Every week, I examine the flags of the cities and towns of Rhode Island and offer sample redesigns to suggest improvement. This week, we go to the eponymous county seat of Newport County.
Prior to English settlement, Aquidneck Island was lost by the Wampanoags to the Narragansetts. Thus, it was to the Narrangansetts Roger Williams went in 1638 to ask for permission to settle on the island on behalf of a group of dissenters exiled from Massachusetts Bay (though perhaps they were merely only purchasing the use of the island). The dissenters settled at the north end of the island, and in true Rhode Island fashion split within a year with one faction moving to the opposite end of the island. Thus was born the state’s tradition of leaving to do your own thing.
The new thing they started in 1639 was called “Newport” (opposed to Portsmouth), and in 1640 the two towns unified under a single magistrate, William Coddington, as the Governor of Rhode Island (which they named their new, unified polity). Coddington opposed Williams’ goal of a unified colony of Providence, Warwick, Portsmouth, and Newport. Unfortunately, Williams managed to travel to England and get a patent to a unified colony in 1644. Rhode Island, which was doing better than Providence or Warwick, ignored this patent until 1647, when they finally accepted it. However, for some reason the united colony elected Coddington president. He never showed up for duty, due to his opposition to the whole arrangement. So they replaced him.
The islanders’ acknowledgement of Williams’ patent did not stop Coddington from trying to keep Rhode Island independent, though. He sought an alliance with the Puritan colonies, who told him that he’d have to submit to be administered by Plymouth, which would end religious freedom in the towns. Instead, he traveled to England and managed to get a patent for Rhode Island from the new Commonwealth government. He returned in 1651, and was widely accepted as governor of the island. It also prompted Williams and two of the islanders who opposed Coddington to go back to England to explain the error, and get Coddington’s authority revoked. Thoroughly rebuked, Coddington left public life for a while, then returned accepting the authority of the 1644 patent.
However, while the tribulations of its founders are entertaining, it was populations from the West Indies that made Newport. First, Western Sephardi Jews, leaving Spanish colonies, established a presence in the town. These were people who had been forcibly “converted” to Christianity, and saw in the English a chance to improve their lot (Catholic subjects of the English saw the same in Spain, with Irish and Scottish colonists often defecting to the Spanish). This community would eventually develop the famed Touro Synagogue.
But the more important second wave of West Indies settlers came in 1696: English slaveholders from Barbados, fleeing slave uprisings on that island, arrived in Newport, bringing with them the first African slaves. As the scholar Christy Clark-Pujara has noted, Rhode Island wasn’t founded with an economic mission. But in slavery, Newport and Rhode Island found an economy of human suffering that would fuel a rapid growth. A second wave of Jewish immigrants in the mid-18th Century, from Portugal, helped establish this economy.
At its height, Newport had somewhere over 25 distilleries producing rum for use in slave trading. That a man could be purchased for 110 gallons of rum (or a woman for 95 gallons) speaks to either the inflation of rum or the value placed on enslaved people. Newport “Guinea” rum was taken by an armada of 180 ships to West Africa, where slaves were purchased, and then the slaves were taken across the Atlantic to the West Indies, where sugar and molasses was purchased, and then on to Newport, where the imported product was converted into rum. While the Newport ships were smaller than English and French slavers, they were more cost-effective, as the smaller numbers of slaves meant that West Indies slave traders had an easier time selling them.
It should be noted that all of this was pretty illegal. While the Glorious Revolution weakened the Crown’s hold on the African slave trade, they still technically had a monopoly. Also, the white Newporters were dodging paying taxes on all this sugar and molasses they were importing. It was not for nothing that the HMS Gaspee and HMS Rose were dispatched to Narragansett Bay.
The slave trade made Newport extremely wealthy. A local tax on the selling on slaves funded street paving. Most of Rhode Island’s slaves went to the West Bay, to work on plantations. But a great number stayed in Newport: in the 1770s, a third of Newport’s population was Black, and a third of the white families owned slaves. Black people were often employed in the very industries vital to enslaving them, often in the key rum production industry that fueled the cruel slave economy of the city.
All this came to a grinding halt with the American Revolution, which was kind of a disaster for Newport’s (slavery-based) economy. British customs enforcement had dampened, but not halted, the trade. The British occupation of Newport stopped it entirely. The war led to a large decline in the Black population of Newport, as many Black residents saw the chance to escape bondage by departing with the British, in a pattern that played out across the colonies. Others left with French officers in Rochambeau’s forces.
Newport never regained its prominence in the slave trade (though the slavers did continue until it was eventually banned). Before the war, Newport had been one of the five wealthiest ports in the British colonies. After the war, it was eclipsed by Providence as the center of economic activity in the state.
Like Narragansett and Jamestown, Newport’s economy shifted from a slave-based one to a summer resort one (initially hotels, and then moving into summer residences). Unlike the former towns, though Newport developed some minor industry, but it’s important to note that the freed Black labor in Newport (and Rhode Island) did not benefit from industrialization; industrial jobs went to European immigrants, while Black citizens remained confined to the service sector. Newport, though, was largely a service economy in the 19th Century.
While many whites from former slaver families became well-resourced abolitionists, Black Newporters were doing the hard work of actually liberating and supporting people. Isaac Rice supplied his house as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Newport attracted a significant number of Black families from Culpepper County, Virginia after the Civil War who joined with the local Black families.
The mansions that Newport is so famous for initially were built for southern slavers looking for cooler climes in the summer. This soon attracted wealthy families from New York, and while the southerners sold their mansions during the Civil War, Newport soon became the prime destination for wealthy families across the nation.
