Story: Ngā haki – Māori and flags

Page 2. Early national flags

All images & media in this story

Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand

The need for a state flag arose in the 1830s for New Zealand trading ships. The Sir George Murray, part-owned by northern chiefs Patuone and Taonui, flew a kaitaka (woven mat) at the masthead in lieu of a state flag. This was considered insufficient and the ship was impounded in Sydney.

When James Busby was appointed British Resident of New Zealand (an official position) in 1833 he wrote to the colonial secretary to ask that a flag be designed. Busby rejected the initial design because it did not contain the colour red – a sign of rank for Māori. Henry Williams of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) subsequently drafted three more designs and had them sewn. The flags were presented to a hui of Ngāpuhi chiefs on 20 March 1834, with a majority selecting one already being used by the CMS. The winning flag was hoisted on a flagpole and received a 21-gun salute from HMS Alligator. King William IV approved the design. The flag became known as the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand. Busby hoped that the flag would encourage Māori to act collectively, and in 1835 many of the chiefs involved went on to sign the Declaration of Independence, in which they declared themselves the sovereign rulers of New Zealand.

Flying the United Tribes’ flag

The United Tribes’ flag was replaced as the state flag by the Union Jack in 1840, when New Zealand became a British colony after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. However, Māori continued to fly the United Tribes’ flag. Ngāi Tahu chief Tūhawaiki flew it on Ruapuke Island, near Bluff, until his death in 1844. At Pūkawa, on the shores of Lake Taupō, in 1856, a gathering was brought together by Te Heuheu Iwikau to consider the formation of the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement). At the top of the flagpole the United Tribes’ flag was flown. The Kotahitanga (Māori unity) movement likewise used the United Tribes’ flag as one of its flags. In 1907, at a meeting to discuss a confederation of Māori, Rāwhiti displayed a representation of the United Tribes’ flag.

The flag experienced a resurgence in popularity from around the 1970s through to the early 21st century as a protest flag.

The Union Jack, Te Haki

On four occasions in 1844–45 Hōne Heke, a Ngāpuhi chief, objecting to the flying of the British flag, chopped down the flagstaff at Kororāreka (later Russell). He believed that the mana of the land should not be solely vested in the government, as the British flag implied, but should be shared with Māori. Te Ruki Kawiti, another Ngāpuhi chief, said he would just as soon die as let the British flag fly above Kororareka because he felt that the symbol of British rule took away ‘the authority of our chiefs and all our lands’1.

In 1863, at Manukau Heads, local Māori cut down the flagstaff and at the same time destroyed some boats. In 1892 Kina Ohina Muri was charged at Akaaka, south of Auckland, for taking flags that were displayed after an authorised survey by the government. When questioned, he stated that he only cared for the Māori king.

  1. Peter McKeefry, ed, Fishers of men. Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1938, p. 126. Back
How to cite this page:

Malcolm Mullholland, 'Ngā haki – Māori and flags - Early national flags', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 October 2023)

Story by Malcolm Mullholland, published 20 Jun 2012