Why does the New Zealand flag have red stars?

In 1865 the British Admiralty gave an instruction. Vessels in the service of a colonial government must "wear the Blue Ensign with the seal or badge of the colony in the fly". The Blue Ensign is a flag with the Union Jack in the top left quarter and blue on the other three quarters. But the New Zealand Governor, Sir George Grey, had a decision to make. What should be the distinctive badge of New Zealand-ness on the flag?

In January 1867 Grey announced the badge would be the letters "NZ in red, … surrounded by a margin of white". This was temporary. On 23 October 1869 a new Governor, Sir George Bowen, proclaimed "a permanent device … the distinctive badge of the colony ... shall be the Southern Cross, as represented in the Blue Ensign by four five-pointed red stars in the fly, with white borders to correspond to the colouring of the Jack." Why red?

The first surprise is that the colour red for the NZ badge precedes the use of the Southern Cross. So we don’t have red just to avoid confusion with Australia’s flag, as some may suppose. Australia didn’t even fly the Southern Cross until 1901, 32 years after New Zealand did. The colonies Victoria and New South Wales did have a Southern Cross on their flags, but again that was after New Zealand's flag. So the red stars were not flag envy. Governor Grey could easily have proclaimed white letters NZ, and Governor Bowen white stars. They would have been much easier to sew than two-tone stars, and still have had high visibility. So where did the red come from?

Let’s look a bit further back in history. In 1830 a New Zealand built ship Sir George Murray was seized by Sydney Customs for not flying a flag and not being registered by a government. So in 1833 James Busby, the British Resident in the Bay of Islands, wrote to New South Wales Governor Burke suggesting "the Maori chiefs should select a flag to be recognised by British authorities as the national flag of the New Zealand tribes". Burke sent back a suggested flag which had the Union Jack in the top left corner, and blue and white stripes elsewhere to represent New Zealand. Busby, and the Rev. Henry Williams who advised him, rejected the design outright. They thought Maori might feel insulted by the design, especially as it had "no red … a colour to which the New Zealanders are particularly partial, and which they are accustomed to consider as indicative of rank." Later Maori flags used a lot of red as a mark of mana. Governor Grey was familiar with Maori customs. Is this one reason for our red stars – as a symbol of mana?

Red stars or letters don’t show up well on a dark blue flag - unless there is some white in between. Therefore the Governors ordered that the letters and stars to be edged in white. In flag terms this is called fimbrillation, and makes our stars unique among the flags of the world. By happy coincidence it meant the New Zealand stars had the red centre, white edges and blue background that made them echo the Union Jack. Some British colonists may have seen this as representing a hope for a south seas Better Britain. At any rate the choice seems to be an inspired one, as it meant our stars had meaning to both British and Maori cultures, reflecting both signatories of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Was this bicultural symbolism just luck, or deliberate? We may never know, but in hindsight it feels like the right choice. We have gained colourful red and white stars on our flag, stars that are a unique New Zealand icon.

What’s so special about the Southern Cross?

"It was the time of the beginning of the New Zealand Marine, which then consisted of a single ship. In quite an informal way [Lieutenant] Markham was asked if he could suggest a distinctive flag. 'You have already the right', he replied, 'to fly the Blue Ensign, why not add to it the stars of the Southern Cross?' The suggestion was received with delight." So reads the biography of Sir Albert Markham, later to become famous as an Arctic explorer. But he is not our focus. Rather, we consider the question: why the response of "delight"? Why did this symbol, this Southern Cross, mean so much to New Zealanders of 1868 that it was natural to put it on the flag? What can it mean for us today?

A simple answer often quoted is that the Southern Cross represents the Southern Hemisphere. But there are other southern stars, so there is more to it. Let’s look back in time. To the ancient Greeks there was no Southern Cross, simply some stars that were part of the constellation Centaurus. But due to a wobble in the Earth’s Axis these stars have not been visible from Europe for nearly 2000 years. In the early 1300s the Italian poet Dante imagined himself passing through the Inferno at the centre of the Earth and coming out into the Southern Hemisphere. He arrives at the Island of Purgatorio, supposedly on Easter Sunday 1300. The first thing he sees is four bright stars near the South Pole, which he names for four natural virtues Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude. Dante’s stars may have been imaginary, but his poetry had a lasting influence. Two centuries later, on Easter Wednesday 1500, the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral discovered a Southern Hemisphere coast. He called it the "Land of the True Cross" after the four unfamiliar stars high overhead in the early evening. We now know this land as Brazil, and the stars as Crux, the Cross. Generations of Europeans sailing south would see this constellation rising out of the ocean ahead, with the long axis of the Cross always pointing south. Travellers took comfort from the thought that Christ was watching over them, so far from home. A world away, Polynesian sailors did not imagine the stars as a cross but they were well-known nonetheless. Visible as far north as Hawaii, and always located towards the south, they were part of a system of navigation used by the ancestors of Maori and Pacific Islanders to travel the vast distances across the ocean.

