Every nation has symbols which serve to represent the country both to its own people and internationally. These symbols include a national flag, an anthem and a coat of arms. While a national flag is generally better known, coats of arms are widely used. The New Zealand coat of arms can be found on public buildings such as courthouses and on official documents such as passports. The coat of arms may also appear on business cards used by people representing the country abroad, such as diplomats.
The Crown and New Zealand
The New Zealand coat of arms is a visual representation of the country’s heritage, landscape and population. A crown is at the top, representing the country’s historic ties to the United Kingdom, which continue in the 2000s, with the reigning British monarch being New Zealand’s head of state. At the bottom are the words ‘New Zealand’.
At the centre is a shield, with three ships in the middle, indicative of the country’s reliance on trade and recalling the 19th-century settlement of the country by European migrants, principally from Great Britain. At either side of the shield are concise symbols of New Zealand’s identity:
- the Southern Cross (also found on the New Zealand flag), representing the night sky over the country
- a sheaf of wheat, in recognition of the country’s agricultural production
- a lamb’s fleece, in acknowledgement of the pastoral economy, for so long crucial to the nation’s prosperity
- two crossed hammers, representing mining, or industry more generally.
Below the shield and behind the words ‘New Zealand’ are two fern leaves, representations of the native vegetation.
A warrior and a woman
At either side of the shield, facing it (and each other), are two figures. One is a Māori warrior or chief, representing the indigenous people of New Zealand. Holding a taiaha (a ceremonial spear) and dressed in a traditional Māori cloak, he displays strength, dignity and loyalty to his people’s traditions.
At the other side is a European woman holding a New Zealand flag, representing the non-indigenous citizens of the country. The two figures represent a partnership between two peoples, building one nation.
The idea of using a woman to represent a country was common in the 19th century. France adopted Marianne, the United States Columbia, and Great Britain was represented by Britannia. At the end of the 19th century Zealandia, daughter of Britannia, became a symbol of New Zealand: in poet Denis Glover’s perhaps whimsical words, ‘the mother-mistress symbol of young nationhood’.1 Zealandia can be regarded as the inspiration for the woman on the coat of arms, representing people of European descent in partnership with Māori.
The coat of arms is the official national symbol of New Zealand and can only be used by the state. Representing New Zealand as a sovereign entity, it is used exclusively for public purposes.
The coat of arms and the constitution
The current coat of arms was granted in 1956 by Queen Elizabeth II. As New Zealand has no formal written constitution, the coat of arms does not have constitutional status or protection (as coats of arms do in many other countries). None of New Zealand’s national symbols – the flag, the anthem or the coat of arms – are mentioned in the New Zealand Constitution Act 1986.
An uncontroversial symbol
Unlike the national flag – and, to a much lesser extent, the national anthem – the country’s coat of arms has not become a source of controversy. While other symbols affirming the link to the British Crown have been questioned as New Zealand’s identity has evolved, the coat of arms has escaped much scrutiny. Attention to the flag and anthem reflects their more conspicuous display on public occasions, such as sporting events. The coat of arms, by contrast, remains in the background. It embodies New Zealand history and sums up features of the country which, apart from the Crown, remain outside of public debate or partisan concern.
Nonetheless, should New Zealand ever become a republic, the design of a coat of arms intended to represent the country would no doubt be revisited.