Soon after arriving in the Bay of Islands, British Resident James Busby decided to find a flag to represent New Zealand. This issue had first come up in 1830 when the Hokianga-built trading ship Sir George Murray was seized in Sydney by customs officials for sailing without a flag or register. New South Wales, New Zealand’s major trading market, was subject to British navigation laws under which every ship had to carry an official certificate detailing its construction, ownership and nationality. As New Zealand was not a British colony, ships built there could not sail under a British flag or register. Without a flag, trading ships and their valuable cargoes would continue to be subject to seizure.
Busby wrote to the colonial secretary in New South Wales to suggest the adoption of a New Zealand flag. This would both solve the problems with trans-Tasman trade and encourage Māori chiefs to work together, paving the way for some form of collective government.
On 20 March 1834, 25 Far North chiefs and their followers gathered at Busby’s house at Waitangi to choose a flag to represent New Zealand. Missionaries, settlers and the commanders of 13 ships were also present. Busby made a speech and then called forward each chief in turn to choose a flag from among three possibilities, with the son of one of them recording the votes. According to one account, a flag already used by the Church Missionary Society received 12 votes, the other designs 10 and 3. Busby declared the chosen flag the national flag of New Zealand and had it hoisted on a flagpole to a 21-gun salute from HMS Alligator.
Historian Gavin McLean has described the flag selected in March 1834 as a ‘flag of convenience for the protection of European-owned New Zealand trading vessels’. Over time it acquired a more complex symbolism, becoming seen as ‘the Māori flag’ and being used as a symbol of protest later in the 19th century. In an ironic twist, a version of this flag flown by the New Zealand Company at Port Nicholson later became the house flag of Shaw Savill and Co. (later Shaw Savill and Albion), the British shipping line that carried more European settlers here than did any other.
Following the initial signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840, the Union Jack replaced the Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand as the official flag of New Zealand. William Hobson forcibly removed the United Tribes flag from the Bay of Islands and had the New Zealand Company’s version of it hauled down at Port Nicholson. Hōne Heke believed that Māori should have the right to fly the United Tribes flag alongside the Union Jack, in recognition of their equal status with the government. Heke’s rejection of the Union Jack as a symbol of British power over Māori led to his repeated felling of the flagstaff at Kororāreka in 1844 and 1845. Tūhawaiki’s hoisting of the United Tribes flag on the island of Ruapuke in Foveaux Strait in 1844 was another illustration of how some Māori saw this flag as a symbol of their independence.