The Coat-of-Arms of the Royal Society of South Africa

by Jane Carruthers

When, in 1979, it was registered in terms of South Africa’s Heraldry Act No 18 of 1962, the heraldic achievement (heraldically incorrectly but commonly called the ‘coat of arms’)1 of the Royal Society of South Africa was described in the arcane medieval language of heraldry as follows:

Arms: Fer fess enhanced Azure and Sable, a bar indented enhanced Argent, between in chief a crest coronet and in base an astronomer’s quadrant, Or.

Crest: A fish eagle rizant, wings elevated and addorsed, proper.

Wreath and mantling: Argent and Azure.

Supporters: Two lions Or.

Motto: IN EXPERIENDO PROGRESSUS.

At the establishment of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1908 no visual symbol was agreed upon. The Royal Charter was granted but no ‘seal’ or heraldic achievement was registered in Britain with the Royal College of Heralds. There is no explanation for this omission in the records of the Society, but it might be speculated that the establishment of the Society as a scientific organization had been so protracted and so difficult that, in the fraught circumstances of obtaining the Charter, raising the matter of a coat-of-arms would only have led to further divisions among the region’s scientific community. These divisions had become evident because after the conclusion of the South African (Anglo-Boer) War in 1902 there was a period of uncertainty as to the political future of the region and there was a jostling for power and influence among the four colonies of southern Africa – the Cape, Transvaal, Orange River Colony and Natal. These regional animosities and rivalries had spilt over into process of negotiating the transformation of the South African Philosophical Society into the Royal Society of South Africa.2

With the passage of some fifty years after its establishment, in the 1960s attention at last turned to acquiring a coat-of-arms for the Society, the design of which would encapsulate the past and future of the institution and also symbolise some of its aims and objectives. In 1969 Council approached the then State Herald, Dr Cornelis Pama, and had a preliminary meeting with him on 16 April 1970. Pama suggested that the general layout of the heraldic attachment should follow that of the Royal Society of London, but with African elements that might include, for example, a South African eagle with a raised foot holding a scroll with two South African animals serving as supporters. The exercise would be an expensive one, Pama warned: the costs of drawing up the design and having it registered would be in the region of about R150 and preparing the printing block and dies for the seal might amount to a further R200.  There were also some sensitive issues to be negotiated because if any devices were ‘South African’ (in the sense of coming from the national coat-of-arms), then the State President’s permission would be required to use them. This could have presented difficulties because any reference to the word ‘Royal’ might have had deleterious repercussions in a republic outside the British Commonwealth as was South Africa after 1961. As the minutes express it: ‘A special representation would have to be made [to the State President] on the title of the Society and its special implication, which indeed continues to be fully acceptable to its Fellows and Members,’ but which might not have been to the State President at the time.

The matter was again put aside for a couple of years but at a Council meeting on 3 May 1972 a very colourful heraldic concept was tabled for consideration. It consisted of a shield containing a Quarter of England, a protea, ostrich plumes, four red disas, blue crane supporters and the motto ‘Res Parvae Crescent Concordia’ (By agreement small things grow). Again, perhaps because of unrecorded disagreements among Council members (the minutes avoid detailing such discussions) three years of silence was to follow. The matter resurfaced at a Council meeting on 2 November 1975 when another new design was put forward for deliberation. This comprised lions in the place of the blue cranes, there was now a scroll and quill, and the crest was a rising fish eagle clutching a protea in its talons. The motto had been changed to the rather well-worn phrase ‘Ex Africa Semper Aliquid Novi’ (Out of Africa always something new).

It is not clear from the Society’s minutes precisely which members of Council had been involved in these changes and suggestions but the matter of a coat-of-arms was becoming rather urgent. In 1977, the Society was coming up for its centenary (the centenary of the founding of its antecedent, the South African Philosophical Society) and the plan was to have the design and registration procedure completed in time to be used for the celebrations. However, once more there were unexplained delays – coats-of-arms are, after all, matters of taste and thus contention – and when 1977 came around there was still no finality. However, there was some progress. The Council minutes of March 1977 record an approved concept design that would be given to Miss E.A. Sheila Fort, a well-known Cape Town heraldic artist and calligrapher, to draw up. Elements were as follows: a crown would allude to the Royal Society of London, a scroll and quill referenced scientific writings and publications, supporters would be African lions to signify strength, a rising fish eagle was to suggest high aspirations and the bird would clutch a giant protea, representing South Africa. Before this meeting, the Council had apparently investigated the armorial bearings of a number of other societies, had even studied the arms of Sir Bartle Frere (whom Council members seem rather curiously to have regarded as the Society’s founder), and had also asked Miss Fort for her expert advice.

