Some public anniversaries are annual, recalling a past event on that day each year – such as Christmas, Waitangi and Anzac days. Other anniversaries mark periods of special significance, such as silver (25 years) and golden (50 years) jubilees, and 100th anniversaries (centennials or centenaries). New Zealanders have commemorated these special anniversaries in a variety of ways.
Although Māori recognised Matariki each year, longer anniversaries were not marked until the arrival of the European calendar.
After arriving in New Zealand, Europeans began recognising annual days of significance. These included saints’ days and provincial anniversaries, which usually marked the date of first arrival of settlers. It obviously took time until jubilees attained importance. In 1865 the 25th year of the colony’s existence was briefly noted in Wellington and Auckland, but the celebrations were no different from the annual anniversary day, with regattas the major drawcard. The 1869 centenary of explorer James Cook’s first visit to New Zealand passed with almost no mention.
Cambridge had its own form of celebration: ‘Notwithstanding the wretchedly wet day, the inhabitants of Cambridge went in wholesale for celebrating the Jubilee, and right royally must they have done so, for at a comparatively early period of the day many might be met with who had been drinking Her Majesty's health in something evidently stronger than hop beer. As the day progressed some of these individuals became rather too demonstrative, and had it not been Jubilee time the constable would no doubt have had a few lodgers.’1
Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887, marking the 50th anniversary of her reign, sparked the first significant public celebration. The date of commemoration, 21 June, was mid-winter and the weather was cold and rainy. The celebration depended on local initiative. Sizeable communities such as New Plymouth and Palmerston North held no local events other than enjoying the public holiday. Others, including Lyttelton, Ashburton and Lawrence, were more ambitious. Such communities normally held some of the following:
Specific events were also held – athletic sports at the Basin Reserve in Wellington, industrial exhibitions at Auckland and Whanganui. In Nelson, children were presented with medallions. Lady Jervois, the governor’s wife, initiated the Queen’s Fund for women in distress. The anniversary was seen as a way to cheer people up at a time of economic hardship.
In 1897, 10% of children registered in New Zealand had the names Victoria or Victor, and popular combinations included Victoria Jubilee and Victoria Diamond. The Hoses named their son, born the day before ‘record-reign day’ (22 June), Victor Record Reign Hose.
Ten years later, with the country more prosperous and with growing enthusiasm for the British Empire, the exercise was repeated on a more extravagant scale. This time, every town and even small communities participated. Once more there were processions, ambitious illuminations (now using electricity as well as gas), fireworks and the planting of jubilee oaks.
Apart from Wellington, where a strong northerly wind blew, ‘queen’s weather’ predominated for the three days of celebration (20–22 June). There was greater emphasis on the empire and the military than in the previous jubilee, with exercises by volunteers common. In many places the artillery fired 60-gun salutes. Children played a larger role and normally took part in the processions. A notable feature was the lighting of bonfires on hilltops, which copied what happened in Britain. In Whanganui, the populace watched the old hospital torched in a spectacular blaze.
The event was commemorated by permanent additions to the cityscape – a Victoria Wing was added to the Invercargill hospital, there was a Victoria Domain in Gisborne, a Victoria clock tower in Christchurch, a Victoria drinking fountain in New Plymouth – and statues of the queen were erected in Auckland and Dunedin. Wellington’s new university college was named for the monarch. Fifteen prisoners were released from gaol.
The priority of provincial loyalties over national in colonial New Zealand was demonstrated by planning for the nation’s 50th jubilee in 1890. The provinces could not agree on a date on which to commemorate the nation’s jubilee. Was it, as Wellingtonians argued, 22 January, when the Aurora landed the New Zealand Company settlers at Petone? Or was it, as Aucklanders believed, 29 January, when the future governor, William Hobson, stepped off his boat in the Bay of Islands? No one suggested 6 February, the day the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document, was first signed by the Crown and Māori. Russell, just across the bay from Waitangi, did hold a jubilee regatta, but on 12 February. The governor, Lord Onslow, supported the Aucklanders and proclaimed 29 January a public holiday throughout the country. No one outside Auckland recognised this as anything other than ‘a bogus holiday’1.
Wellington made do with a slightly expanded Wellington Anniversary Day. There was a procession and a children’s sports day at the Basin Reserve to supplement the annual regatta. In Auckland, ambitions were greater. Alongside their annual regatta they held swimming sports, horticultural and poultry (‘chick’) shows, a procession, athletic sports, Māori canoe races and a jubilee ball.
