 25, 2013

Have you ever heard someone talk about how you nailed your colors to the mast? It’s a lovely expression that means that you have publicly stated your opinions on one or more subjects, even the controversial ones, and cannot be swayed to change them.

In the UK, when Education Minister, David Willetts proved to be intelligent as well as well-informed, the Independent newspaper of October 25, 2010 ran a story on a speech he had given … one that wasn’t written by a speech writer and handed to him to rehearse and deliver. The article was entitled, “Two Brains Nails His Colours To The Mast” and the story ended with this paragraph:

Willetts is making clear that he does not want to see more universities being set up but at the same time he is nailing his colours to the widening participation mast. The important thing is to make sure that people acquiring their higher education in further education colleges are receiving the high quality experience that they would get in a fully-fledged university.

The New Straits Times decided that a brief news bite on the subject should be included on page 11 of the newspaper edition of April 8, 1989. It segued into a quick comment about the upcoming annual Kodak Run For The Money contest. Entitled, “Nailing Our Colours To The Mast” the article began with this sentence:

In the days when sailing ships fought on the high seas, nailing your colours to the mast was a sign to all and sundry that you had no intention of giving up the fight.

On July 19, 1955 the Glasgow Herald published a story entitled, “Colours To The Mast” and reported on the talks in Geneva, Switzerland. The meeting was held to discuss the known issues of the day that divided Communism and the Western world, and allowed leaders of various countries to assess and evaluate the sincerity of leaders from other countries. The article began thusly:

The first day of the Geneva talks was devoted to a general nailing of colours to the mast. If the designs were familiar, it is hardly to be wondered at. Ten years have passed since Potsdam, Roosevelt and Stalin are dead, and Sir Winston Churchill has retired, but the peoples they led remain and it was their views, evolved through the experience of those 10 years, that the Western spokesmen at least were declaring yesterday.

In 1912, author Arnold Bennett (27 May 1867- 27 March 1931) published a book entitled, “The Matador Of The Five Towns And Other Stories.” In the comedic short story entitled, “Hot Potatoes” readers are introduced Mrs. Swann of Bleakridge in the Five Towns, and with a few deft strokes, readers know more about her 19-year-old son, Gilbert, than you might think. A musical prodigy of sorts, the story regales readers with an indulgent mother’s attempts to mollycoddle her adult son. As the story peaks, this sentence finds its way into the storytelling.

But not for a thousand pounds would Mrs Swann have exposed the mush of potato on the carpet under her feet. She could not conceive in what ignominy the dreadful affair would end, but she was the kind of woman that nails her colours to the mast.

It was an expression used in Australia and New Zealand and can be found in the news story of April 28, 1887 entitled, “Criticisms On The Speech” and published in the Political Intelligence column in the Otago Daily Times. Near the end of this column, the following is found:

The local press with one voice condemn the Governor’s Speech. The Times says it is poor and thin, and does not show much of the nailing of colours to the mast. The Post says it is more than ordinarily vapid and uninteresting, and cunningly planned so as to afford as few pegs as possible on which to hang hostile amendments.

In writing the book entitled “Life Of Pius IX” by author T. Adolphus Trollope (1810–1892) and published by Craig and Taylor in Detroit back in 1877, he chose to use the idiom twice in his book. The first occasion presented itself here:

It is in this respect that the next Conclave will most materially differ from the last. In many other respects the situation is very analogous. It is once again a question of ” nailing colours to the mast,” or ” transaction ; ” of war to knife, or more or less sincere conciliation ; of refusing to yield an inch, at the risk (denied to exist, however, by some of those who have to make the decision) of utter rout and overthrow, or of giving a little to preserve the rest. But the world has progressed since the death of Gregory the Sixteenth. Both parties to the great contest have thought much since that time.

And the second occasion presented itself here:

The “nailing of colours to the mast” is an operation which, if often of doubtful political expediency, has always appealed to emotions and sympathies, which have their root in the noblest portion of the complex nature of mankind, and has rarely, so far as ensuring the admiration and applause of the crowd goes, appealed in vain. But religious — or rather ecclesiastical — prejudices and hatreds, which have their root in some of the meanest and lowest passions of humanity, have prevented the contemporary world of Pius the Ninth and his little band of counsellors from awarding to them the meed of appreciation on this score, which has been fairly their due. No ship of war going down, with every man of her crew standing at their guns, rather than strike their colours to the enemy, has shown to the world a more indomitable preference of duty to expediency than has the absolute and consistent refusal of the Pontiff to bend to the storm which has raged around him.

