New Zealand's 19th-century wars

Page 6 – NZ Wars flags

Many Maori in the 19th century saw the Union Jack as a potent symbol of Great Britain's power in New Zealand. In the New Zealand Wars, Maori who resisted government forces often devised their own flags to show their independence and counteract the ‘mana’ of the Union Jack.

King movement flags

The King Movement used three flags, bearing the words 'Kīngi' (King) and 'Niu Tireni' (New Zealand) to mark the selection of Pōtatau Te Wherowhero as the first Māori King in 1858. The tradition continued with the crowning of Tāwhiao in 1860, and later monarchs have had their own personal flags drawn up for use at their residence at Tūrangawaewae, and when visiting marae which accept the monarch's authority. The monarch's flag is strictly tapu and it is kept by a hereditary custodian until it is interred with the monarch upon death.

Pai Mārire flags

The Pai Mārire or Hauhau faith also believed in the power of flags, with the 'Niu Pole' and its three flags prominent in religious ceremonies. The 'Riki' flag or pennant was a war flag, while the 'Ruru' flag represented peace. The relative positions of 'Ruru' and 'Riki' on the Niu pole were believed to indicate whether the spirit behind the gathering was peaceful or hostile. The third flag used on the pole was the personal flag of the tohunga conducting the ceremony.

Te Ua Haumēne, the leader of the Pai Mārire movement, had his own personal flag, which featured the word 'Kenana' (Canaan) to show that he identified with the Jews. The five apostles of the church also had personal flags decorated with distinctive symbols such as crosses, stars and crescents.

Te Kooti's flags

Te Kooti's flags featured designs which altered on the basis of success or failure. His most famous flag is 'Te Wepu' (the whip), originally made for Ngāti Kahungunu by nuns at the Greenmeadows Missionary School. Measuring 52 ft by 4 ft (or just under 16 m by 1.2 m), it was captured by Te Kooti in 1868 and remained in his possession until seized by Gilbert Mair near Rotorua in 1870. Te Wepu was decorated with a crescent moon, a cross, a six-pointed star, a mountain representing New Zealand, and a bleeding heart thought to symbolise the sufferings of the Māori people. The fate of Te Wepu is unknown, but there are stories that it was used as a duster, cut up or stolen from the Dominion Museum.

Use of flags by the government

Flags were also used to reward or thank Māori who supported the government during the New Zealand Wars, and this tradition continued as a mark of recognition in the early 1900s. The British or New Zealand Red Ensign with the name of the hapū or a notable ancestor worked into the design was a common gift from Queen Victoria or the government, as the colour red was often preferred by Māori for its properties of mana or rank. The customary use of the Red Ensign by Māori on significant occasions is still provided for in the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981.

Other groups had tribute paid to them with flags of different designs, such as that presented by the ladies of Wanganui to the lower Whanganui iwi in 1865 to mark their success in battle at Moutoa Island. Today the Moutoa flag is held at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Imperial and colonial troops also had their services recognised with flags. The Taranaki Militia and Rifle Volunteers' efforts in 1860 were rewarded in 1861 by the presentation of an impressive flag designed and sewn by local women.

How to cite this page

'NZ Wars flags', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 30-Sep-2021