In both cities the dominant theme was 50 years of progress. The processions showed off successful trades and professions. The large transparencies in Auckland compared the Māori in 1840 in native huts with ‘the Maori of present day dressed in height of fashion and looking almost too sweet for anything.’2
The Canterbury jubilee featured the dramatic decoration of the city streets with 20,000 yards of muslin in 11 colours designed by S. Hurst Seager. High Street featured white, pale green and salmon pink; Cashel Street was strongly patriotic with masses of red, white and blue; Colombo Street had pale blue, pale yellow, cream and white; and Armagh Street had red, green and white shading into pale blue, orange and white.
Provinces also held jubilees, where the theme was 50 years of provincial progess – Taranaki on 31 March 1891, Nelson on 1 February 1892, Otago on 23 March 1898, and Canterbury on 16 December 1900. In New Plymouth an agricultural show and industrial exhibition displayed Taranaki’s productivity, while the procession featured old settlers and veterans of the 1860 battle of Waireka. At Nelson, in addition to a procession, sports and fireworks, there was a pioneers’ banquet in the provincial hall, where the ‘old timers’ discussed ‘their doughty deeds in establishing the settlement here in the forties’.3 Otago hosted a jubilee industrial exhibition with 150 bays of the province’s products. Six hundred ‘old identities’ took part in the procession. Canterbury’s jubilee also featured an exhibition of local manufacturing and an old colonists’ luncheon followed by a garden party at Riccarton House, the home of the pioneering Deans family. The jubilee ode, sung by 270 voices at the opening of the exhibition, contrasted the past of Canterbury with the present.
The Evening Post newspaper commented on 2 January 1901, ‘ We are a curious people. Proud of the traditions of our race, our country, our Queen, and particularly of ourselves and our accomplishments. But oh, so matter-of-fact. We in Wellington – only a unit of the nation, true – allowed a century to pass out, and the birth of a new one to occur, without fuss or festivity, save in connection with an event of Imperial significance – the inauguration of the Universal Penny Postage.’4
Whether it began on 1 January 1900 or 1901, over which there was some disagreement, the new century brought little commemoration. New Year’s Day 1900 was quieter than normal, and in 1901 the newspapers recognised the significance but noted the lack of special activities. Only in Gisborne, where the mayor took the lead, was there anything special – a torchlight procession, music, fireworks and illuminations, a tableau of Britannia and a crowd of several thousand.
For the next 40 years there were many small anniversaries – of churches and schools and clubs and townships – but few national ones. The jubilee of the nation’s Parliament in 1904 passed without note. The 50th anniversaries of battles during the New Zealand Wars sometimes brought a historical reminiscence in the local paper, but little more. There were organised gatherings in April 1914, when monuments were unveiled on the jubilees of battles at Orākau and Gate Pā.
Perhaps the outbreak of the First World War explains the absence of any recognition of the 75th anniversary of the colony in January–February 1915; but the 150th anniversary of James Cook’s landing in October 1919 was also ignored – except in Gisborne, where there was a ceremony at the memorial to Cook. Canterbury organised a pageant, led by a dray (cart) of pioneers, for their 75th anniversary in 1925; but in general the worship of New Zealand’s pioneers found expression in books and local museums rather than large-scale public occasions.
The celebration of the nation’s centennial in 1940 was by far New Zealand’s largest such anniversary. Four years in the planning, it had extensive government involvement and a host of committees.
James Rutherford, professor of history at the University of Auckland, wrote in March 1939, ‘we are all tremendously busy with all our centennial projects just now. I find to my horror I am on no less than twenty-six different committees.’1
The heart of the celebration was the Centennial Exhibition fair at Rongotai, Wellington. It ran for six months from 8 November 1939, and attracted 2.6 million visitors – most of whom made a first stop at Playland, with its Cyclone roller coaster, crazy house, great white shark and Jack and Jill helter-skelter. Next door the striking art deco buildings designed by Edmund Anscombe featured a soaring central tower and masses of electric lighting and neon. There were displays of industry, transport, a large Government Court celebrating the welfare state, and Māori and women’s courts.
A starring attraction of the 9,203–square-metre Government Court was a walking, talking robot doctor, Dr Well-and-strong. Made of papier mâché, with a loudspeaker in his chest, and dressed in a smart suit, the good doctor took visitors on a tour along the ‘Highway to health and happiness’.
Perhaps to avoid the provincial disagreements of 1890, there were a series of national events around the country:
In addition there were processions of people dressed up in pioneer clothing and parading in bullock drays in cities and townships throughout the nation. Christchurch’s procession was 2 miles long. There were bonfires, picnics and sports days.
More than 250 centennial memorials were erected, ranging from pioneer memorials to Plunket rooms, ladies' rest rooms, trees and parks.