Irish statesman, barrister, literary critic and author, John Wilson Croker (20 December 1780 – 10 August 1857) was the subject of a series of diaries entitled, “The Croker Papers: The Correspondence and Diaries of the Late John Wilson Croker.” He was the Secretary to the Admiralty from 1809 through to 1830, and a Member of Parliamant for 25 years. In Volume 3, a letter from Sir Robert Peel to John Wilson Croker and dated January 28, 1844 began thusly:

My Dear Croker,

Many thanks for the extract from Ashburton’s letter. I read over two or three times that part of it which advises the nailing of colours to the mast. This is good advice from Ashburton. I never heard him make a speech in the course of which he did not nail, unnail, renail, and unnail again his colours.

The idiom was a favorite of Sir Robert Peel and can be found in his letters written to others. In a letter from Sir Robert Peel to Lord Kenyon who, at the time, was threatening to quit the King’s service, dated March 26, 1835, the following can be found:

It may be swamped or not, but independent it will no longer be, but will pass every measure, however infamous, which the House of Commons sends up. I anxiously trust you will nail your colours to the mast, and not quit our Sailor — and now repentant — King.

The poem “Marmion: A Tale Of Flodden Field” was written by Scottish historical novelist, playwright, and poet, Sir Walter Scott (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832). He began work on this epic poem in 1806, and saw it published in January of 1808. Within this poem the follow stanza is found:

Even then dishonour’s peace he spurn’d,
Her sullied olive-branch return’d,
Stood for his country’s glory fast,
And nail’d her colours to the mast!

The fact of the matter is that flying flags was an established the naval military practice at the time, where displaying one’s signal flags or insignia(the ship’s colours) from the mast of a ship during battle showed loyalty.

Back in August 1807, the Hereford Journal reported on the naval engagement between British and American ships, where disgraced Navy Commodore James Barron failed to resist a British attack on his flagship, the Chesapeake. Barron was later court martialed, on the request of his junior officers, and a verdict was rendered that saw James Barron expelled from the Navy for five years. The news article, highly critical of Barron’s decision, stated in part:

You ought to have nailed your colours to the mast, and have fought whilst a timber remained on your ship.

The naval ships of the 1700s and 1800s used to fly their nautical battle colours (flags) so other ships could identify them. If the flag was struck, or lowered, it was a mark of submission. It quickly became a habit for the enemy to fire upon the ship’s mast, thereby disabling the colours in trying to force the other ship to submit. More often than not, though, captains would hoist what remained of the flag thanks to the ship’s rigging, allowing the ship’s flag to fly again. This was known as nailing the colours to the mast. This act rendered it almost impossible to surrender when engaged in battle.

You’re probably wondering how this practice came to be accepted by captains the world over.

It all began with British Admiral Adam Duncan (1 July 1731 – 4 August 1804) of the HMS Venerable and sailor Jack Crawford (22 March 1775 – 10 November 1831) at the Battle of Camperdown on October 11, 1797. The HMS Venerable was surrounded by three Dutch ships when the top of its main mast was shot off. Risking his life, Jack Crawford took the flag, climbed the broken mast while still under fire, and nailed the flag to the top of the broken mast. In the end, the Dutch were defeated as the Dutch flagship Vrijheid was surrendered to Admiral Adam Duncan.

Now was this the first instance of nailing one’s colours to the mast?

Hardly. History reports that on September 23, 1779 — at the Battle of Flamborough Head — British Naval Captain Richard Pearson of the HMS Serapis, nailed the British ensign to the ensign staff before going into battle against — and surrendered to — the Continental Navy ship Bonhomme Richard.

It was as the 1700s drew to an end, however, that the phrase came into its own as an idiom and not just as a nautical term. Idiomation tags this idiom to 1790 on the basis that it was used in Sir Walter Scott’s poem of 1808 (which he began writing in 1806) after at least two historical events that made loud statements about taking a stand against all costs.

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One Response to “Nail Your Colours To The Mast”

  1. Matty CW said

    I always believed the term was in reference to no specific event. It clearly has naval origins, but the way I understood it was that, if your ship was boarded and taken by the enemy, they would hoist their colours on the mast to signify the ship now theirs. As such, captains would “nail their colours to the mast” effectively meaning their colours would be the only colours to fly from the ship’s mast & the ship would sink before ending in enemy’s hands. However, I’ve no historical evidence to back that up, it is just how the phrase was always explained to me &, to be honest, it made sense that way

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