New Zealand's national anthems

'God defend New Zealand' was sung by Hayley Westenra before the England versus All Blacks test at Twickenham in November 2006. 'God save the Queen', our other national anthem, was also sung, and the famous haka 'Ka mate' was performed by the All Blacks.

Our song?

New Zealand Music Month would not be complete without looking at a song that doesn’t get massive promotion on the radio. It is not one that music video directors are dying to get their hands on. It does not feature on any lists of the greatest New Zealand songs ever, even though we have sung it for over 130 years. While its tune is instantly recognisable to every New Zealander, many can’t sing the words properly. It is our best known official national anthem, ‘God defend New Zealand’.

New Zealanders have become accustomed to hearing this anthem before major sporting events such as All Black tests. But many may not know that ‘God defend New Zealand’ is one of two official anthems. The second, ‘God save the Queen’, reflects our colonial past. ‘God defend New Zealand’ was elevated to anthem status in 1977 and has become the preferred anthem for New Zealanders both at home and abroad. ‘God save the Queen’ is usually reserved for formal ceremonies involving the Queen, the Governor-General or the royal family.


The custom in recent years has been for ‘God defend New Zealand’ (titled 'Aotearoa' in Māori)  to be sung in both Māori and English, to acknowledge our bicultural heritage. But this is a relatively new development.

Thomas Bracken’s poem, ‘God defend New Zealand’, was put to music in 1876 by J.J. Woods from Lawrence, Central Otago. The first Māori translation was made in 1878 by Native Land Court judge Thomas H. Smith, at the request of Prime Minister Sir George Grey. Despite this, until the closing decades of the 20th century most New Zealanders were familiar only with the English-language version.

This situation changed dramatically at the 1999 Rugby World Cup in England. Hinewehi Mohi sang ‘God defend New Zealand’ only in te reo Māori ('Aotearoa') before the All Blacks versus England match. Many viewers complained that this was inappropriate because most New Zealanders did not speak (or understand) Māori. Mohi’s response was that it seemed a perfectly natural thing to do. Others pointed out that many New Zealanders couldn’t sing the English version correctly anyway. The incident sparked public debate about how people reacted to the singing of the anthem in general. The All Blacks, because of their high profile, were singled out for particular attention and were criticised for being unable (or unwilling) to sing the anthem.

Support soon grew for the singing of ‘God defend New Zealand’ in both Māori and English. A campaign backed by the government, the Māori Language Commission and sporting bodies promoted the correct singing of the anthem with word sheets and publicity. There is now widespread support for the Māori and English versions being sung side by side. 

One factor in the success of the bicultural approach is that it has helped breathe new life into ‘God defend New Zealand’ by giving it a uniquely New Zealand sound.

Still going strong 

For all the criticism that it is too formal and like a hymn, ‘God defend New Zealand’ has stood the test of time. Its critics have been unable to come up with a credible alternative. Jim Anderton’s calls to replace it with ‘Pokarekare ana’ got no real traction. Despite the promotion of alternative anthems such as Dave Dobbyn’s ‘Loyal’, no suitable replacement has emerged. We could be mumbling the words to ‘God defend New Zealand’ for many years yet.


Community contributions

11 comments have been posted about New Zealand's national anthems

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Posted: 08 Apr 2016

I take exception to the last line of this article, "We could be mumbling the words to ‘God defend New Zealand’ for many years yet."

Most New Zealanders, certainly the ones I have found myself sitting next to at public events like sporting fixtures and memorial services, know the national anthem very well and do not "mumble" the word.

New Zealanders sing our song loud and proud. That line made it seem like we put up with the song and mumble through it because we have no alternative. That is not true at all. You only have to look at the public backlash against Andrew Little, when he suggested changing the anthem recently, to know New Zealanders love our national anthem, that it is uniquely "us".

Can I please request that that line be removed or at least the word "mumbling" to the neutral term "singing".



Posted: 15 Jun 2015

Tēnā koe. Ka nui te pai i tēnei wā. Ngā mihi nui e hoa.


Posted: 11 Jun 2015

The New Zealand Secondary Students Choir (from 1989, if not earlier) often began their concerts (in NZ and overseas at international competitions) by singing a Guy Jansen arrangement of the national anthem, first in te Reo Māori, then in English. The 1991-92 choir sang the national anthem at Lancaster Park, Christchurch in April 1992 at the start of an All Blacks v. World XV match. The crowd continued their pre-match activities (talking, eating etc) during the te reo Māori verse and did not join in until the English verse. While Hinewehi Mohi seems to have set a precedent in singing only the te reo verse on the international stage, the NZSSC had been singing both verses at least ten years earlier (in NZ and on the international stage).


Posted: 14 May 2010

Perhaps post Hinewhi Mohi singing the Anthemn in Reo as well


Posted: 25 Jun 2009

Ka pai Rawiri. Kia kaha ki te korero i te reo rangatira!


Posted: 25 Jun 2009

Kia ora! Aae, kei te koorero maaori ahau i ngaa waa katoa.


Posted: 08 Apr 2009

Kei te pai. Me koe? Ae, kei te korero Maori etahi o matou


Posted: 08 Apr 2009

Hey Hey Kia ora Kei te pehea koutou??? Kei te korero maori koutou??