Partly because of the commitment of Joseph Heenan, under-secretary for Internal Affairs, to the nation’s culture, the commemoration featured impressive cultural productions. These included:
The major purpose of the anniversary was to strengthen the national spirit. The onset of the Second World War led to the cancellation of only a few events, other than the major Auckland celebrations.
Memories of conflict were avoided. As in 1890, the anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi did not focus on the promises made to Māori, but rather on the centenary of membership of the British Empire. There was some Māori protest – Waikato boycotted the Waitangi event and Ngāpuhi displayed red blankets in protest at the acquisition of ‘surplus’ Māori land in Northland. There were protests at Akaroa and Taranaki. However, the general sentiments were romantic praise for the ‘Old-time Māori’ and pride in modern race relations.
As the Union Jack went up the flagpole during Akaroa’s re-enactment of the proclamation of British sovereignty in the South Island, some Ngāi Tahu were heard to mutter, ‘Way goes the land. Now the Pākehā’s got the place.’
There was also a focus on the heroic work of New Zealand’s pioneers (with people dressed in colonial costume replacing the old-timers of 1890) and the century of material progress since 1840. There was pride in the transformation of the land from bush to farmland, the growth of cities, and the amazing progress brought by electricity and modern transport.
Despite the air of self-congratulation, some significant New Zealand intellectuals with a more critical view of the nation received recognition during the centennial. E. H. McCormick was secretary of the National Historical Committee and J. C. Beaglehole was an adviser for the centennial publications. Frank Sargeson was co-winner of the short-story competition and Douglas Lilburn won two composition competitions,
The nation’s centennial provided an inspiration and model for provincial centenary celebrations, especially in Otago and Canterbury.
The first provincial centennial was in Taranaki, where the landing of the first settlers at New Plymouth was re-enacted on Moturoa beach on 31 March 1941. There were religious services and Prime Minister Peter Fraser unveiled a monument to Charles Creed, the first minister, while Fraser’s wife Janet opened a monument to the pioneer women of Taranaki. Two days later 2,000 children formed a living picture of Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont) and the words ‘Taranaki centennial 1841–1941’.
The programme for the commemorative pageant in Taranaki on 31 March 1941 noted: ‘Today Taranaki … does honour to the heroism, fortitude and labours of the pioneers, and offers thanksgiving for the favoured conditions our generation enjoys in this, “the Garden of God’s Own Country”.’1
Nelson’s celebrations were severely affected by the Second World War, which was not going well for the Allies. On 9 October 1941 a memorial fountain was unveiled at Kaiteriteri beach, where colonist Arthur Wakefield first drew water. On 1 November a memorial stone was unveiled on Wakefield Quay in Nelson, where Wakefield landed, and on 1 February 1942 a memorial to early settlers was opened on Church Steps. But plans for a re-enactment of pioneers landing, a children’s day, a centennial ball, sports gatherings and a historical exhibition were cancelled.
After the war, the South Island’s two largest provinces held spectacular and varied centennial celebrations – Otago’s focused on February and March 1948; Canterbury’s over the summer of 1950–51. The programmes were shaped by the precedent of New Zealand’s centennial. Like that commemoration, each included:
The sportspeople of Otago responded to the centennial spirit. In 1948 the province’s rugby team held onto the Ranfurly Shield through seven challenges, the cricket team won the Plunket Shield for the first time in 16 years, and both the athletics and swimming teams won the most points at their national championships.
There were also interesting differences from the 1940 celebrations. Both provinces held a floral procession as well as the historical one, and both had centennial flower shows. In Dunedin more than 30,000 visited the flower show in the town hall.
Both provinces also put more emphasis on sporting events. Otago hosted no fewer than 34 New Zealand sporting championships (not including brass and pipe band competitions, and sheep dog trials). Canterbury held the Canterbury centennial games, featuring athletics, swimming, cycling, rowing and boxing, from 26 December 1950 to 3 January 1951. They attracted star athletes, including up-and-coming English runner Roger Bannister and Australians Shirley Strickland and Marjorie Jackson, both of whom had won multiple events at the Empire Games in Auckland. Both provinces held centennial racing and trotting meetings.
In 1940 there had been a yacht race from Lyttelton to Wellington to celebrate Wellington’s centennial. For their centennial, Canterbury organised a corresponding race in the reverse direction. Twenty yachts set off on 23 January 1951. The next day a severe southerly storm hit the fleet. Most of the boats withdrew, but two sank with the loss of 10 lives.
Another difference from the 1940 commemorations was the focus on air transport – Otago had an aero pageant and Christchurch celebrated the opening of Harewood as an international airport.
