The idea of a flag to represent New Zealand was first broached 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. Australia, New Zealand's major trading market, was subject to British navigation laws which ruled that every ship must carry an official certificate detailing construction, ownership and nationality of the ship. At that time, New Zealand was not yet a British colony and New Zealand-built ships could not sail under a British flag or register. Without a flag to represent the new nation, trading ships and their valuable cargoes were liable to be seized.
Upon arriving in the Bay of Islands in 1833 to take up the position of British Resident, James Busby almost immediately wrote to the Colonial Secretary in New South Wales suggesting that a New Zealand flag be adopted.
Aside from solving the problems with trans-Tasman trade, Busby also saw the flag as a way of encouraging Maori chiefs to work together, paving the way for some form of collective government. The Australian authorities agreed wholeheartedly with his proposal for a flag, and some months later forwarded a possible design, consisting of a white background with four blue horizontal bands across it and the Union Jack in the top left-hand corner. This design was, however, 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 missionary of the Church Missionary Society, Rev. Henry Williams, was enlisted to design an alternative flag, drawing on his experience as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. The three flag designs he produced were then sent to Governor Bourke in New South Wales, who had the designs sewn up and forwarded to Busby by way of HMS Alligator.
On 20 March 1834, 25 chiefs from the Far North and their followers gathered at Waitangi to choose a flag to represent New Zealand. A number of missionaries, settlers and the commanders of 10 British and 3 American ships were also in attendance at the occasion.
Following Busby's address, each chief was called forward in turn to select a flag, while the son of one of the chiefs recorded the votes. The preferred design, a flag already used by the Church Missionary Society, received 12 out of the 25 votes, with the other two designs receiving 10 and 3 votes respectively. Busby declared the chosen flag the national flag of New Zealand and had it hoisted on a central flagpole, accompanied by a 21 gun salute from HMS Alligator.
The new flag was then sent back to New South Wales for passage to King William IV. The King approved the flag, and a drawing of it was circulated through 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 in recognition of the title used by the same chiefs when they met again.
Busby's hope that the flag would provide a means for encouraging Maori to act collectively was partially fulfilled when many of the chiefs involved went on to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1835. To Maori, the United Tribes flag was significant in that Britain had recognised New Zealand as an independent nation with its own flag, and in doing so, had acknowledged the mana of the Maori chiefs. As only northern chiefs were involved in choosing the flag, it became particularly significant to northern Maori.
By way of oral history and tradition, the flag remains important to successive generations of northern Maori today. The flag could be sighted flying in various locations around the Bay of Islands, as well as on ships plying their trade to Sydney. Ships calling at other ports in New Zealand led to the flag's use in other parts of the country as well.