King’s flag returns after 160 years

A precious taonga was returned to its rightful kaitiaki in a ceremony at Holy Trinity Cathedral on 8 August, 2019.

The taonga is a flag associated with Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, the first Māori king, who died in 1860. Bishop Ross Bay signed care of the flag back to the Kīngitanga, represented by Te Ariki Tamaroa Whatumoana, the son of the current Sovereign, Kingi Tūheitia.

It’s believed that a priest named Alfred Clementson took the flag to England in 1865 after serving for a time in Aotearoa. When the flag surfaced again in 1929, it was decided that it should be returned to New Zealand. It was sent to the Anglican Bishop, Archbishop A.W. Averill, who in turn entrusted it to the Auckland War Memorial Museum for safekeeping.

Bishop Ross said the existence of the flag was then “lost to the memory of the bishops of Auckland”, despite their official role as guardians. His two predecessors knew nothing of it and he first became aware of its significance when it was exhibited with other taonga at the Auckland Museum last year to mark the 160th anniversary of the Kīngitanga movement.

The museum undertook about 450 hours of conservation work on the 6m x 2.4m flag, which is made of fine cotton appliquéd with letters, a cross and geometric designs in woollen and velvet fabric. Museum records from 1929 describe the artefact as a “token of mourning” but it’s not known whether it was flown at the King’s tangihanga or used as a kind of funeral pall.

Bishop Ross said handing over the flag to Kīngitanga was about acknowledging its rightful guardians.

“There was no doubt among any of us – Museum, Kīngitanga, Bishop – that it belongs in Ngāruawāhia, from whence it came 160 years ago. This is about kaitiakitanga – rightful guardianship – things in their right place and right order – contributing to the oranga of the community.

“We gather to acknowledge where kaitiakitanga lies in relation to this taonga and so to entrust it to God,” he said.

A Kīngitanga contingent travelled from Ngāruawāhia to attend the ceremony, along with representatives from the Auckland Museum, the Diocese of Auckland and Te Pīhopatanga o Te Tai Tokerau.

The flag was officially received at Tūrangawaewae Marae on 15 August, the Kīngitanga day of remembrance in honour of the late Queen Te Atairangikaahu.

Bishop Ross Bay signs documents transferring ownership of  the Pōtatau flag to the Kīngitanga. From left: Dr David Gaimster, Auckland Museum Chief Executive; Bishop Ross; Te Ariki Tamaroa Whatumoana, the King's son; The Venerable Ngira Simmonds, the King's chaplain. 

Museum staff carefully roll up the Pōtatau flag after the ceremony.