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What’s in a Flag? A Brief Introduction to Vexillology


Photo Credit: Sami Sarkis

If you followed the news this past summer, you likely noticed that there was much talk of flags and their significance. This was especially the case for the State of South Carolina as legislation was passed to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the capitol in Columbia. This came after a horrific mass killing took place at the hands of a white supremacist who had previously been photographed brandishing not only the Confederate battle flag, but also those of apartheid-era Rhodesia and South Africa. Much has since been written about the implications of flags in this context.

The potent symbolism attached to a flag’s history may be manifested in various and complex ways – ways that may also change over time. The study of these issues is known as vexillology (from Latin vexillum;flag, military ensign, banner”), a term coined by American flag historian and expert Whitney Smith in 1958.

Even before it is made official, considerations of a flag’s design are often highly politicized, as seen in the current case of New Zealand’s various proposals to change their national flag. In the case of the Republic of Cabo Verde, a Portuguese-speaking West African island nation also known in English as Cape Verde, the changes from one national flag to another have heralded the various changes to the nation’s administration and political configuration over the last fifty years.

Here is the flag that was proposed for the territory during the 20th century while it was still under Portuguese rule (until 1975), but was never fully instituted due to various historical instabilities:


Proposed colonial Cape Verdean flag (pre-1975)

We can see the use of the ancient Portuguese flag – itself a conglomeration of various symbols dating back to both the Age of Discovery (c.1300-1600) and the Middle Ages (c.1100-1300), with a unique coat of arms for the colony of Cabo Verde in the bottom fly (“right corner” in vexillological terms). The ship symbolizes the Portuguese arrival at the previously uninhabited islands in the mid-to-late 15th century and the islands’ subsequent importance as a depot in triangular trade. The green sky and waves refer to not only the sea, of course, but also to the second word in Cabo Verde’s name, which means “green” in Portuguese.

Next we have Cabo Verde’s first national flag after it had declared independence from Portugal on July 5th, 1975 and was still united with Guinea-Bissau (formerly Portuguese Guinea) on the African mainland:


First Cape Verdean national flag, 1975-1992

Clearly some major changes in policy had taken place. In fact, since those fighting for independence from Portugal – some since the 1960s – were socialists allied with the Soviet bloc under the aegis of PAIGC, the “African Party for the Independence of [Portuguese] Guinea and Cabo Verde,”  which is today’s left-center PAICV party, it is not surprising that their eventual victory would be reflected in the fledgling nation’s new flag. The red, yellow, and green bars are traditional African colors symbolizing the struggle for freedom, mineral wealth, and the earth, respectively. But in this context, red can also denote socialism. The black star is a symbol of African/black solidarity that can also be found in the flags of Ghana and Guinea-Bissau as well as within the liberation symbolism of Jamaican Black Nationalist and Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey (1887-1940). The ears of corn flanking the star stand for the importance of agriculture and traditional rural communities. The clam shell at the corn’s base hints at the great significance of the sea to the archipelagic nation.

When full democracy was obtained in Cabo Verde in 1990 with the admission of a second political party, the Movimento para a Democracia (MpD; “Movement for Democracy”), a new flag was called for. Thus, in 1992, the following was unfurled for the first time:


Current flag of the Republic of Cabo Verde

As we can see, almost all of the socialist-leaning, Afrocentric symbolism is gone. In its place is a scheme at least partially influenced by the red, white, and blue of the American flag, which hints at the fact that Cabo Verde and the USA maintain close and friendly relations to this day. The ten yellow stars arranged in a circle represent the ten islands of the Cape Verdean archipelago, though the islands’ actual relative position forms more of a flying-V shape. The blue represents the ever-present sea surrounding the islands. The red still stands for struggle/sacrifice as in the previous flag and the white bands stand for hope and/or peace, as in many other flags of the world. The intention with this particular change in design stems from Cabo Verde’s policies during the last 25 years of promoting homegrown unity and identity while simultaneously fostering links with a wide range of foreign partners such as Cuba, China, various member-states of the European Union, and the United States.

