Although the identity-building endeavor known as Europeanization only began two or three centuries ago (and was concretized and accelerated following World War I), European polities have always cherished sovereignty and tradition.
Even after being united under distinct nations for so many years, the idiosyncrasies of areas like Basque, Sicily, and Lombardy continue to shine through.
Similarly, Corsica and Sardinia, two island areas that are now part of France and Italy, respectively, have evolved with an unmistakably distinct political identification emblem. The head of a Black Moor man with a white bandana around his head is engraved on the flags of these countries.
In the case of Sardinia, the cross of St. George inscribed on a white backdrop divides four identical Moor heads into four corners. There is only one Moor head with the bandana on the Corsican flag.
These heads have both historical and mythological explanations. The oldest of the two flags, the Sardinian flag, appears to have been adopted around 1326, shortly after the Kingdom of Sardinia was established and brought under the Crown of Aragon. The Crown had already selected a coat of arms for Peter of Aragon’s Royal Chancellery in 1281, which featured four Moor heads divided by the cross of St. George.
According to the Sardinian online tourist site Fortieventi, the first record of Sardinian use of the Moor heads dates from 1572. Sardinia had fallen under the sway of the Aragon composite monarchy, which demanded absolute fealty. However, the Sardinian adoption of Moor heads differed from the 1281 form in a few ways.
The heads now wore bandanas and turned to the right rather than the left. The flag has undergone various changes over the last five centuries, but the cross and the heads remain the most prominent characteristics. The Italian president Luigi Einaudi issued a proclamation in 1952 designating the Quattro Mori (Four Moors) as the official emblem of Sardinia.
In 1755, under the command of renowned general Pasquale Paoli, Corsica adopted a Moorish head. The circumstances surrounding the adoption are unclear, although there is no indication of direct force from the Crown of Aragon, though there is a legend that Corsica imitated the head from the Aragonese crown. Corsica’s Moor heads, like the Sardinian Moor heads, have experienced alterations till the most recent form in 1980.
So, why are African men’s heads shown on European flags? Unfortunately, the answer has been a lot of legends and very little verifiable history. The Moors, a loaded descriptor for Black, North African, and Muslim peoples throughout European history, were recognized to Europeans as early as the eighth century CE. Since the Moors came and occupied the Iberian peninsula, cultural conflicts between the two peoples would have been cast.
According to one Spanish legend, King Peter I was miraculously aided in battle by St. George against Saracens in 1096, which is how Moor heads became part of Aragon’s official symbols (another name the Europeans called the Arab Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East). As a result, the flag of 1281 was a creative reflection of this supernatural meeting.
Another tale – Sardinian – claims that Pope Benedict VIII gave the insignia of St. George’s cross to Sardinia as spiritual assistance and morale booster in a struggle against Saracens who had seized another Italian island, Sicily. According to folklore, this insignia was presented to the Sardinians without any Moorish heads, which were added after the Sardinian Christians had won the war.
Legends abound in Corsica about how they acquired a Moor’s head. One of them is a story about a young man named Pablo who, in the 13th century, rescued his lover Diana from a Moor named Mansour who was sent by the King of Granada to kidnap her. Mansour was then slain by Pablo in a struggle, and Mansour’s head now adorns the Corsican flag.
Nothing can be confirmed, except for the near-validity of certain of the tales’ timelines for these claimed wars. The myths are a collection of why stories that have been passed down over generations.
Sardinia and Corsica have been pushed to reinvent their flags in light of recent anti-racist initiatives across the west, but this initiative appears to be stalled.