Prime Minister John Key recently reignited the debate about New Zealand’s national flag. The same old arguments for and against any change are already being trundled out and so I thought I’d add my two pence. I’m not yet entirely convinced that change is needed at all, but if change is inevitable then there does seem to be a strong argument for the raising of one of our most beloved icons – the silver fern.
Our current flag evolved from the Royal Navy’s blue ensign in the 1860’s, saw irregular use through the late nineteenth century and became official in 1902. It is hard to not be attached to, or even get a little emotional about, the flag that once flew over Quinn’s Post at Gallipoli, was raised at Jack Lovelock’s medal ceremony at the 1936 Berlin Olympics or was flown at half-mast during tragedies both past and recent. A long and proud history is part of what makes a strong flag – that sense of continuity between the past, the present and the future.
I should admit to being excessively nostalgic at times (surprise!) and can harbor discontent at any seemingly unnecessary cosmetic changes – especially when they relate to heritage. Yet despite that, I’m open-minded to the suggestion of a flag change, that is, as long as any replacement still maintains a strong link to our past. With that in consideration the silver fern does seem to be a potential candidate. I looked through my personal collection of historical ephemera for the earliest example I could find of the silver fern being used as an emblem – and found this field stationary set that belonged to a New Zealand soldier in the First World War.
This stationary set emblazoned with the silver fern and kiwi was distributed to New Zealanders on the Western Front. This example belonged to Hugh Anderson Thompson who embarked with the 29th Reinforcements on 13th August 1917. At this time some military vehicles such as ambulances and staff cars were also marked with the silver fern.
Many of the soldiers themselves also wore silver fern badges, a tradition that goes back to the late nineteenth century. New Zealand troops in the Boer War proudly wore the emblem to distinguish themselves from other colonial forces.
Check out some examples of early silver fern military badges here. On the home-front the silver fern was also a popular design for ladies brooches and there is even a record of silver fern brooches being awarded in recognition of fundraising efforts after the Elingamite disaster. One such example survives in Te Papa’s collection.
When not on the battlefield or in the wake of shipwrecks It was of course on sports grounds that the silver fern forged its reputation as a national symbol, and not only on the jerseys of our famous rugby team.
So it seems that while the Union Jack and Southern Cross may have flown above our athletes and soldiers the silver fern was frequently on the field with them; and adorned their breasts, brows and boxers. It is a strong national symbol with a proud history, but would it make a good flag? There are a number of arguments against it; some don’t like it aesthetically, some are concerned that the link to the All Blacks is too strong and some have suggested that it might be confused for a white feather of cowardice.
Others have also questioned the wisdom of having black as a background. Black flags are rarely raised, but there are a few historical precedents – Afghanistan had a black flag on a number of occasions and it has also been flown by anarchists, Confederate guerrillas, Jihadists, surrendering Nazi U-boats, and last but not least, pirates. Perhaps the black flag opponents have a point.
There are of course a number of other flag suggestions including a Kiwi, the United Tribes Flag (which I have a soft spot for – and was a suggestion put forward by some when our current flag was decided upon over a century ago) and some others suggest only a slight modification of the current design – enough to avoid confusion with our pesky neighbours across the ditch. If that is all the change that is needed then I actually quite like our red ensign, and another suggestion put forward is a simple switch from the blue background to black. Then again, I do also quite like the Jolly Roger….
What do you think? Are you for or against a flag change? Do you think the silver fern is a suitable candidate, and if so, is a black background appropriate?
© Lemuel Lyes