So what’s in a flag? A whole lot, once you stop to take a closer look.

Glossary of some vexillological terms:

  • charge – any part of a flag that features a design in the foreground
  • canton – a distinct rectangular area marked off in a flag’s corner
  • hoist – the left side, where a flag would be attached to a pole
  • fly – the right side, where a flag might flutter in the wind
  • saltire – an X shape, as in the Union Jack of the United Kingdom
  • coat of arms – a more complex design incorporating elements from heraldry, usually traceable back to a specific dynastic family

For more on this topic, check out these links as well as print titles from the University of Illinois Library and its affiliates:

Gideon, Richard, Ed. 2003-2015. American Vexillum Magazine. Self-published.

Shaw, Caroline, Compiler. World Bibliographical Series: Cape Verde. Oxford: Clio Press. (IAS Reference/Non-circulating).

Smith, Whitney. 1975. Flags Through the Ages and Across the WorldNew York: McGraw Hill.

Smith, Whitney. 2001. Flag Lore of All NationsBrookfield, CT: Millbrook Press.

The Urbana Free Library. 2015. “Flag of Earth.” Blogs. 11 August 2015. Online: Accessed 16 September 2015.

Znamierowski, Alfred. 2010. The World Encyclopedia of Flags: The Definitive Guide to International Standards, Banners, and EnsignsLondon: Southwater.

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What Are International Cultural Promotion Organizations?


Photo by r2hox via Flickr/Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The diplomacy – both formal and informal – that occurs between and among “all nationally defined cultures” (Said 1993: 15) is much more of an art of give and take than an exact science. With so many factors of culture, language, and current events at play, there is never a hard and fast way to interact internationally. This is the very reason why foreign diplomats undergo so much training – in language(s), in bilateral policy, and furthermore in making a concerted effort towards understanding the peoples and places in whose midst they are placed as representatives of foreign governments. Ideally, they must be prepared for any contingency. But of course this is only a ideal; in reality, one misplaced comment or misunderstood joke could ultimately mean the difference between copacetic relations and tumultuous scandal. Conversely, one mutually respectful relationship between two analogous diplomats could mean the difference between bringing a project to fruition or allowing it to languish in bureaucratic stagnation.

But beyond this “art” of diplomacy, the arts in their traditional sense (along with the humanities in general) offer a nexus through which members of different nations and/or cultures may cast aside more formal geopolitics in the pursuit of both identifying and celebrating our commonly shared qualities and interests. It is from this standpoint that we arrive at the concept of “cultural internationalism,” defined by Akira Iriye as “a variety of activities undertaken to link countries and peoples through the exchange of ideas and persons, through scholarly cooperation, or through efforts at facilitating cross-national understanding” (1997: 3).  But how do these endeavors look and feel on the ground level, day to day, and from the perspectives of those who take part in them? While much is written about political science, diplomacy, international relations, geopolitics, and other related topics, one corner of this area has yet to be amply studied: international cultural promotion organizations, also known as (inter)national cultural centers, cultural institutes, or cultural agencies.

Whether in the form of the Confucius Institute (China), the Instituto Cervantes (Spain), the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (USA), or any number of other centers or institutes active throughout the world, during the last 150 years or so governments have increasingly invested in how they interact with their counterparts internationally. These places serve as meeting grounds for new ideas, musical and other cultural events, language learning, and mutual understanding in general. As J.M Mitchell observes, “Activities arranged by cultural agencies create a favourable impression on foreigners in leading positions, either directly as with high culture, or indirectly through the reputation built up by more routine operations in their countries such as language classes, libraries, etc.” (1986: 15). And while the efforts of ICPO’s may differ from nation to nation and from era to era, their purpose is uniform: to be a part of the global community.

The below table offers information and links for the world’s more active international cultural promotion organizations. Find one near you and get involved with another culture today!


Iriye, A. (1997). Cultural Internationalism and World Order. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Mitchell, J.M. (1986). International Cultural Relations. London: Allen & Unwin.

Said, E. (1993). Culture and Imperialism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.


