What is now known as the New Zealand flag was designed in 1869 for use as an ensign on Government vessels. Although the flag was not at that time adopted as a national flag – the colony used the Union Flag for official purposes – it was soon widely seen flown on merchant ships, and, increasingly, on shore as well. The blue ensign with the Southern Cross came to be recognised as the colony’s distinctive flag. Many illustrations and photographs from the 1870’s onwards show the New Zealand flag.
After the commencement of the Boer War in 1899 there was a feeling that New Zealand troops serving overseas ought to fight under their own flag. This attitude was not born of hostility to the Empire – of which New Zealand was a proud member. Instead it was motivated by a desire to give the emerging nation a separate identity within the Empire.
Several flag designs were proposed. Ultimately, after much debate in Parliament, it was realised that the de facto national flag of 1869 was the only possible choice. It was distinctive, vexillologically correct, a fine design, and already widely recognised as the country’s flag.
The flag was officially adopted for use on land and sea in 1901, with the passage by the House of Representatives on 5 November 1901of the New Zealand Ensign Bill. The Bill was reserved for the King’s assent, and King Edward V approved the new Act on 24 March 1902. The Governor’s proclamation of the royal assent was published in the New Zealand Gazette on 12 June 1902. A description of the flag appeared on 27 June 1902, detailing the size and position of the stars. The flag has remained essentially unchanged ever since.
The New Zealand Ensign Act was subsequently superseded by the Shipping and Seamen’s Acts of 1903 and 1908. The provisions regarding the New Zealand flag remained largely unchanged until 1981. In that year the Flags, Emblems and Names Protection Act brought together a number of legislative provisions relating to flags and emblems.