Flying the 'Q' flag

Courtesy photoThe "Q" flag flies at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site on Derby Wharf.

SALEM — Dan Finamore, the Peabody Essex Museum’s curator of Maritime Art and History, spied something special in Salem this week.

“Taking a brief break from home confinement,” he says, “I took a stroll down to Derby Wharf and spotted something that probably hasn't occurred in Salem for a long time. The flagpole at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site is flying a solid yellow flag, which is the signal code for the letter Q in the International Code of Signals. In addition to spelling out various messages when flown in combination with other signals, the Q flag flown alone is the symbol for ‘Quarantine.’”

The practice of quarantining ships has a long history. As far back as the 14th century, during Black Plague years, ships arriving at the port of Venice had to remain offshore for up to 40 days to make sure none of its passengers were carrying a sickness. The first official ordinance for quarantining a ship in Massachusetts dates back to 1647 when officials levied steep fines for any vessel arriving from a distant port that didn't pause at the entrance to Boston Harbor until given the signal to proceed.

In more recent times, the "Q" flag would have been flown on a ship that had cleared inspection and its passengers and crew were considered safe to be landed. In some regions, a black flag signaled the opposite. When the yellow "Q" flag flew on a wharf, as we see it now, it was announcing a zone where ships that were free of disease were allowed to tie up safely.

“I applaud the sentiment of those Park Service staff who hoisted this flag," says Finamore. “May it bode well for the health of all Salem residents.”

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