Nation Inst. name Founded Main partner(s) In USA? Main US sites
Andorra Fundació Ramon Llull 2008 Catalonia (Spain) No N/A
Brazil Rede Cultural Brasil 1962 Other S. American nations and Lusophone (CPLP) nations No N/A
China Confucius Institute 2004 Worldwide Yes All major US cities and nationwide (458)
Czech Republic Czech Centres 1993 Other European nations Yes New York City
Denmark Danish Cultural Institute 1940 UK, Baltic states, Brazil, China, Russia, Benelux No N/A
Estonia Estonian Institute 1995 Finland, Hungary No N/A
Finland Association of Finnish Cultural and Academic Institutes 2005 Europe (13 countries), Japan, Middle East Yes New York City
France Alliance Française 1883 Worldwide Yes Multiple: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago (100+)
Germany Goethe-Institut 1951 Europe, USA, South America, Africa Yes Most major US cities (6)
Greece Hellenic Foundation for Culture 1992 Egypt, Germany, Eastern Europe, Australia No N/A
Hungary Balassi Institute 1927 Europe (13 countries), Russia, India, Egypt, USA Yes New York City
India Indian Council for Cultural Relations 1950 South Asia and worldwide No N/A
Italy Società Dante Alighieri; Italian Institutes of Culture 1889; 1940 Western Europe and worldwide; worldwide (90 total) Yes New York City, Boston, Miami, Seattle, Anchorage, Denver, Pittsburgh, Pueblo (NM), Detroit; NYC, LA, San Francisco
Japan Japan Foundation 1972 Asia, Australia, and the Americas Yes New York City, Los Angeles
Poland Adam Mickiewicz Institute 2000; 1971 Asia, Turkey, Brazil; USA No… Chicago: Copernicus Center (non-profit)
Portugal Instituto Camões 1992 Lusophone Africa + East Timor, EU, Latin America, USA, Canada, Senegal, S. Africa Yes Boston, Newark
Romania Romanian Cultural Institute 2005 EU, Turkey, Israel, USA Yes New York City
Russia Russkiy Mir Foundation 2007 China, Cuba, EU, Israel, Central Asia, East Asia, USA Yes New York City, Washington, D.C.
South Korea Korean Cultural Center 1991 USA, Japan, China, Russia, EU, Vietnam, Brazil, Argentina, India, Thailand, Mexico Yes Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York City
Spain Instituto Cervantes 1991 Latin America, USA, EU, North Africa/Middle East, South/Southeast Asia Yes New York City, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, Albuquerque
Switzerland Pro Helvetia 1939 France, Italy, Egypt, S. Africa, China Yes New York City, San Francisco
Sweden Swedish Institute 1929 France No N/A
Turkey Yunus Emre Institute 2007 Italy, Jordan, Azerbaijan, Albania, Belgium, Japan, UK, Iran, Hungary, Poland, Northern Cyprus, etc. No N/A
United Kingdom British Council 1934 Worldwide Yes Washington, D.C., New York City, Los Angeles
United States Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs 1961 Worldwide N/A N/A
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Power Africa Conference

How often do you take electricity for granted? For some of us, it’s not even something we think about often. Keeping cell phones charged is as simple as remembering to plug them in overnight. Staying up late at night to do homework is never hindered by a lack of light to read and write by. The wireless Internet router is always on and blinking away, keeping us in touch with friends, family, and coworkers via email and social media.

For many millions of people throughout the world, however, having regular access to electricity – whether at home or in public – is by no means a given. In fact, this is a major issue in terms of the growing disparities between people living in the so-called developed and developing nations.

This past March 2nd to 4th, the University of Illinois hosted a conference focused on electricity, politics, and inequality both on the African continent and in African nations’ relations to others, especially in the context of post-colonialism. “Power Africa: Promises, Potentials, Pitfalls, and Possible Alternatives” convened various expert panelists from Africa, Europe, and North America to discuss issues relating to how “power,” in both of its meanings, affects individuals’ relative quality of life in the Global South, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Several members of the UIUC faculty and staff community were present, including Prosper Panumpabi (originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo; Electrical Engineering), James J. Overbye (Electrical and Computer Engineering), Kiruba Haran (Sri Lanka/Nigeria; Electrical and Computer Engineering), and Tami Bond (Civil and Environmental Engineering). The event was sponsored by the Center for African Studies along with several co-sponsors and held at the Funk-ACES (Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences) Library on the UIUC campus.


