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The New Zealand Flag

New Zealand flagYou probably do know what the current New Zealand flag looks like: blue, with the Union Jack in the top left-hand corner, and four five pointed red stars with white borders on the fly. The Union Jack represents the historical bond with Britain, while the four stars (the Southern Cross constellation) represent the location of New Zealand in the Southern Hemisphere. The blue background is reminiscent of the blue seas and skies of New Zealand.

But what you probably don’t know is that this flag has only been the official New Zealand flag since June 1902. Before that date the Union Jack was New Zealand’s national flag, before the Union Jack there was the United Tribes Flag of New Zealand, and before the United Tribes flag, New Zealand simply was …

A country without a flag

In the beginning of the 19th century, New Zealand didn’t really need a flag. Only when trading with other countries started (especially with Australia) did it become clear that the country couldn’t do without a flag of its own: in 1830, a New Zealand trading ship was held in the harbour of Sydney, simply because it was sailing without a flag. Australia followed British navigation laws, which ruled that a ship must sail under an official flag to represent it. But New Zealand didn’t have a flag, and as it was not a British colony at the time, it couldn’t sail under a British flag either. So this incident was the prelude to the first official New Zealand flag, which became known as the …

United Tribes Flag of New Zealand

United Tribes Flag of New ZealandIn 1834 25 Maori chiefs gathered in Waitangi to choose the first official New Zealand flag. The flag they chose consisted of two red St George’s crosses and four stars in the top left-hand corner. The flag was sent to the Governor of New South Wales, who forwarded it to King William in England. The king approved of the design and sent a drawing of it to other nations, so the flag could be recognised as the flag of New Zealand. To the Maori, it was important that Britain had accepted New Zealand as an independent nation with its own flag.

Union Jack

Union JackIn 1840, on the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (an agreement between Maori chiefs and the British Crown, covering issues of sovereignty, possession and rights of citizenship), the United Tribes Flag of New Zealand was replaced by the Union Jack as the official New Zealand flag. But this didn’t happen without some resistance. A couple of Maori chiefs argued that Maori should have the right to fly the United Tribes Flag together with the Union Jack, to stress the fact that the Maori and British population had equal rights. They viewed the Union Jack as a symbol of British power over Maori and on several occastions took the Union Jack down.

Naval Flags

Though from 1840 on the Union Jack was the official New Zealand flag on land, at sea New Zealand used British naval flags. All British colonies had to fly the blue ensign with their colony’s own seal or emblem at sea. (The blue ensign is a flag with a blue background and the Union Jack in the top left-hand corner.) As New Zealand didn’t have its own seal or emblem, New Zealand ships just flew the blue ensign, without any markings. When they were reprimanded by British ships, an emblem was devised, which consisted of just the abbreviation ‘NZ’. In 1869 however, Governor Sir George Bowen directed that this abbreviation should be replaced by the Southern Cross: four red stars with white borders. Even though this flag was officially just a maritime flag, it was also used on land and gradually became recognised as the national New Zealand flag. In 1902, it officially became the national Flag of New Zealand.

A new flag?

In recent years there has been a lot of arguing going on about whether or not the current New Zealand flag should be replaced by a new design. Some people believe that the current flag is no longer appropriate because it suggests a link with Britain, while a lot of people actually living in New Zealand have no connection with Britain at all. The flag also ignores Maori heritage and is often confused with the Australian flag, which has a similar pattern.

Others oppose a change because the current flag is the flag New Zealand’s war veterans have fought and died for. As for the similarity to the Australian flag they claim that many countries have flags that are very similar (or sometimes even identical) to the flags of other countries.

Several campaigns have been organised and designs proposed for an alternative flag, but so far without resulting in a new national flag. One of the reasons might be that until now no alternative has been presented that has a broad appeal.

Maori flag

Maori FlagThough there is no official Maori flag, there is a flag that has increasingly come to represent the Maori independent movement. The flag was the winning design of a 1990 Maori flag competition. This competition was being held because none of the entries in the national flag competition held in that same year showed any Maori inspiration or acknowledgment.

The Maori flag is made up of three colours: black, red and white:

  • The black represents the realm of potential being (Te Korekore).
    It symbolises the long darkness from which the earth emerged, as well as signifying Rangi – the heavens, a male, formless, floating and passive force.
  • The red represents the coming into being (Te Whei Ao).
    It symbolises Papatuanuku, the earth mother, the sustainer of all living things, both the land and active forces.
  • The white represents the realm of being and light (Te Ao Marama).
    It symbolises the physical world, purity, harmony, enlightenment and balance.
  • The spiral-like koru is symbolic of a curling fern frond, representing the unfolding of new life, hope for the future and the process of renewal.

As a whole, the design represents the balance of the forces of nature, masculine and feminine, active and passive, potential and physical, air and earth. It can also be interpreted as symbolising the white cloud rolling across the face of the land, as in the Maori name for New Zealand, Aotearoa (‘Land of the long white cloud’). Look out for this flag during your campervan rental holiday of New Zealand.

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