Flagging away the Kiwi flag?

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.

Maori under the 'United Tribes' flag 1834. Watercolour by Edward Markham. (United Tribes Ensign, Waitangi). New Zealand or recollections of it. Ref: MS-1550-120. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22776952)
Maori under the ‘United Tribes’ flag 1834. Watercolour by Edward Markham. Click to enlarge. (MS-1550-120. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22776952)

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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4 thoughts on “Flagging away the Kiwi flag?

  1. I was wondering when you’ll comment on this. Our flag is about to celebrate only its twentieth birthday. I was just finishing primary school when it was adopted, so I was well-schooled in the symbolism of our old flag, which was rich with history. In fact, I was in the Voortrekkers (the SA version of scouts, but also with a strong military undertone – we had officers, marched in formation and stood on parade) where raising the flag and saluting it was an important ritual.

    However, that flag only reflected the history of the Afrikaner nation and not the history of any other group of people living in the country, so I understand why it had to go. Our new flag is not so full of symbolism, but I think it reflects the diversity that we’re slowly coming to embrace as a country. It’s also easy to draw 😉 I’ve lived longer now with the new flag than I had with the old one, and I am quite fond of it. It doesn’t inspire patriotic fervour, or anything. Perhaps a little spark…

  2. I think that there is no need to change the flag for changes sake. Every country evolves through good times and bad, and changes.
    The marketing people always get out on the band wagon of change with potential designs etc, they must love it, i think to them its just a design.
    But Ive grown up with our flag, and it means something. as you say it shows our colonial roots, and the southern cross is significant.
    Why change it?
    If you had a bad father do you change your name to remove his, and if you do, does that actually make a difference.
    So would changing the flag actually make a difference in people lives

  3. One thing I like about both our current flag and the 1834 Ensign is the link to our maritime heritage. Neither are dramatically dissimilar from the flag that Captain Cook would have flown over the Endeavour (from memory he was using a red ensign).

    Henry WIlliams’ Napoleonic service is fascinating. Almost exactly one year ago I visited his grave with one of his direct descendents and if I recall right, she mentioned that not too long ago a charity from the U.K. came over to restore the graves of all known Napoleonic veterans buried in New Zealand – and that there was only a handful.

    Until you mentioned it I’d never really thought about how his maritime service influenced his design of the 1834 Ensign but see it clearly now. Of course he knew what he was doing! Also it is interesting to note that when our current flag was decided upon that some, at least, suggested that the 1834 Ensign be more appropriate. Flag debates are nothing new.

    Also I have to say I agree with your first comment – whenever the subject of flag changing comes up the timing always seems suspicious!

    1. I know the grave – visited it myself when last in the Bay of Islands. Not far from Kawakawa. I was intrigued to see the headstone had been replaced in 1968. He was an extraordinary character in many ways, usually under-rated because of the way he translated the Treaty, but so wonderfully capable in so many different fields.

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