What’s in a flag? The story of New Zealand’s many flags
June 7, 2023
You might be familiar with the current New Zealand flag, but did you know that it wasn’t the first flag our country had?
At the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, you’ll find a symbolic flagstaff that marks the spot where the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed on the 6th of February in 1840. The flagstaff features three flags - Te Kara (the original New Zealand flag), the Union flag, and the current New Zealand flag.
How did New Zealand come to have two different flags?
It all started in the 1830s when it was proposed that a flag was needed to represent New Zealand after a trading ship built in Hokianga was seized in Sydney because it didn’t have a flag. Flags were essential for ships during this time; under British laws, every ship was required to bear a flag from its nation in order to sail and trade. New Zealand’s first flag was chosen on the 20th March in 1834 when British resident James Busby offered three flag designs for the Māori leaders to choose from. The most popular flag, Te Kara o Te Whakaminenga o Ngā Hapū o Niu Tireni (the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand) became our country’s first flag.
Unfurling the different flags at Waitangi
Flying to the north of the Waitangi Treaty Grounds flagstaff is New Zealand’s first flag, the United Tribes of New Zealand flag, or Te Kara o Te Whakaminenga o Ngā Hapū o Niu Tireni. Te Kara was the first internationally recognised flag of New Zealand, however after Te Tiriti o Waitangi was signed, British officials began flying the Union flag instead. Despite this, the power of Te Kara in acknowledging the mana and independence of the Māori chiefs held true and it remains a legal New Zealand flag to this day.
The Union flag, or Union Jack, is the national flag of the United Kingdom. This flag was recognised as the official New Zealand flag from 1840 until 1902, and drew criticism from some Māori as it replaced the original New Zealand flag after the Treaty was signed. Hōne Heke, chief of Northland iwi Ngāpuhi, was particularly disgruntled by this. He believed Māori should have the right to fly the original Te Kara flag alongside the Union Jack. He actively rejected the Union Jack and its representation of British power over Māori people, cutting down the Kororāreka flagstaff again and again.
New Zealand flag
The New Zealand flag we know today officially became the national flag of NZ in 1902, however it went through a few iterations before its current design was settled upon. This flag had the Union Jack in the same position, but instead of the red stars we know, it had a red ‘NZ’ etched into the bottom corner. This was then changed again in 1869, replacing the ‘NZ’ with the Southern Cross. In 2016, the citizens of New Zealand took a vote on potentially changing the national flag. Although some believed there should be a new flag that better reflects the country’s independence, voters opted to keep the current flag.
Is there a Māori flag?
Yes, there is a national Māori flag. In 1989, $20 million was allocated to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi, and a competition for a national Māori flag was created. When none of the designs that were submitted were quite right, a group of Māori women were called upon to design the flag. Featuring red, white, and black Māori patterns that represent Te Korekore (potential being), Te Whai Ao (coming into being), and Te Ao Mārama,(the realm of being and light), this flag was flown for the first time over the Auckland Harbour Bridge on Waitangi Day in 2010.
Learn more about the flags of New Zealand
The museums at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds hold a wealth of knowledge about NZ’s past. It’s in this historic place that you can learn more about these flags and how they came about.
Visit our iconic flagstaff overlooking the harbour, and find out more about Te Tiriti o Waitangi on a trip to Waitangi.