Last week a fresh debate erupted about New Zealand’s flag. It was prompted by the Prime Minister’s suggestion that we should look at a new one.
I’m cynical. The issue pops up perennially, and I can’t help thinking it’s deliberately trucked out, every time, to divert public attention from something more important. The symbolism and emotion attached to it isn’t in the league of (say) the US flag – but it still pretty much guarantees a bite.
The history’s interesting. New Zealand’s first flag was a modified maritime jack, adopted by Maori in 1834 at the behest of the British Resident, James Busby. The motive was administrative. By this time small ships were being built in New Zealand – but they weren’t attached to a country as a legal entity, and liable for seizure as unregistered. The issue came to a head in 1830 when the Hokianga-built Sir George Murray was seized on arrival in Sydney.
Busby’s answer was to have the ships locally registered and sailing under a New Zealand flag – which had to be attributed to Maori because there was no New Zealand colony. Henry Williams, former naval officer and one of the heads of the Church Missionary Society effort in the Bay Of Islands, designed several options. These were approved – back in Sydney – by the Governor. Samples were fabricated and sent back to New Zealand for Maori to select.
What Maori thought of it is unclear; the concept and symbolism was foreign to Maori society of the day. There is good evidence that when Busby confronted gathered rangitira (chiefs) with the flags, they politely picked one for him – but it didn’t mean very much in their terms.
A few years later, New Zealand became a Crown Colony and its flag – inevitably – the Union Jack, that amalgam of the crosses of St Andrew, St George and St Patrick that Britain adopted, fully, in 1801.
The current New Zealand flag was adopted in 1902, defined by the New Zealand Ensign Act. It came in context of New Zealand’s re-invention of itself as the ‘best of Britain’s children’ – a rah-rah age of social militarism and imperial patriotism in which New Zealand was ‘our country’, Britain ‘our nation’.
The flag captured it precisely – a Union Jack in one corner, floating in the four stars of the Southern Cross that symbolised New Zealand. However times continued to change, and by the 1920s the sense of nationality-within-Empire stood at tension with New Zealand’s sense of itself. That wasn’t resolved until the 1980s, when the ‘colonial cringe’ driven mind-set of being ‘Britain’s least best child’ was broken, decisively, by a new generation.
From that perspective there’s an argument to change the flag – but there are also counter-arguments, including the point that the flag has grown up with the country – it symbolises events integral to New Zealand’s own individual history and self-image.
The other question is what to change to. The usual proposal involves a silver fern on black background. But there are other idea,s and we can be sure that – even if change were implemented – somebody would complain.
If you’re a Kiwi, do you have an opinion about the flag? If not, what does the flag of your own country mean to you? Would you change it?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014
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