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by Kerryn Pollock

New Zealand has had three recognised flags – the United Tribes’ flag, the Union Jack and the current flag, officially called the New Zealand Ensign. In the 2000s the tino rangatiratanga (Māori sovereignty) flag was accepted as a national flag for Māori, and debate continued over whether the country needed a new national flag, with suggestions including koru, kiwi and silver ferns.

New Zealand flag

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.


Māori flags

The United Tribes’ flag (1834) can be seen as the first Māori flag, but it was not designed by Māori. Indigenous flags emerged in the lead-up to the New Zealand wars of the mid-19th century. Māori recognised the symbolic power of the Union Jack and the importance Pākehā attached to the raising and lowering of flags. They sought to assert their own power and independence by devising flags. Crosses, crescent moons and stars, fusing Christian and traditional beliefs, were common flag motifs.

First flags

From the early 19th century some Māori used clothing as flags – particularly cloaks belonging to chiefs. These could perhaps be interpreted as the first Māori flags.

Kīngitanga flags

When Waikato tribal leader Pōtatau Te Wherowhero accepted the position of Māori king in 1857, flags representing the Kīngitanga (Māori king movement) were hoisted. One flag bore the word ‘Kingi’ (king) and another ‘Niu Tireni’ (New Zealand). The flags always contained three small crosses, which probably represented the three islands of New Zealand.

When Tāwhiao was installed as the second Māori king in 1861, a special flag was hoisted at Ngāruawāhia. Succeeding Māori monarchs continued this tradition, and each have had their own flag. When they die the flag is buried with them, and a new flag is devised to represent the new monarch.

Far from home

The British Museum in London has a 19th-century Māori flax-fibre flag in its collection. The flag’s provenance is unknown but visual clues have led scholar Kane Te Manakura to suggest it is the flag of a Māori prophet active in the mid-19th century. The flag is a pennant (triangular in shape). It depicts a man of chiefly status and a tuatara, both embroidered in red wool at the hoist end, which is trimmed with red and orange kākā (native parrot) feathers.

Prophetic-movement flags

Flags and flagpoles were important devices of power for the Māori prophetic movements that developed in the 1860s. The religious rituals of Pai Mārire, a movement led by the prophet Te Ua Haumēne, were based on niu (news) poles and flags. Adherents believed the cracking sound produced by the ropes and flags in the wind contained messages from God. Flags symbolising the deities Rura (peace) and Riki (war) were created. Te Ua had his own flag, as did his followers Tītokowaru and Te Peehi Tūroa.

Ringatū leader Te Kooti also used flags laden with symbolic meaning. They were taken into battle and some were captured by colonial forces, becoming war trophies.

Gifted flags

After the New Zealand wars of the 1860s the government presented flags to Māori chiefs and tribes who had fought alongside colonial forces. The British and later the New Zealand Red Ensign – a maritime flag – were the most common flags presented. The ensign included the tribe’s name or their ancestral canoe along the bottom – a practice eventually enshrined in law by the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981.

In 1865 some women settlers of Whanganui presented a white silk flag to lower-river Whanganui Māori after they defeated up-river iwi, who were Pai Mārire supporters, at Moutua Island in 1864. In addition to a Union Jack and crown, it showed a brown hand and a white hand clasped, suggesting friendship between Māori and Pākehā.

Tino rangatiratanga flag

The flag commonly known as the tino rangatiratanga flag was designed in 1989. A Northland-based group, Te Kawariki, ran a national Māori flag competition but none of the entries were chosen. A group of Māori women artists was approached and three of the members submitted a winning design. Their flag was flown during a hīkoi (march) from Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Rēinga) to Waitangi in the lead-up to Waitangi Day in 1990.

The flag has become a symbol of Māori independence. In 1999 protesters climbed a flagpole at the Waitangi treaty grounds and substituted the tino rangatiratanga flag for the New Zealand flag and the naval White Ensign.

In 2007 a Māori independence group asked Transit New Zealand (the national highway authority) if they could fly the tino rangatiratanga flag atop the Auckland Harbour Bridge on Waitangi Day, but Transit refused the request.

The Māori Party (later Te Pāti Māori) supported the National-led government formed in 2008 and party co-leader Pita Sharples took up the issue. Prime Minister John Key said a Māori flag could fly on the bridge if Māori could agree on a flag. The tino rangatiratanga flag was chosen after a public consultation process, and was flown over the bridge and in other public locations on Waitangi Day 2010. It became the national Māori flag.

Other flags

Royal and vice-regal flags

Queen Elizabeth II had a personal flag for New Zealand, which was adopted in 1962. It was the shield design of the New Zealand coat of arms with the addition of a roundel (a curved decoration) containing the letter ‘E’ and a crown. This flag was flown when the Queen was in New Zealand, including at sea in New Zealand waters, and took precedence over the New Zealand flag.

