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National anthems

by Nancy Swarbrick

‘God of nations, at thy feet, in the bonds of love we meet …’ Journalist Thomas Bracken’s words to ‘God defend New Zealand’ are familiar to most New Zealanders – as, increasingly, is the Māori version of the anthem. Unusually, New Zealand has two national anthems. ‘God save the Queen’ (or, later, the King) was inherited from Britain when New Zealand became a colony. ‘God defend New Zealand’ did not become an official national anthem until 1977. In the 2000s it was common to sing a verse in Māori followed by a verse in English.

New Zealand’s anthems

What is a national anthem?

A national anthem is a patriotic song that is often performed on official occasions. Its words may evoke a country’s history, foresee its destiny or express a political ideology. The musical form is usually that of a hymn, with a series of verses, each having the same tune. A national anthem is, along with a flag and coat of arms, one of the symbols of national identity that is recognised worldwide.

The term ‘national anthem’ came into use in the 19th century, a period of rising nationalism, when many countries acquired anthems. However some national anthems, notably the British, Dutch and Spanish, were composed centuries earlier.

King or country?

When ‘God save the King’ was New Zealand’s only official national anthem, some people were suspicious or offended if ‘God defend New Zealand’ was sung on official occasions. In the early 1920s the governor-general, Viscount Jellicoe, refused to attend a function when he saw ‘God defend New Zealand’ on the programme, with no mention of ‘God save the King’.

New Zealand’s two anthems

Since 1977 New Zealand has had two national anthems: ‘God save the Queen’ (or King) and ‘God defend New Zealand’. This unusual situation arose because New Zealand’s sense of nationhood has passed through different phases since 1840.

‘God save the Queen’, the national anthem of Great Britain, was automatically the national anthem when New Zealand became a British colony in 1840. As New Zealand’s head of state is the British monarch, it remains an official anthem.

Although it was composed in the 1870s, ‘God defend New Zealand’ was not recognised as an official national anthem until 1977.

The right to declare a song a national anthem currently rests with the sovereign.

English and Māori versions

Māori versions of both anthems were composed in the 19th century. These were sung in Māori schools, at Māori welcomes for the governor and at some official events.

On occasions when both Māori and Pākehā are present, ‘God save the King’ is usually sung in English only. However, since 1999 it has become more common to sing the first verse of ‘God defend New Zealand’ first in Māori and then in English, especially at major sporting events.

An Aussie anthem?

In 1995 there was a public furore when it was suggested that Australians owned the copyright to the words of ‘God defend New Zealand.’ Organisers of a Nelson school music festival were warned they could not photocopy the music or compile practice tapes without paying a fee to EMI Australia. The Copyright Council resolved the matter by announcing that rights to the anthem had passed into the public domain in the 1980s.


Protocols about when and how the anthems should be performed are administered by Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. ‘God save the King’ is usually sung when the King, a member of the royal family or the governor-general is present, to emphasise New Zealand’s ties with Britain and the Commonwealth. ‘God defend New Zealand’ can also be sung on these occasions, or when New Zealand’s national identity is the focus. While it is not necessary to sing all verses of either anthem, the words may not be changed, and approved musical arrangements should be used.

History of ‘God defend New Zealand’

The words

‘God defend New Zealand – a national hymn’ was first published as a poem in the Saturday Advertiser, a Dunedin newspaper, in 1876. It was written by Thomas Bracken, a young Irish poet and journalist who had arrived in New Zealand in 1869. He was editor of the Saturday Advertiser at the time, and later became a politician.

The music

The publication of the verses was accompanied by an announcement of a competition. The composer of the best tune for the words would win a prize of 10 guineas (about $1,600 in 2019 values). Three Melbourne musicians, Alberto Zelman, Julius Siede and Thomas Zeplin, were the judges. They unanimously chose the composition of John Joseph Woods, head teacher of a Catholic school at Lawrence, west of Dunedin.

First performance and publication

‘God defend New Zealand’ had its first vocal performance on Christmas Day 1876 in Dunedin’s Queen’s Theatre by the Lydia Howarde Burlesque and Opera Bouffe Troupe, accompanied by the Dunedin Royal Artillery Band. In February 1878 sheet music was published.

Māori translation

The following month the premier, Sir George Grey, visited Lawrence, and 800 schoolchildren sang ‘God defend New Zealand’ at his welcome. Impressed, he wrote to Bracken, asking for the original manuscript of the poem. Grey then asked Thomas Henry Smith, a former judge of the Native Land Court, to translate the words into Māori. Smith’s translation, ‘Aotearoa’, appeared in Otago newspapers in October 1878.

Golden memories

When New Zealand’s rowing eight collected their gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the band played ‘God defend New Zealand’ instead of 'God save the Queen'. As 'God defend' was not yet an official anthem, this contravened Olympic rules, and there has been no explanation of why it happened. However, those New Zealanders present felt a sense of national pride. Athlete Dick Quax remembered, ‘I got a big charge out of hearing “God defend” being played…it was the first time I’d ever heard it at a major international event.’1 ‘God defend’ had been played after ‘God save’ at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics in honour of Yvette Williams’ victory in the long jump.