Solar panel used to power hair clippers, Gurue, Mozambique. Photo by Dr. Julia Bello-Bravo (UIUC Center for African Studies).

Guest speakers included Claudia Schwartz of the U.S.African Development Foundation (USADF), James Murombedzi (UN Economic Commission for Africa Coordinator), Lauren MacLean (Department of Political Science, Indiana University), and Boaventura Monjane, a journalist and activist from Maputo, the capital of Mozambique.

The overarching tone of the event was one of careful optimism about the ways in which quality of life has risen with greater access to well-managed public utilities for average people, at least in some cases. At the same time, however, all speakers were concerned about the exploitative nature of transnational corporations involved in African countries and their lack of accountability to local populations in the extraction and processing of raw materials into power sources. Such is currently the case of Mozambique, and this issue was addressed in detail by one panelist, the Mozambican journalist and political activist Boaventura Monjane.

Monjane spoke on the event’s third day. In both his talk and its accompanying paper, he stated, “Despite its electricity generation potential, the greater part of [Mozambique] is entirely in darkness and access to electricity is among the lowest in the world. For instance, in rural areas about 1% of the population has access to electricity. Even in urban areas, access to and use of electricity is still very limited due to the high costs and erratic supply” (2015: 1). He also showed a photo of the injuries inflicted by local police on a participant at a recent protest against these discrepancies.

Members of the panel on  the topic "Is Power Africa Sustainable?" L to R: Dipti Bhatnagar, Baruti Amisi, James Murombedzi.

Members of the panel on the topic “Is Power Africa Sustainable?” (March 3rd). L to R: Dipti Bhatnagar, Baruti Amisi, James Murombedzi.

An article from the New York Times in November 2012 investigated these very issues. Specifically, the role of transnational energy corporations is exemplified in the case of the Brazilian coal mining firm Vale do Rio Doce, which is currently active in the Tete province of Mozambique. This company, however, was only one of several transnationals operating in Mozambique mentioned by Monjane in his presentation. Others mentioned were from both the Global North and South, including Chinese and Indian firms.

During the round table discussion Baruti Bahati Amisi (Dem. Republic of the Congo) concluded the conference itself on March 4th with the following words: “The well-being of the poor is not directly linked to technical issues. But it is directly affected if their interests are not kept in mind.”

To see the official program of the event, visit http://powerafrica.afrst.illinois.edu/.


Monjane, Boaventura. (2015). “Mozambique: An Energy-rich Country in the Dark.” Power Africa: Promises, Potentials, Pitfalls, and Possible Alternatives (Conference). 4 March 2015. UIUC Center for African Studies.

Polgreen, Lydia. (2012). “As Coal Boasts Mozambique, the Rural Poor Are Left Behind.” The New York Times. 10 November 2012. Online. Accessed: 19 March 2015.

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Ready for Rio?

In about a year and a half from now, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil will host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

This past summer, Brazil hosted the FIFA World Cup. Leading up to the event there was no small degree of controversy, fueled in large part by popular protests against the status quo‘s apparent focus on its international image rather than on the Brazilian people’s more urgent needs (Moh 2014). The outcry particularly focused on the lack of development/infrastructure in such sectors as education, public transportation, and medical care.

In a May 2013 interview with the Bloomberg News Service, JPMorgan’s Latin American Chief Investment Analyst Philip Guarco spoke with journalist Trish Regan about Brazil’s capabilities and preparations for both events in question, as neither had yet occurred (nor had the popular protests yet begun). He noted,

“[Brazil has] actually doubled the amount on infrastructure that they’ve made over the last 10 years, from about two percent of GDP to four percent. But I think there has to be more partnership with the private sector. And unfortunately there’s been a number of moves recently by the government which I think discouraged the private sector from investing more in infrastructure.”