Unwanted change

Lord Bledisloe, governor-general of New Zealand from 1930 to 1935, did not like the new vice-regal flag that was designed in 1931. He continued to fly the old flag until his departure from office, and when the new flags arrived he stored them. In 1937 he said, ‘As far as I am aware, that bundle of flags still lies un-regretted in the cellars at Government House in Wellington.’1 They had in fact been retrieved by his successor, Viscount Galway.

The first governor’s or vice-regal flag was instituted in 1869. An altered version was used from 1874 until 1935. A new vice-regal flag for use by all British dominions was designed in 1931 and used in New Zealand from 1937. The third and current vice-regal flag was unveiled in 2008, and depicts the shield of the New Zealand coat of arms surmounted by a royal crown.

Ship and aircraft flags

There are four official flags or ensigns used on New Zealand ships and aircraft:

  • the New Zealand Red Ensign, which is flown on non-government ships, and was adopted in 1903
  • the New Zealand White Ensign, flown on ships and commissioned shore establishments of the New Zealand Royal Navy, adopted in 1968
  • the Royal New Zealand Air Force Ensign, flown at air force establishments and on air force planes carrying heads of state and governments, the prime minister, cabinet ministers, chiefs of staff, ambassadors and other distinguished people. It was adopted in 1939
  • the New Zealand Civil Air Ensign, flown on New Zealand aircraft and aerodromes and Civil Aviation Authority buildings and aircraft, adopted in 1938.

These ensigns all contain the Union Jack in the first quarter. The only flag that does not include the Southern Cross is the Royal New Zealand Air Force Ensign.

Well-travelled flag

In February 2011 a flag with the Hamilton city logo on it flew into space aboard the NASA shuttle Discovery. Hamilton Central Business Association general manager Ree Varcoe had been friends with shuttle pilot Eric Boe at school, and gave him the flag. Six of the crew members visited Hamilton in May and returned the flag, which was hoisted on Hamilton City Council’s flagstaff in a special ceremony.

Other flags

The New Zealand Police, Fire Service and Customs have their own flags. New Zealand naval vessels authorised to board and inspect vessels for fisheries purposes fly the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission flag. Some local authorities – such as the Upper Hutt, Porirua and Nelson city councils – also have flags.

    • Evening Post, 22 July 1937, p. 10. Back

Changing the flag

The New Zealand Ensign adopted in 1902 remains New Zealand’s official flag. However, calls to change the flag have been made since the 1960s. An alternative flag was rejected in a national referendum in 2016.

Reasons for change

The following arguments have underlain most calls for change:

  • The Union Jack on the flag belies New Zealand’s status as an independent nation.
  • The current flag does not convey New Zealand’s Māori heritage or acknowledge its multi-cultural society.
  • It is too similar to Australia’s flag.

Flag defender

In 1990 National Party MP Graeme Lee introduced a bill to amend the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981. Lee sought to provide more protection for the current flag by requiring at least 75% of MPs (rather than a simple parliamentary majority) or a majority of voters in a national referendum to vote for change. During one debate Lee expressed the pride he felt on seeing the New Zealand flag hoisted at Auckland airport during the Commonwealth Games. Labour MP and former prime minister David Lange joked: ‘It's a traffic hazard; tears are streaming from people's eyes and they're hitting buses.’1 The bill was defeated. Lee tried again – unsuccessfully – in 1994.

Supporting the flag

Since the 1970s opinion polls have found a clear majority opposed to changing the flag. Supporters of the current flag argue that it reflects New Zealand’s historical ties with Britain and is of particular value because - they claim - it has been fought under in wartime. The Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association (RSA) has led the defence of the New Zealand flag, though the association has stated that it would accept a new flag if this was the outcome of a public referendum.

New flag proposals

In 1967, United States-born Clark Titman publicised his design for a new flag. This retained the colours of the New Zealand flag and the Southern Cross but omitted the Union Jack.

There’s something missing

Republican and left-wing writer Bruce Jesson published The Republican magazine from 1974 to 1995. A version of the New Zealand flag – without the Union Jack – was situated in the top left corner of the cover. Jesson saw the flag as a symbol of New Zealand’s subordination to foreign powers.

In 1979, Minister of Internal Affairs Allan Highet proposed substituting a silver fern for the Southern Cross. New flag designs were increasingly presented by members of the public in the 1980s and 1990s. Many were prompted by design competitions run by the Press (1984) and the New Zealand Listener (1990). The best-known new flag from this period is architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s green koru (spiral representing an unfurling fern frond), which he designed in 1983.

