Story: Flags

Page 1. New Zealand flag

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National flags are a symbol of nationhood and are venerated by many. For this reason, they are also sometimes a focus of protest.

New Zealand has had three recognised flags since 1834.

Need for a flag

New Zealand’s first recognised flag was prompted by the seizure of a Hokianga-built ship in Sydney, New South Wales, in 1830. The Sir George Murray sailed to Sydney without a register (a certificate containing ownership and construction details). New Zealand-built ships could not sail under the British flag or register because New Zealand was not then a British colony, but landing in Australia without a register broke British navigation laws. The Sir George Murray was seized by the authorities and later sold. The new owner had to get a temporary licence before sailing.

McDonnell’s flag

In August 1831 the Sydney Herald reported that the new owner of the Sir George Murray, Thomas McDonnell, sailed into Sydney Harbour from New Zealand with a flag flying from the masthead. The paper described this flag as the ‘new Zealand colours’, which it went on to describe as ‘the English St. George ensign, the ground of one quarter being blue, and having a half moon in its centre. This, we believe, is the first time these colours have been exhibited.’1 The paper does not state how this flag was greeted by the New South Wales authorities. McDonnell’s flag had no official status.

When James Busby, the official British Resident, arrived in New Zealand in 1833 he was made aware of the problems New Zealand’s flagless state caused. As well as resolving shipping matters, Busby believed a New Zealand flag would unite Māori and encourage collective government. The result was the United Tribes’ flag.

United Tribes’ flag

In late 1833 the governor of New South Wales had a New Zealand flag designed, with a white background, four horizontal blue stripes and the Union Jack in the top left corner. However, Busby deemed it unsuitable because it did not contain enough red, a colour of importance to Māori. He asked missionary Henry Williams to design a flag. Williams submitted three options, which were considered by a gathering of chiefs at Waitangi on 20 March 1834. The flag chosen was one used by the Church Missionary Society, and it was declared to be the flag of New Zealand that day. It came to be known as the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand, after the title used by the chiefs when they met again.

This flag contained a red St George’s cross on a white background, with a smaller St George’s cross bordered with black on a blue background in the upper quarter. A white eight-pointed star was located in each quarter of the smaller cross.

House flag

Shipping companies also used the New South Wales Gazette version of the United Tribes’ flag for their house (company) flags. Shaw Savill adopted the flag in 1858, and after this some people referred to it as the Shaw Savill flag rather than the United Tribes’ flag.

A slightly different version, probably based on an incomplete description in the New South Wales Gazette, was raised by the New Zealand Company at Port Nicholson (Wellington) in 1839. The smaller cross did not have a border and the stars were six-pointed.

Union Jack

The Union Jack (the British flag) replaced the United Tribes’ flag as the recognised flag of New Zealand when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed on 6 February 1840. The United Tribes’ flag was still used by some Māori – it was flown by the Ngāi Tahu chief Tūhawaiki on Ruapuke Island, near Bluff, until his death in 1844 – and remained a flag of mana in the 2000s, particularly in Northland.

Claiming the land

During his first voyage around New Zealand in 1770, British explorer James Cook hoisted the Union Jack flag in different parts of the country and claimed the land for King George III. Motuara Island in Queen Charlotte Sound, Marlborough, was one such place. Cook wrote in his diary on Wednesday 31 January 1770 that ‘we took [the pole] up to the highest part of the Island and after fixing it fast in the ground hoisted thereon the Union flag and I dignified this Inlet with the name of Queen Charlottes Sound and took formal possession of it and adjacent lands in the name and for the use of his Majesty.’2

The Union Jack was New Zealand’s recognised flag until 1902. It continued to be used into the 1950s, and in the 2000s was still flown when a member of the royal family or a distinguished British guest was in New Zealand.

New Zealand flag

The current New Zealand flag is derived from the maritime British Blue Ensign. From 1865 New Zealand naval vessels were expected to fly the Blue Ensign (a flag with the Union Jack in the upper left quarter) with the addition of a New Zealand badge or seal on the right-hand side of the flag. New Zealand had neither badge nor seal and flew the Blue Ensign unmarked until rebuked by visiting British naval captains in 1866. The first badge was ‘NZ’. This was replaced by four red stars with white borders – representing the Southern Cross constellation – in 1869.

In 1899 the addition of a white disc containing the red stars was approved. This flag was soon used on land. During New Zealand’s participation in the South African War (1899–1902), flags flew throughout the country and many people were unsure whether to use the Union Jack or the Blue Ensign.

Moon and stars

In June 1900 ‘Colonial’ wrote to the editor of the Auckland Star, ‘I should like to know what is the true flag of New Zealand. A flag, similar to Messrs Shaw, Savill’s, I understand, was the first, and then a Blue Ensign, with red stars, or red star with white border, or white stars; but to-day I notice the Blue Ensign with a portion of a pawnbroker’s sign – a full-moon; on close inspection I notice that the moon is swallowing up 4 little stars: does this full-moon denote that since the [South African] war we have become so great that the stars are too small to represent us, and, like the frog, we want to blow ourselves out until we become as big as the moon?’3 Interestingly, the writer does not mention the Union Jack.

In 1900 Premier Richard Seddon introduced legislation into the House of Representatives to make the Blue Ensign with the Southern Cross stars – but without the white disc – New Zealand’s official flag. A modified bill was passed in 1902 and the Union Jack was replaced by the current New Zealand flag, which is officially known as the New Zealand Ensign.

  1. Sydney Herald, 22 August 1831, p. 4. Back
  2. Cook’s journal, 31 January 1770, (last accessed 18 July 2011). Back
  3. Auckland Star, 8 June 1900, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Flags - New Zealand flag', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 20 Apr 2016