The Great Depression hit hard, some of the mansions were sold to Salve Regina, and much of the service economy was cleared out. With the rise of the automobile, and creation of the Naval Station (and the docking Atlantic Fleet’s Cruiser-Destroyer Force), Newport reached the apex of its population, recording over 47,000 residents in 1960. But the removal of the Cruiser-Destroyer Force caused a precipitous decline that has continued ever since. Today, Newport is estimated to have 24,334 residents; about as many as it had at the start of the 20th Century.
The City is home to many well-known landmarks and cultural events; Fort Adams, the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals, the Black Ships Festival, Easton’s Beach, the Newport Tower, and the US Navy War College.
What has Newport got now?
In terms of civic symbolism, Newport has a coat of arms:
The Tercentenary Commission describes these arms like this:
Azure an arched tower argent. The arched tower is the old stone mill shown in silver or white, which is the heraldic tincture most nearly approaching its color. It appears on a blue shield. This device appears on the Newport City Flag.
The Tower is grey, and there’s generally only a few colors that appear in heraldry (the metals: gold/yellow, silver/white; and the colours: blue, red, green, purple and black; in some traditions, black works as both a metal and colour).
The Tower does appear on the Newport City flag, which appears on City Hall and in photos of the Town Council. That the Tercentenary Commission is describing the flag suggests it was adopted prior to 1935. Unfortunately, I only have two images, and it’s hard to tell from the online images I found if either accurately represents the flag of Newport:
The first is from CRW Flags of the World, which says it was “located” in 2013. The second is a 2019 reproduction from a Wikipedian, which cites no sources, and uses a yellow border to approximate the fringe on the flag (to be clear, from the images I found, that is not part of the design, and should not be included). According to state Sen. Sam Bell, the Latin motto “Amor Vincet Omnia” means “love will conquer all” which is slightly different take than the Roman poet Virgil’s original formation of “omnia vincit amor” or “love conquers all”.
Newport also has a seal:
The three dates are when the city was settled (1639), incorporated as a city (1784), and rechartered (1853). I’m unsure what the last really means for Newport, since the City operates under a 1953 charter that created the Council-Manager system it runs under now.
Digitizing Existing Designs
In terms of the arms, it’s a question of how detailed and accurate you want to get with the tower.
I tried to go for overall similarity and not exact accuracy with my design (on the left). The WappenWiki is a slightly modified version of the WappenWiki tower asset (mostly, I removed the crenelations).
There’s nothing that needs to be done to the seal. It’s sufficiently a seal, in my opinion, and I actually pulled it as a vector image from Wikipedia, so whether it was traced from an official city image or an official city vector image, I don’t know.
My rendition of the Newport City Flag takes greater advantage of the full field of the flag (trying to address the shortcomings of the existing flag. I probably went a little overboard with the laurel wreath. I also used a slate blue color for the tower, as I was unsure if on the current flag it’s blue or grey. In my view, the motto-bearing scroll is totally useless on this flag; first, it’s something that could’ve been conveyed through more abstract symbols, and second, it’s in Latin a language that most observers will be unable to read.
Now, it is, fundamentally, a better flag design (the executions of it I’ve seen are less than inspiring) than many of the existing cities we’ve seen already. It doesn’t write “Newport” across the flag, it doesn’t put a shield on the flag. I suspect it was originally a parade flag for a Newport militia, parade flags being the foundation of American state and municipal flag design. That’s the best explanation I can make for the laurels.
However, I think I can do a little better.
Redesigning Newport’s Flag
Designs 1a, 1b & 1c
Each of these deploys the Tower in some manner. 1a is the straight adaptation of the arms. 1b takes the tower and replaces the scroll with waves for the sea. 1c maintains the overall design of the original flag, but eliminates the scroll and reverses the colors.
Newport is sister cities with Shimoda, Japan; the port opened to American traders by Matthew Perry. Drawing on the design of Shimoda’s flag, this emblem-based flag uses the Tower as its basis, but as though looking up from its center, surrounded by the Tower’s eight columns. The emblem is further modified to roughly mimic a ship’s wheel. A lot of Japanese flags use a stylized character from one of Japan’s alphabets to represent the city, so in this case, I’ve added an “N” at the center for Newport.
The great thing about this flag is that, like many Japanese municipal flags, the emblem can be separated from the design and used in black and white as a municipal logo.
Design 3 borrows the arms of the Naval War College (the trident over the waves) but adds to them five stars; which represent Newport’s place among the five former capitals of Rhode Island, the largest star being Newport itself. The stars also represent the five largest islands within the bounds of Newport: Gooseberry, Goat, Rose, Coasters Harbor, and Aquidneck itself.
Designs 4a & 4b
I don’t think the 4a design worked as well as I wanted it to, but it was a good exercise for me. The charge at the center is the heraldic representation of a sea lion, though in Singapore, they have a statue called the “Merlion” which is used as a municipal symbol. In this case, I chose the sea lion because for a brief moment, it was a symbol of the Newport Jazz Festival. I’ve handed this sea lion a trident, both referencing the Naval War College, but also referencing Newport’s maritime history as a whole (for good and ill). The bounding shape for the sea lion is an idealized Ft. Adams (it is in that pentagon shape, with four-sided bastions, but not as even as this). A black stroke around the fort helps a bit to reconcile the black strokes on the sea lion (though, not well, admittedly).
4b keeps the Ft. Adams shape, but removes the sea lion completely. It adds waves to the field, and brings in the five stars from Design 3 (now red), creating a nice patriotic red, white, and blue color scheme. I suspect some military personnel will object to the arrangement of the stars, but in my opinion, the negative space pentagon is one of the nicest way to arrange five stars.
As always, I suggest these as possibilities, not as serious proposals. If you think I’ve missed something, or could’ve done better, please get in contact! You can also help me out by filling out a brief survey about your city or town.
And remember, please vote in the poll!