The need for a flag to represent New Zealand was first raised in 1830, when the Hokianga-built trading ship Sir George Murray was seized in Sydney by Customs officials. Australia, New Zealand's major trading market, was subject to British navigation laws under which every ship was required 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 cargoes were liable to seizure.
Busby takes up the cause
Soon after arriving in the Bay of Islands in 1833 to take up the position of British Resident, James Busby wrote to the Colonial Secretary in New South Wales suggesting the adoption of a New Zealand flag.
Aside from solving the impediment to trans-Tasman trade, Busby also saw a flag as a way to encourage Māori chiefs to work together, paving the way for some form of collective government. The Australian authorities were enthusiastic and some months later forwarded a possible design, four blue horizontal bands on a white background with the Union Jack at top left. This design was deemed unsuitable by Busby as it contained no red, 'a colour to which the New Zealanders are particularly partial, and which they are accustomed to consider as indicative of rank'.
The senior New Zealand-based missionary of the Church Missionary Society, Reverend Henry Williams, was enlisted to design an alternative flag. Williams drew on his experience as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy to draw up three designs, which New South Wales’ Governor Richard Bourke had sewn up and forwarded to Busby on HMS Alligator.
Maori chiefs choose a flag
On 20 March 1834, 25 Far North chiefs and their followers gathered at Busby’s residence at Waitangi to choose a flag to represent New Zealand. A number of missionaries, settlers and the commanders of 10 British and three American ships were also in attendance.
Following Busby's address, each chief came forward in turn to choose a flag, while the son of one of them recorded the votes. The most popular design, a flag already used by the Church Missionary Society, apparently received 12 votes, with the other two options preferred by 10 and three chiefs. Busby declared the chosen flag the national flag of New Zealand and had it hoisted on a flagpole to the accompaniment of a 21-gun salute from HMS Alligator.
The new flag was then sent back to New South Wales, from where – after some tweaking – it was despatched to King William IV. The King approved the rejigged flag, a drawing of which was circulated via the Admiralty with instructions to recognise it as New Zealand's flag. It came to be known as the Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand, the title adopted by the group of northern chiefs at subsequent meetings.
Busby's hope that the flag would encourage Māori to act collectively was partially fulfilled when many of the chiefs involved met again to sign a Declaration of Independence in 1835. To northern Māori, the United Tribes flag meant that that Britain recognised New Zealand as an independent nation, and thereby acknowledged the mana of their chiefs.
The flag continued to fly in various places around the Bay of Islands, and on ships trading with Sydney. Ships calling at other ports spread it around the rest of New Zealand. The United Tribes flag remains important to northern Māori.