Te Kara, the United Tribes flag. Archives reference: CO209/1 p124, microfilm. Click on the image to enlarge or download.
By the late 1820s, New Zealand-built ships were trading with Sydney. Under British law, all ships had to fly a flag to show where they came from. Without one, a ship could be seized by the colonial authorities.
In 1830, the Hokianga-built trading ship Sir George Murray was seized in Sydney by customs officials for sailing without a flag or register. It is said that the two rangatira on board, Te Taonui and Patuone, flew up a Māori cloak to show where the ship was from, without success. In 1833 a second ship was seized. It was clear an official flag was needed.
On 24 March 1834, British Resident James Busby helped rangatira resolve the issue by proposing three alternative designs for an official Māori flag. Around 25 rangatira from the Far North and hundreds of supporters gathered at Waitangi to make their choice. Missionaries, settlers, and the commanders of 10 British and three American ships were also present.
Busby addressed the crowd, and then each rangatira was called forward in turn to select their favourite design (the votes were recorded by Eruera Pare Hongi, the scribe of He Whakaputanga in 1835). The preferred design, known as Te Kara or the United Tribes flag, received 12 out of the 25 votes, with the other two designs receiving 10 and three votes each. 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. This was an important act – James Stephen of the Colonial Office regarded it as a formal recognition of Māori independence.
However a witness to the event, Karl Von Huegel, thought that the rangatira were amused by the notion that King William was showing his friendship by letting them choose a flag for their ships, which he would seize if they failed to fly it!
Nonetheless, the selection of Te Kara was a significant event. As well as being New Zealand’s first official flag, Busby considered it “the first national act of the New Zealand Chiefs”. It is seen as part of a series of nation-making events that began with Hongi Hika’s meeting with King George IV in 1820. In time the flag became a symbol of Māori sovereignty.
"Address to the Chiefs on the Occasion of the Adoption of a Flag". Archives reference: BR1 Box 1 p139. Click on the image to enlarge or download.
This is Busby’s “Address to the Chiefs on the Occasion of the Adoption of a Flag”, which was written by him on 17 March 1834. It comes from the British Resident Record Group, which is mostly a collection of letters to Busby dating from his arrival in 1833. The full text and a translation of this document can be found on page 130 of the Waitangi Tribunal’s Te Paparahi o Te Raki Report (PDF 6.1 MB).