From the Back of the Class | Issue 20

From the Back of the Class | Issue 20


If you have been paying even cursory attention to your Facebook newsfeed recently, you’ll have  noticed that there’s a thing about a flag coming up and that people have opinions about it. Regardless of the merits (or otherwise) of a $25 million referendum or the value some may attribute to distancing our modern nation from a colonial past, the history of the New Zealand flag is worth a look.

We have essentially had three flags in our brief history. In 1834, James Busby, the British Resident in New Zealand, met with 25 northern Māori chiefs and came up with the Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand. However, how “United” it was is debatable as — bizarrely — most of New Zealand is found south of the far north. Busby also has the dubious honour of being the victim of New Zealand’s first drive-by when people, pissed off with his inefficacy at keeping order, would take pot-shots at his house from their carriages.

The Union Jack was established as our national flag in 1840 by Te Tiriti o Waitangi. But Hōne Heke kept chopping it down so our current flag, the New Zealand Ensign, was adopted. Although (in 1845) Hōne did keep chopping down the flag, that’s not why we changed it; the 1902 change was maybe just a distraction from larger and more complicated political issues but, eh, who can say …

Perhaps our first, and certainly my favourite, representative piece of cloth for our nation, came before these examples in 1830. At the time, “British” New Zealand was an economic and cultural outpost of New South Wales (it was a da   rk and shameful time in our history where it might be said that New Zealand was part of Australia). British law stated that ships built in a particular place had to be registered and carry the flag of that place but equally, under British law, New Zealand wasn’t “a place” yet. Isn’t international maritime law fun?

In 1830, the Sir George Murray a New Zealand-built vessel part-owned by northern chiefs Patuone and Taonui was sailing to Sydney with a shipment of kauri. They ingeniously flew a kaitaka (woven mat) at the masthead in lieu of a state flag. This was considered insufficient by those unimaginative pencil-pushing bureaucrats in Sydney and the ship was impounded as a stateless/piratical vessel. Though not an “official” flag, this mat was the first vexillological representation of our country as an independent state, and I think that’s pretty cool.

This article first appeared in Issue 20, 2015.
Posted 2:49pm Sunday 16th August 2015 by Finbarr Noble.