Māori fly flags for their nation

Māori fly flags for their nation

By Sharon Cohen

In Unit 5 of the World History Project AP® course, students must grapple with this question: How were new national communities imagined and contested from 1750 to 1900 CE? Students might find it easy to recognize “new national identities” in the Americas and Europe, but nationalist efforts and movements were emerging all around the world in this period. Students might be intrigued by one of the illustrative examples recommended by the College Board: the “imagined community” created by the Māori in New Zealand.

Historians and sociologists have recognized for at least three decades that nationalism is at least partly an imagining. (For an overview of nationalism, check out this video.) That doesn’t mean that it’s invented out of nowhere. Members of a nation often do share aspects of language, history, and culture. Rather, it means that those people didn’t necessarily think of themselves as being one unified nation with a single history or identity until that particular historical moment. Often, nationalists seek to ignore or downplay internal divisions. Sometimes, they fight among themselves about precisely which cultural practices, ideas, or visions to put forward as belonging to the whole nation.

Like other nationalist coalitions, which disagree and fight among themselves over the best path toward unification, in the early nineteenth century, rival Māori tribes competed to represent their interests to the British colonizers. We can see these competing visions of an independent New Zealand emerge in how some Māori leaders projected their “imagined” nation in flags.

“The Government gave the New Zealanders a Flag or rather one under which vessels sail...” (United Tribes Ensign, Waitangi)The Government gave the New Zealanders a Flag or rather one under which vessels sail...” (United Tribes Ensign, Waitangi). Markham, Edward, 1801–1865: New Zealand or Recollections of It. Ref: MS-1550-120. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

In the image above, two Māori stand beneath the United Tribes flag, which was selected in 1834 by Māori chiefs from three flags proposed by the top British official James Busby. The United Tribes flag design was based on the flag used by the British Church Missionary Society. After the Māori vote, Busby ordered the flag run up on a flagpole and given a 21-gun salute by the crew of the HMS Alligator.

Busby thought that the flag would encourage Māori unity and inspire the beginnings of Western-style nationalism. However, many of the chiefs who chose that flag then signed a Declaration of Independence in 1835, with the expectation that they were confirming New Zealand as an independent nation-state. After the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by Māori and British officials in 1840, though, the British substituted the Union Jack as the official flag of New Zealand. Some Māori leaders rejected the new flag, as can be seen below in the illustration of Chief Hōne Heke chopping down the British flagstaff in 1845. What followed were decades of war between the Māori and the British, which are often called the New Zealand Wars (1845–1872). In the wars, some Māori allied with the British government, and some British settlers allied with the Māori. The unfurling of the Union Jack flag united many Māori against the British, as it conflicted with their imagining of a new national identity.

“Heke fells the flagstaff at Kororareka, by Arthur David McCormick, 1860–1943, from New Zealand: Romance of Empire
Heke fells the flagstaff at Kororareka, by Arthur David McCormick, 1860–1943, from New Zealand: Romance of Empire, by Reginald Horsley, with 12 reproductions in color from drawings by A.D. McCormick, R.I. London, T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1908. Ref: A-004-037. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

While the Māori fought with the British in the early 1850s, a parallel movement to establish a national Māori king sought to unite the Māori people and to halt the sale of Māori land to the Pākehā (British settlers).

Additional flag incidents reveal Māori concerns about how to imagine themselves as a unified nation. We can see this in an 1857 article in which a British journalist noted Māori nationalism in response to increasing British settlement in New Zealand. The journalist observed that the Māori wanted “to preserve their existence, not only as a race, but as they understand it, a nation, before they shall be overnumbered, and therefore out-mastered by the whites.”

The journalist also described competing flags displayed by rival Māori leaders.

“Chief Ngatihaua planted the flag of the new dynasty. His Majesty’s color was a white flag with a red border, and two red crosses ... upon it the words, “Potatau King of New Zealand”. [....] They seemingly did not anticipate much opposition. ... But a Union Jack was seen displayed on a little hill about a quarter of a mile off.”

Flag of the Māori king,” from A.J. Harrop’s England the Māori Wars, 1937. CC BY-SA 3.0 New Zealand License.

Two Māori chiefs then disagreed about the flags:

“Chief Takirau: Our new king will be friendly with the British Queen. Their flags will be tied together.

Chief Wiremu Te Awaitaia: ... I promised the first British colonial Governor, when he came to see me, and I promised all the rest, that I would stick ... to him, and be a subject of Queen Victoria. I intend to keep my promise, for they have kept theirs. They have taken no land. Mine was the desire to sell, and they gave me money. Why do you bring that new flag here? ... I am content with the old one. It is seen all over the world, and it belongs to me. I get some of its honor!” (Source)

These incidents illustrate how Māori used flags to assert their “imagined” nation against growing British pressures for land and control over their people. Some Māori chiefs expected that flying the two flags (United Tribes and Union Jack) together would symbolize an alliance with the British and some sharing of political power in the new commonwealth. Other chiefs protested the British denial of the United Tribes flag as tantamount to denying Māori equal status with the colonial government. In the end, the British gained hegemony with only a symbolic nod to Māori political leaders.

By 1864, the British government passed laws promoting the assimilation of the Māori into a British version of the New Zealand nation—a very different community than many Māori leaders had imagined in 1834. Māori groups resisted, of course. After the New Zealand Wars, they continued to fight for their land in British courts. Yet it was difficult and expensive to make claims in the Native Land Court, and the Māori often had to sell their lands to pay legal fees to prove their claims to the land. By the 1890s, most land in New Zealand had been sold to British settlers or the government, which impoverished many Māori communities. 

Legacies of these conflicts continue into the present through court cases and struggles for Māori land. By the 1970s, a Māori protest movement gained back some sovereignty through the creation of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975, the return of some Māori land, and the acceptance of the Māori language as an official language of New Zealand in 1987. Perhaps the most dramatic reimagining of the nation of New Zealand appeared in 2014, when a group of high-school students galvanized support for a new Land Wars Commemoration Day. When they brought their petition to the New Zealand Parliament, Māori warriors accompanied them, illustrating through their traditional warrior regalia their insistence on a Māori presence in New Zealand’s historical imagination.

About the author: Sharon Cohen taught AP® world history to juniors and seniors at Springbrook High School in Montgomery County, Maryland. At Springbrook, about 100 students take APWH as a year-long course, meeting five days a week for 47 minutes. Sharon piloted the APWH course in 2000 and the WHP AP course in 2020.

Cover image: Composite image: The Native Question, published in The Southern Cross. Friday, June 5, 1857. No known copyright (New Zealand); Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand, CC BY-SA 2.5; Flag of the United Kingdom, public domain.

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