The identity-establishing project we can call Europeanization may only have started some two or three centuries ago (and concretized and accelerated after World War I) but European polities have long celebrated sovereignty and tradition since the Middle Ages.
The characteristics of regions such as Basque, Sicily and Lombardy continue to shine through even after so many years that they have been consolidated under specific nations.
In the same way, Corsica and Sardinia, two island regions that now belong to France and Italy respectively, emerged with an unambiguously unique symbol of political identity. On the flags of these polities is inscribed the head of a Black Moor man, with a white bandana around its head.
In the case of Sardinia, there are four same-looking Moor heads separated into four corners by the cross of St. George emblazoned on a white background. With the Corsican flag, there is just that one Moor head with the bandana.
There are historical as well as mythical explanations for these heads. The Sardinian flag, the older of the two, appears to have been adopted way back in 1326 after the Kingdom of Sardinia was founded and brought under the Crown of Aragon. The Crown had already adopted a coat of arms for the Royal Chancellery of Peter of Aragon in 1281 in which there were four Moor heads, without bandanas, separated by the cross of St. George.
However, the first evidence of Sardinian usage of the Moor heads appears in 1572, according to Sardinian online tourist platform Fortieventi. By this time, Sardinia was under the control of the composite monarchy of Aragon, which demanded unadulterated loyalty. But the Sardinian adoption of Moor heads came with certain changes different from the 1281 version.
Now, the heads wore bandanas and looked to the right instead of left. In the last five centuries, several changes have occurred to the flag but the dominant features of the cross and the heads remain. In 1952, a decree by the Italian president Luigi Einaudi identified what the Italians called the Quattro Mori (Four Moors) as the official emblem of Sardinia.
Corsica’s adoption of a Moor’s head was in 1755 under famed general Pasquale Paoli. The circumstances that motivated the adoption are not very clear although no evidence of direct compulsion from the Crown of Aragon has been theorized although there is a myth that suggests Corsica copied the head from the Aragonese crown. Just like the Sardinian Moor heads, Corsica’s has also undergone changes until its most recent version in 1980.
So, why are the heads of African men on European flags? The answer has unfortunately been many legends and very little verifiable history. The Moors, which is itself a loaded descriptor throughout European history for Black, North African and Muslim peoples, were known to Europeans as far back as the 8th century CE. The cultural tensions between the two peoples would have been cast since the Moors invaded and colonized the Iberian peninsula.
According to one Spanish tradition of how there came to be Moor heads as part of Aragon’s official emblems, King Peter I, in 1096, was aided in battle miraculously by St. George against Saracens (another name the Europeans called the Arab Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East). The flag of 1281 was therefore an artist’s expression of this divine encounter.
There is another legend – Sardinian – which holds that the emblem of George’s cross was given to Sardinia by Pope Benedict VIII as spiritual support and morale booster in a war against Saracens who had conquered another Italian island, Sicily. The legend states that this emblem given to the Sardinians had no heads of Moor, an addition that came after the Sardinian Christians had won the war.
In Corsica too, they have legends of how they came to have a Moor’s head. One of these is a story about a young man, Pablo, who rescued his lover Diana from a Moor, Mansour, sent by the King of Granada in the 13th century to kidnap the maiden. Mansour was then killed in a fight by Pablo and it is Mansour’s head that adorns the Corsican flag today.
Apart from the near-validity of some of the timelines for these alleged battles in the legends, nothing much can be proven. The myths make up a collection of pourquoi stories that have been handed down over the centuries.
In light of modern anti-racist campaigns across the west, Sardinia and Corsica have been challenged to reimagine their flags but this campaign seems to be going nowhere.