These doubts were widely echoed throughout international media in the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup. Although the Brazilian national team suffered a humiliating 7-1 defeat by Germany in the semi-finals and then a 0-3 loss to the Netherlands in the run-off for third place (Pearson/FIFA 2014), the logistical/infrastructural issues predicted by many critics seemed to have been not only averted, but quite smoothly maneuvered. Score one for the Brazilians there.

However, as life gradually returned to normal after the event, the Brazilian economy began to register the reverberations from the weeks of lost productivity in any sector unrelated to the Cup itself, as essentially the whole nation was either directly or indirectly engaged in the mega event:

“While the month-long tournament drew a million foreign tourists to Brazil–far exceeding official expectations–economists say its impact on other sectors of the economy was decidedly negative. Some World Cup host cities declared municipal holidays on days when matches were played in local stadiums, while untold legions of workers played hooky to watch the Brazilian national team’s seven games.” (The Wall Street Journal, 18 July 2014)

Many speculators (Guarco 2013) currently agree that the high hopes that were held for Brazil as a world-class economy are now tempered with a strong dose of scepticism based on internal limitations and the often fraught relationship between the public and private sectors in large-scale projects. The recent scandal involving the widespread corruption of state-run oil giant Petrobras is one glaring example (Horch 2015).

Will the months leading up to the 2016 Olympics (August 5-21, 2016) unfold as another politically turbulent – followed by another economically stagnant – period? Or will the Games only help to solidify Brazil’s still – ostensibly – burgeoning status as the darling of the BRICS nations (“Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa”), despite the risks and challenges? Whatever the result, Brazil’s current position on the world stage is as prominent as it has ever been.

For more information about what’s in store for the fascinating nation and culture of Brazil, scroll down after the references for some recommended reading, all available at the UIUC Library.

Fore more information on Latin American and Caribbean Area Studies, please contact our Subject Specialist, Dr. Antonio Sotomayor: asotomayor@illinois.edu.


FIFA. (2014). “2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil: Matches.” Online: http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/archive/brazil2014/matches/index.html. Accessed 18 February 2015.

Guarco, Philip and Regan, Trish (Eds.). (2013). “Will We See a Whole New Brazil in 2016?” New York: Bloomberg. Video: http://search.alexanderstreet.com.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/view/work/2390602. Accessed 17 February 2015.

Horch, Dan. (2015). “Corruption Scandal at Petrobras Threatens Brazil’s Economy.” The New York Times. 11 February 2015. Online: http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2015/02/11/a-corruption-scandal-at-petrobras-threatens-brazils-bond-market-and-economy/?ref=topics&_r=0. Accessed 19 February 2015.

Moh, Catharina (Ed.). (2014). “Clashes Mar Brazil World Cup Protest.” BBC News. 26 January 2014. Video: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-25901361. Accessed 18 February 2015.

Pearson, Samantha (Ed.). (2014). “Brazil’s World Cup Hangover.” The Financial Times. 14 July 2014. Video: http://www.ft.com/indepth/fifa-world-cup-brazil-2014. Accessed 17 February 2015.

Fore more information, check out these books at the UIUC Library

Jennings, Andrew (Ed.). (2014). Brasil em jogo: o que fica da Copa e das Olimpíadas? São Paulo, SP: Carta Maior: Boitempo Editorial.

Wood, Naomi Pueo (Ed.). (2014). Brazil in Twenty-first Century Popular Media: Culture, Politics, and Nationalism on the World StageLanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Zibechi, Raúl and Ryan, Ramon. (2014). The New Brazil: Regional Imperialism and the New DemocracyOakland, CA: AK Press.



James, Marlon. 2014A Brief History of Seven Killings. New York: Riverhead Books/Penguin Group.

UIUC Library Catalog Listing: http://vufind.carli.illinois.edu/vf-uiu/Record/uiu_7584554.