From the northern tropics, the Southern Cross is visible only briefly, rising and setting in a few hours. Further south the stars rise higher and higher in the sky until, from the Tropic of Capricorn down, the stars never set. New Zealand is one of only four nations in the world that can see the Southern Cross from everywhere in the country, all year round. (Yes, I’m excluding the Pacific Island territories we administer but that are not part of New Zealand proper.) The other three nations are Uruguay, Lesotho and Swaziland, whose flags don’t show the Southern Cross. So New Zealand has a unique reason to feel attachment to the Southern Cross and to claim it as a national icon. By contrast, our near neighbour Australia uses the Southern Cross on its flag, but the northern third of the continent cannot even see the stars at certain months of the year since they are below the horizon. Perhaps the residents of Darwin feel, at times, a sense of irony when they sing Australia’s national anthem "Beneath our radiant Southern Cross…".

The Southern Cross is the quintessential symbol of South-ness. Not only in name: it can be used to find the direction South, and thereby all other directions of the compass. It can also be used to tell the time. These facts may not be important in 2010 unless you are lost, but they still make a nice trick for 'showing off' or simply feeling connected with nature.

The angle the Southern Cross makes to the horizon depends on the time of night and month of the year. It can be sideways, even upside down. Imagine the Southern Cross is like the hour-hand of a clock, with the three 'top' stars at the tip of the hour-hand and the bottom star nearer the clock centre. Suppose you point your hand at the top star and move it along a line past the bottom star and out the other side. Stop at a distance a bit further than an adult’s handspan as seen at arm’s length. Then you will be pointing at the centre of the clock, a piece of blank sky called the South Celestial Pole. If you drop your hand to the horizon you will be pointing due South.  

An alternative method of finding the Pole uses a line at right angles to the Pointers as well.  Move your thumb and index finger along both lines at the same time, and where your thumb and finger touch is the South Celestial Pole.


All Southern Hemisphere stars rotate around this South Celestial Pole (clockwise, of course!) So early New Zealanders could use the celestial hour-hand to tell the time, on any night of the year, using a simple calculation in their heads. Look at the 'hour' that the celestial hour-hand (top star) is showing: straight up-and-down is 12 o’clock, horizontal (East) is 9 o’clock, and so on. Double this number to make the time on a 24-hour clock, for example the stars shown on the Starfern Flag are at an angle of 11 o’clock, which becomes 22 hours.

The next step depends how far east you are. For people living in Auckland or Wellington or in-between, on 22 April the celestial clock matches the time exactly: the celestial 22 hours occurs at 10 pm, the starts will point to 12 o'clock at midnight, etc.  For other nights of the year we need to adjust the time. First find the number of months (including fractions) after 22 April: double that and subtract it from the 'hours'. For example on 20 June we subtract 4 hours.  For February 6, on the other hand,its 9.5 months, so one would subtract 19 hours.  This would mean that the angle of the Southern Cross on the flag is seem at 3 a.m. NZ Standard Time.     However because of daylight saving, we have to add one hour.  So the "11 o'clock" stars on the flag occur at  22-19+1 = 4 a.m.  At 10 pm New Zealand time the Celestial clock will be pointing to 8 o'clock.

To early European settlers, the Southern Cross quickly became an icon. It gave its name, for example, to an early hotel (Wellington, 1841) and an early Auckland newspaper (1843) that was a forerunner to the New Zealand Herald. It was the same in Australia, but they chose to represent the Southern Cross by five stars including a faint one in the middle. New Zealand chose to represent it by just the four bright stars corresponding to the four compass directions. Those who like symbolism can think of this as representing all people, who have come to this country from all over the world.

The Southern Cross is an icon of South-ness and uniquely relevant to New Zealand. It is eminently practical, and at the same time inspirational. On our flag it is beautiful with its heritage colours of red, white, and blue background, and it makes an excellent symbol for New Zealand.



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