While it was published as a ‘national anthem’, ‘God defend New Zealand’ had no official status. However, it was favourably reviewed, both in and beyond New Zealand, and people often sang it on important occasions, especially in Otago. Woods, who held the copyright from 1877 until 1914, tirelessly promoted it, sending the sheet music to schools, musicians and dignitaries. At Woods’s suggestion, Premier Richard John Seddon presented a copy to Queen Victoria in 1897.

National song

In the 1930s, as New Zealand’s centennial year approached, James McDermott, chief engineer of the Post and Telegraph Department, began to lobby for ‘God defend New Zealand’ to be elevated to the status of a national anthem. He got the support of the under-secretary for Internal Affairs, Joseph Heenan. In 1938 the Centennial Council recommended that the government adopt ‘God defend New Zealand’ as the ‘national song’, preferably to be sung immediately after ‘God save the King’. In 1940 the government announced this new status and acquired the copyright of both words and music. The song continued to be described by many people, incorrectly, as New Zealand’s national anthem.

An authoritative anthem

Different versions of the Māori translation of ‘God defend New Zealand’ have been published, but often they have contained grammatical and spelling errors that have been introduced over the years. The location of Thomas Henry Smith’s original 1878 translation enabled an authoritative version to be published in 2011.

National anthem

Pressure for ‘God defend New Zealand’ to be designated an official national anthem grew as sports became increasingly popular in the years after the Second World War. At the Commonwealth Games medallists were saluted with national songs, but at Olympic Games there was a rule that only anthems could be played. For New Zealand this was ‘God save the Queen’ – the same as for Britain. After the 1968 Olympics, the New Zealand Jaycees asked for ‘God defend New Zealand’ to be made an official anthem, and organised a national poll on the issue. This sparked further debate. At the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, ‘God defend New Zealand’ was played at medals ceremonies in place of ‘God save the Queen’, and in 1976 a petition to elevate it to anthem status was presented to Parliament. Finally in 1977 it was declared an official national anthem, alongside ‘God save the Queen’.

    • Max Cryer, Hear our voices we entreat: the extraordinary story of New Zealand’s national anthems. Auckland: Exisle Publishing, 2004, pp. 68–69. Back

Analysing the anthems

Both ‘God save the Queen’ and ‘God defend New Zealand’ have been criticised as poor choices for New Zealand’s national anthem. Some people have even questioned the need for a national anthem.

Criticism of ‘God save the Queen’

Before ‘God defend New Zealand’ became an official anthem, the main criticism of ‘God save the Queen’ was that it contained no mention of New Zealand and therefore did not reflect local feelings of patriotism. In 1938 historian James Cowan, an outspoken critic, asserted that ‘‘‘God save the King’ is the world’s worst national anthem … it has become trite and a burden to the ear.’1

Once, the anthem was played in picture theatres before films were screened, and the audience stood up respectfully. During the 1960s some people refused to stand, to the outrage of traditionalists.

The triple star debate

One of the most baffling lines in ‘God defend New Zealand’ is ‘guard Pacific’s triple star’. There have been various attempts to suggest what ‘triple star’ means. The most convincing explanation is that it refers to New Zealand’s three main islands – the North Island, South Island and Stewart Island.

Criticism of ‘God defend New Zealand’

Critics of ‘God defend New Zealand’, on the other hand, claimed among other things that the words were sentimental, hackneyed, jingoistic, embarrassing and ambiguous. Some argued that in the 21st century its lyrics were outdated. The underlying structure of the piece is a prayer to God, with the refrain ‘God defend New Zealand’. This assumes religious faith, although many New Zealanders are not religious. Many of the words and concepts are old-fashioned or obscure – ‘thy’, ‘thee’, ‘ramparts’, ‘assail’, and ‘nation’s van’.

Hear our voices

Possibly because ‘God defend New Zealand’ is a relatively recent official anthem, many people do not know the words – either in English or Māori. One of the most notable occasions on which the national anthem is sung is prior to rugby test matches. People have observed that often the All Blacks cannot or will not sing along with ‘God defend New Zealand’ – in some cases apparently because they do not know the words.

In addition, the tune has been described as a boring dirge which is difficult for most people to sing comfortably.

Alternative anthems

Despite criticisms and alternative suggestions, no widely acceptable replacement for ‘God defend New Zealand’ has been found. One argument in the song’s favour is that it now has significant historical associations. Another is that the tune is instantly recognised by nearly all New Zealanders.

Changing the words

The tunes of national anthems worldwide generally stay the same, but sometimes the words have been changed to reflect changing social attitudes. In theory, New Zealand could officially alter, drop or replace verses of ‘God defend New Zealand’. Some New Zealanders have suggested alternative words for the national anthem. However, reaching agreement on any change would probably be difficult.

Revival of the anthem

In 1999, Ngāti Kahungunu singer Hinewehi Mohi was asked to perform the anthem before the All Blacks played England in the Rugby World Cup. Controversially, she sang the first verse in Māori only. Following intense public debate, support grew for singing the first verse of the anthem in both Māori and English. This bicultural approach has given the anthem a boost in popularity by emphasising its uniqueness to New Zealand.

    • Quoted in Ashley Heenan, God defend New Zealand: a history of the national anthem. Christchurch: School of Music, University of Canterbury, 2004, pp. 112–113. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'National anthems', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 May 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 20 June 2012