In 1998 Minister of Cultural Affairs Marie Hasler proposed a new flag – a silver fern on a black background. This garnered much publicity, and the support of Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, but the National government was voted out of office in 1999.

Flag referendums

The charitable trust was formed in 2004 to encourage New Zealanders to support a new flag. The trust organised a nationwide petition, but this did not get enough signatures to force a citizens-initiated referendum on changing the flag.

In 2014 Prime Minister John Key revived proposals for a new flag. A Flag Consideration Panel chose a shortlist of four alternative designs, to which a fifth was added after a social media campaign. A referendum in November 2015 chose Kyle Lockwood's Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) design to run off against the current flag. In March 2016, 56.6% of the New Zealanders who voted in a second referendum opted for the current flag in preference to the alternative.

Read more about the Flag referenda on NZHistory.


Flag law and protocol


The New Zealand Ensign is the official flag of New Zealand under the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981, which is administered by Manatū Taonga the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

This act governs the use of this and other official flags. The minister for culture and heritage has the power to prescribe when and how the flag should be flown and what the standard sizes, dimensions, proportions and colours should be.

The act outlines two offences with respect to the flag: altering the flag without lawful authority, and using, displaying, damaging or destroying the flag in or within view of a public place with the intention of dishonouring it. Earlier laws did not make damaging or destroying the flag a specific offence.

Flags and protests

In New Zealand, flags and flagpoles have generally been damaged for political reasons, typically related to Māori independence or during periods of war.

Māori independence

The earliest-known instance of flag damage occurred in 1844–45 at Kororāreka (Russell). Ngāpuhi chief Hōne Heke cut down a flagpole flying the British Union Jack four times. He saw the flag as a symbol of unwanted British authority over Māori. A flagpole at Manukau Heads was cut down during the New Zealand wars in 1863.

During protest action at the Waitangi treaty grounds on Waitangi Day in 1995, Joseph Murphy trampled on a New Zealand flag. He was convicted of offensive behaviour. In 2005 Tūhoe activist Tame Iti shot the flag – reputedly the Australian flag, which he used to stand in for the New Zealand flag – during a Waitangi Tribunal hearing at Tauaarau marae in Bay of Plenty. Iti was convicted of firearms offences, but his conviction was overturned in 2007.


Foreign flags were burned in New Zealand during the First World War (1914–18). German flags hoisted by a patriotic immigrant at his home in Christchurch were torn down and burned in 1914. Croatian immigrants living in Auckland and Northland burned the Austrian and German flags.

The United States flag was burned during anti-Vietnam War protests in the late 1960s. Four protesters were jailed after they blew up the flagpole at the Waitangi treaty grounds in 1969.

Burning the Union Jack

On 8 September 1966 a female student at the University of Canterbury carried a burning Union Jack flag into the forecourt of the new science block, which Governor-General Sir Bernard Fergusson had just arrived to open. The woman’s protest was political – she was objecting to New Zealand’s constitutional ties with the British monarchy. She received a conviction for offensive behaviour under the Police Offences Act 1927.

New Zealand’s participation in the Afghanistan war in the early 2000s prompted more flag-burning. Paul Hopkinson burned the New Zealand and Australian flags at Parliament in 2003. He was the first (and to date only) person prosecuted under the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981. Hopkinson was convicted of dishonouring the flag but this was overturned on appeal.

Peace activists Valerie Morse and Mark Rawnsley burned two New Zealand flags in the grounds of Victoria University’s law school – across the road from the Wellington cenotaph – at dawn on Anzac Day in 2007. Morse was convicted of offensive behaviour under the Summary Offences Act 1981. Her conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2011.


In New Zealand, the New Zealand flag is given precedence over all other national flags, and takes the ‘position of honour’ when being flown next to other flags. Royal or vice-regal flags are the exception and take precedence over the New Zealand flag. The position of honour varies depending on how flagpoles are situated.

Flying times

The flag can be flown by anyone at any time. The flag is flown every weekday on government buildings with flagpoles and every day at diplomatic posts abroad.

Mark of respect

Flags on government and public buildings are automatically flown at half mast when certain people die, such as the sovereign, or current and past governors-general and prime ministers. The flag can also be flown at half mast when other major public figures die or a disaster occurs. This happened when yachtsman Sir Peter Blake was killed in 2001, and after the 2010 Pike River mine explosion and the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Flying the flag is particularly encouraged on 10 designated days of national commemoration, such as Anzac Day. The flag is also flown at Parliament when it is opened, the governor-general is sworn in or farewelled, a member of the royal family or other distinguished people are visiting, and on other special occasions by direction of the governor-general or prime minister.

During times of mourning the flag is flown at half mast.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'Flags', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 May 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 20 June 2012, reviewed & revised 20 April 2016