Why The Stars Are Red with White Edges

The history books do not say so explicitly, but there is enough evidence to suggest there are two reasons why our current flag has red stars. The first is that the colour red was important to Maori to represent mana. The second is that using red stars with white edges makes them echo the Union Jack. The Star Fern Flag proposal keeps alive these echoes of the two cultures that came together at the Treaty of Waitangi. The New Zealand stars are unique among the national flags of the world, and  I believe we should keep them this way.

More details of the history surrounding the red and white stars are given below.


An Encyclopedia of New Zealand (1966, edited by A.H. McLintock) states that the first proposed flag (left) for the Independent Tribes of New Zealand "was rejected on the grounds that it had no red in it,  as red was regarded as a sign of rank by the Maoris." Later (in 1834) a flag was chosen (right) that had a lot of red, and was recognised as the flag of the Confederacy of Independent Tribes.


Much later, hapu friendly to the British were often given a red flag: "Some of these, such as 'Te Rakau i Mataahu', which Queen Victoria presented to Major Ropata in the 1860s, incorporated the British Red Ensign with special devices." (see Takutimu flag, for example) "But those presented by the Government usually consisted of the New Zealand Red Ensign (12 ft by 6 ft, with trunk and halyards) with the name of the hapu, or of a notable ancestor, worked or printed on the fly. Maori preferred this flag because red was a colour denoting rank and mana."


As for the British choice of red stars, An Encyclopedia of New Zealand states that until 1867 the Union Jack was flown in New Zealand. However in 1865 British Admiralty instructions required that vessels based in a colony should fly the Blue Ensign with the seal or badge of the colony in the fly. Accordingly "on 10 January 1867 Sir George Grey issued a proclamation appointing 'the letter NZ in red,  surrounded by a margin of white' to be used as the colony's badge on the blue ensign. This arrangement was temporary."

Later Governor Bowen, on October 23 1869, proclaimed "the distinctive badge of the colony, by all vessels belonging to or permanently employed in the service of the Colonial Government of New Zealand, 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". (See above right).

Later the flag was changed in line with British Empire standards to show red stars on a white disk. Finally in 1902 the flag reverted to just having white edges on the red stars, but with the stars in astronomically correct position, and with sizes of stars corresponding to the relative brightness.

We can draw a number of conclusions from this. First  the only distinctively New Zealand part of the flag was the badge i.e. the letters or the stars. These flags were very much British Empire flags.  

Second note that the use of the colour red precedes the use of stars and has nothing to do with the Australian flag. Why did Governor Grey require the letters NZ to be two-tone, which is much more complicated to sew, when simple white letters would have had high visibility and would have sufficed for a temporary badge?  No reason suggests itself except that Grey was aware that a badge for New Zealand should have red on it to represent mana for both Maori and the Colonial Government. 

The white edges (called fimbrillation) were necessary in order to make the letters or stars stand out clearly from the blue background. But they also allowed the badge to echo the colours of the Union Jack. This probably pleased the colonial patriots who, certainly in the 1800s and even up until the 1940s, considered New Zealand a new Britain and very much part of the Empire.

The Star Fern Flag is intended to be a bridge of peace between New Zealanders of different ethnicities. For someone of British ancestry (like the writer, some generations back) it is not a small thing to lose the Union Jack on the corner of the flag because it speaks of my heritage. However the loss is eased by the fact that the stars are a specific echo that flag, but brought into a South Pacific context.

What if the design was changed like this....?

Flags of the World webpages for New Zealand

Acknowledgement: The flags on this page are mostly from the Flags of the World website:  Rejected Flag representation by Antonio Martins; Confederacy of the Independent Tribes representation byThanh-Tam L  Tikitimu on Red Ensign representation by James Dignan; NZ Red Ensign representation by Sam Lockton;  "NZ" Blue Ensign by Martin Grieve; 1869 Flag by Barry McDonald; 1899 Flag (Disk Flag) by Sam Lockton; 1902 New Zealand Blue Ensign by Sam Lockton. This page is copyright 2008 Barry McDonald,  Albany 0632, New Zealand.

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