On 16 June 1977 the issue of the coat-of-arms had risen in importance to have been included among the ‘Matters of Urgency’ on the Council’s agenda. Miss Fort’s amended design received attention and generated discussion. The scroll and quill were to be omitted ‘as being too literary’ for a society of scientists, a quadrant was now included instead as a tool of science, and it specifically referred to the instrument used by the Abbé de la Caille, an astronomer considered to have been the first internationally renowned scientist to visit the Cape. Another motto variation was also suggested at this stage, ‘In Experiendo Progressus’ (Progress through experimenting). This seems apt indeed, because progress was now visible and certainly there had been experimentation!

This design was put out for comment to Fellows and Members at the 1977 Centenary Exhibition and the Society’s Branches were supplied with colour photographs for similar purpose. At the Council meeting of July 1977 small changes were made to the shape and size of the fish eagle and to the quadrant, while the protea was given a ‘better appearance’. Sheila Fort unfortunately fell ill in October 1977 and the corrections were done by Miss J. Walker, an artist employed in the Department of Hematology at the UCT Medical School. More changes then occurred. By 30 November 1977, the protea had gone the way of the red disas, and only the fish eagle remained, now with its wings drawn back and without any flower in its talons, presumably on the basis of reliable scientific evidence that fish eagle generally clutch at fish, not flowers.

At last, in February 1978, this design found favour with all Councillors. The coat-of-arms was approved and Miss Walker’s final tricking – the heraldically annotated but uncoloured draft – was paid for (her work cost the Society R25) and sent to the State Herald in Pretoria for approval. As the country’s top heraldic bureaucrat, Pama had only one small amendment in June 1978 when he simplified the crown by giving it three leaves, instead of five. After publication in the Government Gazette (Notice 1788 of 8 September 1978), the final registration took place on 16 March 1979 and the certificate was issued, in English, on 20 June 1980 (Reference: National Archives HER 1079; H4312541). This long drawn-out process had been overseen by six Presidents of the Royal Society of South Africa from various disciplines: oceanographer Dr George G. Campbell (1968-1970), palaeo-anthropologist Prof. Phillip V. Tobias (1970-1972), pharmacologist Prof. Norman Sapeika (1972-1974), geographer Prof. William J. Talbot (1974-1977), physiologist Prof. Archibald W. Sloan (1977-1979) and marine biologist Prof. Alexander C. Brown (1979-1981).

Heraldry has a medieval origin of course, but as a nationalized institution in the Republic of South Africa it dates formally from the Heraldry Act No. 18 passed in 1962 after South Africa had left the Commonwealth and thus no longer had a connection with the College of Arms in England, Northern Ireland and Wales (Scotland is a separate jurisdiction). A Bureau of Heraldry and a Heraldry Council were established in 1963 and all South African arms registered since then have been obliged to conform to heraldically correct rules. Over the years since 1963 many thousands of armorial bearings for societies, towns and villages, schools, families, businesses and other institutions and entities – let alone new provinces, and the various ‘independent homelands’ of the 1960s and 1970s – have been granted, approved or registered. Innovations in design (and, it must be said, in fashion) have regularly occurred. Dr Cornelis Pama, who assisted the Royal Society of South Africa with its coat-of-arms, was one of the original members of the State Heraldry Council when it was founded in 1963. His expert career was influential in the history of heraldry in our country and before his retirement he wrote a number of books on heraldry, genealogy and Cape history.

Now that there has been more than three decades of using the coat-of-arms of the Royal Society it is a well-recognised symbol of the society’s origins, history, location and aspirations.

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  1. The word achievement – as in armorial/heraldic achievement – is derived from corrupting the French to ‘hatchment’ from historic forms asatcheament, achement, hathement, etc.
  2. For a history of the Royal Society of South Africa, see J. Carruthers, ‘Scientists in society: A history of the Royal Society of South Africa’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 63(1), 2008, pp.1-30.