On 20 March, 1834, a large and oddly mixed group of people gathered at the modest Waitangi home of James Busby. They included missionaries and settlers, as well as 25 Far North chiefs and their followers and the commanders of 13 British and American ships. Busby, the recently arrived British Resident, had called the chiefs together to choose a national flag from three designs he laid out. All were the work of Church Missionary Society leader Henry Williams—a sailor-turned-missionary who would just six years later find himself called on to labour through the night translating the Treaty of Waitangi into te reo.
By a slim majority, the chiefs chose the one already flown on ships of the Church Missionary Society. Based on the St George’s Cross, it came to be known as the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand. Busby immediately declared it the flag of New Zealand and had it hoisted to a 21-gun salute from the corvette HMS Alligator.
The British Resident’s exercise did not stem from patriotic impulse or mere whimsy. As with so much in Antipodean government, it was driven by pragmatism. In 1830, the Hokianga-built barque Sir George Murray had been seized by customs officers in Sydney (somewhat ironically, given that it bore the name of the Secretary of State for the Colonies) for sailing without a flag or register. This was a violation of British navigation laws. Three years later, another vessel from the same shipyard, the New Zealander, was impounded there (with equal irony) for the same offence. Busby reasoned that what was in effect a flag of convenience to protect the trading vessels of Europeans would also spur Māori chiefs to work collectively at a political level.
With the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, New Zealand became a British colony and the Union Jack its official flag. The new lieutenant governor, William Hobson, ordered the United Tribes flag hauled down in the Far North and stopped the New Zealand Company flying a version of it at Port Nicholson (Wellington). Māori viewed this action as an affront to their identity and in the decades to come adopted the United Tribes flag as a symbol of independence. In a twist of history, a variant was also taken up as the house flag of Shaw Savill, a London-based cargo broker that—as Shaw Savill and Albion—was to carry more Europeans to New Zealand than any other shipping line.
The present flag, which incorporates the Southern Cross, was designed by a Royal Navy officer in 1869 in response to a ruling that the ships of all colonial governments must fly the Royal Navy blue ensign “with a colonial badge”. In 1902, following a tide of Boer War-fuelled patriotism, it was officially adopted as the country’s national flag. And in 2009, Prime Minister John Key announced that the striking Tino Rangatiratanga flag of Māori—designed by three women artists in 1990—could fly alongside the national flag on Waitangi Day.
Now, on the 175th anniversary of nationhood, the government is floating the idea of a new flag that better represents who we are today. One designer, Michael Smythe, has photoshopped his own koru-inspired reworking of national identity onto the body of an Air New Zealand aircraft—and we are back to those impulses that prompted Busby to convene the northern chiefs in 1834.