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Story: National anthems

‘God of nations, at thy feet, in the bonds of love we meet …’ Journalist Thomas Bracken’s words to ‘God defend New Zealand’ are familiar to most New Zealanders – as, increasingly, is the Māori version of the anthem. Unusually, New Zealand has two national anthems. ‘God save the Queen’ (or, later, the King) was inherited from Britain when New Zealand became a colony. ‘God defend New Zealand’ did not become an official national anthem until 1977. In the 2000s it was common to sing a verse in Māori followed by a verse in English.

Story by Nancy Swarbrick
Main image: Handwritten manuscript for 'God defend New Zealand'

Story Summary

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A national anthem is a patriotic song that is often performed on important occasions, such as international sporting events or national celebrations. Along with a country’s flag and its coat of arms, the national anthem is a symbol of national identity that is recognised worldwide.

Two anthems

The sovereign (king or queen) has the right to declare a song a national anthem. New Zealand has two national anthems:

  • ‘God save the Queen’ (or ‘God save the King’), which is also the British national anthem, became the national anthem when New Zealand was made a British colony in 1840.
  • ‘God defend New Zealand’ was composed in the 1870s, and became a national anthem in 1977.

Both songs have Māori versions, composed in the 19th century.

History of ‘God defend New Zealand’

The words to ‘God defend New Zealand’ were originally a poem by journalist Thomas Bracken, published in 1876. A competition to compose the best tune for the words was won by John Joseph Woods. The song was translated into Māori in 1878, and was called ‘Aotearoa’.

Over the years many people lobbied for ‘God defend New Zealand’ to be made an official national anthem – partly because ‘God save the Queen’ is British and does not mention New Zealand. In 1976 a petition was presented to Parliament, and the song became a national anthem in 1977.

In the 2000s people often sang a verse in Māori and then a verse in English.

Criticism

Some people have criticised ‘God defend New Zealand’ for using old-fashioned language and for its religious focus. However, no widely acceptable replacement has been found, and the anthem is not an issue for most people.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'National anthems', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/national-anthems (accessed 29 March 2017)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 20 Jun 2012