|The abductions were getting old. And it was only 1606. Memories having a habit of dying hard and all, the Inuit were ready for James Hall. In 1612, the British ship captain was nearing the end of his fourth journey to their land Erik the Red had named “Greenland” hoping to attract more colonization to the ice-covered tundra. Tragic endings always involve irony. In this case, Hall’s quest was of a geographical, not geological, nature. This was a shift from his first two journeys, which ended successfully in disembarkation terms, but disastrously as both the 1605 and 1606 expeditions saw the adventurers return with worthless tapped ore and livid kidnapped Inuit.
After Hall made it to Cape Farewell captaining Heart’s Ease in the summer of 1612, he followed the west coast of Greenland north. On July 22nd, upon reaching Rammel’s Fjord, fate intervened when Hall was recognized by a group of still-steamed Inuit. One of the Inuit natives had good enough aim to strike Hall with a spear in the side. He died the next day and was, as he wished, buried on a nearby island rather than at sea, as tradition would have held. Whether guarded after having broken with nautical norms or by chance, the crew lowered the ship’s flag to half-mast as they turned to sail home. The pragmatic explanation is they were signaling to those who dared cross their wake in the opposite direction that something had gone wrong, to turn back. Those inclined to the superstitious contend that the flag was lowered to make room to fly the invisible flag of Death. According to records of the day, Heart’s Ease’s flag was still at half-mast when it docked in London. They’d deferentially made their way all the way home sailing under Death’s flag.
Chronicles claims that the sad case of the ‘beloved’ Captain Hall marked the first documented time a flag was flown at half-mast. This ritual was thenceforth widely embraced by sailors. As far as American history tells it, in 1799, the Navy Department ordered all of its ships to fly their flags at half-mast upon the death of George Washington. In 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law guidelines on how Americans must respect the Stars & Stripes. In addition to flying from sunrise to sunset unless constantly illuminated during darkness, the strictures stipulate that the U.S. flag should be at the top of others when flown with other flags. As for respecting the dead, the flag should be flown at half-staff for 30 days from the death of the President or a former President and for 10 days from the day of death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives.