The New Zealand flag as we know it is the result of a series of quests for a national badge that began in the 1830s and continued through to 1902.
The First Flag
The need for a New Zealand flag was first triggered when, in 1830, the New Zealand ship the Sir George Murray was detained in Sydney harbour for sailing without a flag – a violation of British Maritime law.
At this point New Zealand neither had its own flag, nor were New Zealand ships entitled to sail under the British flag as New Zealand was not yet a British colony.
In order for trade to continue between New Zealand and Australia a flag had to be adopted.
Under the then British Resident James Busby’s direction, Rev. Henry Williams, the senior missionary of the Church Missionary Society and a former lieutenant in the Royal Navy, was tasked with designing an official New Zealand flag.
The Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand
Williams produced three designs which were put before a meeting of 25 Maori chiefs at Waitangi in 1834. The chiefs voted and chose one of the designs – a modified St George’s Cross (below). This was New Zealand’s first flag and was known as the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand.
The Union Jack
The flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand did not last long as the official national flag. In 1840, after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand became a British Colony and the Union Jack replaced the flag of the United Tribes as the country’s official flag.
The Blue Ensign
The first steps were taken towards the blue flag with red stars that we know today when the British passed the Colonial Navy Defence Act in 1865. This required all colonial government ships to fly the Royal Navy blue ensign to which that particular colony’s badge had been added (known as a “defaced ensign”). Unfortunately, New Zealand did not have a colonial badge at the time, so the initials “NZ” were used instead and the flag was introduced in 1867.
The Southern Cross
Two years later, in 1869, the initials “NZ” were replaced by four red stars representing the Southern Cross. As an ensign, the flag was designed for use only on government ships. However, it’s use as a general flag grew until, by the time of the Second Boer War, it had become New Zealand’s unofficial national flag.
In 1902, with the flag now in general use, the Ensign and Signals Bill was passed by the New Zealand government and the flag became the official flag of New Zealand.