They think my mind is a ship that sail far away. Some of those people in my own district. I see them in the corner of my eye. After I help them grow, they thinking me is the one now blocking progress. So they treat me like old man already, and think I don’t notice when a sentence cut short because the rest of it not meant for me. That I don’t notice that phones come to the ghetto for talking, but not to me. That I don’t notice they leave me alone. (p. 86)

A Brief History of Seven Killings is one of those stories that, due to mainstream trends and Hollywood politics, may not ever be adapted into a film. But it’s so compelling as a book that it won’t matter.

Equal parts fictionalized (yet remarkably realistic) primer on the complex and fraught Jamaica of the 1970s, Cold War narco-thriller, and cautionary tale of the dark sides of immigration and globalization, Marlon James has, in stark detail, brought an oft-misunderstood corner of the world to the fore.

Himself a native of Kingston, James writes from the first-person perspectives of a slew of recurring characters – from the white American hippie journalist with his finger on the pulse of Jamaica’s powder keg scene; to the ghost of a murdered, Jamaican politician of the old guard; to a former lover of “the Singer” (read: Bob Marley), who wants nothing more than to escape the mayhem of her native island; to the head of one of Kingston’s two rival gangs, allied with both Marley and the opposition party leader. Just to name a few.

Amazingly, unidentified gunmen did in fact invade the home of Bob Marley on the night of December 3rd, 1976. No one was killed, but Bob suffered a gunshot wound to his upper arm and his wife Rita Marley sustained a graze wound to the scalp. Marley’s manager Don Taylor suffered more considerable gunshot wounds but survived. Considering the multiple rounds fired, it’s a miracle that no one perished. But who exactly were the gunmen and why would anyone want to kill one of the most beloved artists of both then and now?

Well, you’ll have to read the book for the details. But suffice it to say, Jamaica after its independence from Great Britain in 1962 was a tumultuous place. Journalist Vivien Goldman (2006) elucidates:

Less than two decades after Jamaican independence, the system left behind by the British had frayed, and the infrastructure was crumbling. I remember arriving in Jamaica from Los Angeles once, having been shopping earlier that day, and how obscene it was to compare LA supermarkets’ towering stacks of produce with the island supermarkets, with shelves so empty they seemed to sell air. There was music, style and creativity in abundance, but shortages of everything else from rice to rolling papers. Driving anywhere was an adventure, as the ancient taxis seemed to be held together with rubber bands and hope, and the roads all over the island had potholes like craters. Power cuts were as regular as police roadblocks.

The Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP) divided the populace along strictly binary lines. The former, led by Edward Seaga, promised no-nonsense economic development with stronger ties to the USA. And the latter, with their eloquent leader Michael Manley, promised a new order of socialist reform with the support of Cuba and other communist-leaning states in the region. Understandably, both parties sought an alliance with Jamaica’s most charismatic and electrifying native son: Robert Nesta Marley.

James takes full advantage of the cloudiness of the details of this case to flesh out almost 700 pages of gripping narrative, skipping back and forth from Jamaica to New York City between the years 1976 and 1991. Employing Standard American English, Black American English, Standard Jamaican English, Jamiacan Patois, and even a smattering of Caribbean Spanish, the linguistics involved are also captivating, exhibiting James’ deep cultural dynamism.

This book is not for the faint of heart, however: Violence (both domestic and gang-related), drug abuse, strong sexual content, and graphic language pervade the text. James certainly doesn’t flee from the darker sides of the pursuit of human survival in the modern age and takes it upon himself to show how and why people do what they do to stay alive. He leaves it up to us, the readers, to decide if each character is justified in their actions.

As Publishers Weekly observes in their own review on the book’s dust jacket, “Upon finishing, the reader will have completed an indispensable and essential history of Jamaica’s troubled years. This novel should be required reading.” While there might not yet be a college course for which it’s made the reading list, I highly recommend A Brief History of Seven Killings for any student of reggae music, Jamaica, the African diaspora, the Caribbean, or the Cold War era.


Goldman, Vivien. 2006. “Dread, beat and blood.” The Guardian. 16 July 2006. Online: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2006/jul/16/urban.worldmusic.