While many places had held bonfires in 1940, Dunedin and Christchurch put on spectacular fireworks displays. Dunedin, but not Christchurch, revived 19th-century traditions by illuminating buildings and putting up street decorations.
A distinctive event in Canterbury was the Centennial Thanksgiving Service held in Cathedral Square with 10,000 worshippers, a choir of 1,300 and a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury (the head of the Anglican Church worldwide). Otago too had its international visitors – notably Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh acting in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The school for scandal.
Southland devised several unusual ways to mark their celebrations in 1956, all involving travel. A centennial torch was carried by relay from Waitangi to Invercargill. There was a centennial air race from Ōmaka (near Blenheim) to Invercargill, and a centennial car reliability trial. Cabinet ministers travelled to Invercargill to hold a cabinet meeting in the city.
Later in the 1950s Southland (in 1956), Hawke’s Bay (1958) and Marlborough (1959) celebrated centennials with stamp issues, industry fairs and, for the first two, the opening of centennial halls. Many smaller communities and towns held various events to mark their hundred years of existence.
As in 1940, the consistent theme of these centenaries was a worship of the heroic pioneers and a tribute to the material progress that had transformed a wilderness into a prosperous community. But such views, which had fuelled anniversary celebrations for over half a century, would not survive much longer.
During the 1970s and 1980s there was a major questioning of New Zealand identity. The belief in material progress, the British heritage, the benign role of government and the idealisation of the heroic male pioneer – all of which had loomed large in 1940 – was being challenged. Immigration had made the population more diverse and, above all, there was a strident Māori protest movement which focused on the failure of the government to live up to the Treaty of Waitangi.
The symbol for New Zealand 1990 was the kōtuku or white heron. In Māori tradition the kōtuku guided the god Tāne to the three baskets of knowledge and then died. It became associated with rare and never-to-be-repeated occasions.
The sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of New Zealand in 1990 featured little celebratory self-satisfaction and praise of the pioneers. Michael Bassett, the government minister responsible, insisted that ‘commemoration’ not ‘celebration’ be the focus. The only re-enactments were of the landing of the settlers at Petone Beach and a replay of the debate about the Treaty at Waitangi before it was signed (with actor Bruno Lawrence starring as missionary William Colenso).
Unlike the 1940 centenary, the anniversaries of British settlement or sovereignty were not remembered. Rather, the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi took centre stage. However, fearing Māori protest, Bassett and the 1990 Commission which he appointed to oversee the commemoration diluted the issue by emphasising other anniversaries, some of which were debatable. Besides the treaty they included:
In addition, the commission’s mission emphasised multi-culturalism, diversity, tolerance and partnership. It encouraged looking to the future, not the past.
There were two major events.
The games opened on 24 January with a spectacular multimedia performance representing the migration to Aotearoa of waves of peoples – Māori, British settlers, and then other diverse groups.
Bishop Vercoe’s speech at Waitangi on 6 February 1990 became famous. Among his words were: ‘I want to remind our [Treaty of Waitangi] partners that you have marginalised us [Māori]. You have not honoured the treaty. We have not honoured each other in the promises we made on this sacred ground. Since 1840 the partner that has been marginalised is me – the language of this land is yours, the custom is yours, the media by which we tell the world who we are – are yours.’ In response, the queen acknowledged that the Treaty of Waitangi had been ‘imperfectly observed.’1
There was a day of commemoration at Waitangi on 6 February. Two special 1990 projects – 20 waka taua (war canoes) and visiting tall sailing ships – were present to greet Queen Elizabeth II when she arrived on a launch, reinforcing the message that all New Zealanders were migrant peoples.
The queen was escorted to the shore by the waka followed by outrigger canoes from the Pacific communities. There was considerable protest. The queen flinched when a black T-shirt was thrown close to her, and most of the speeches were drowned out – except for challenging words from Whakahuihui Vercoe, Anglican bishop of Aotearoa. But there was no violence and the hot afternoon saw dance, music and drama from the country’s multicultural communities – ranging from the City of Wellington pipe band and the Lochiel marching team to the Cook Islands national ensemble.
The 1990 Commission did not directly organise events as the government had in 1940, but instead allocated $21 million to fund projects, administrative support and promotion. The result was more than 6,000 community events, including such things as a competition for family biographies, a scented garden in Christchurch and the restoration of the historic Scotts Ferry site in Manawatū. No memorials were put up.
Some noted the absence of fun in the anniversary. In Wellington there was an attempt to remedy this with a sesqui carnival in Newtown and on the waterfront. This was so poorly attended that it closed after 12 days owing $6.4 million.
There were few cultural legacies, although the first volume of a new Dictionary of New Zealand biography (not initially planned as a sesquicentennial project) was launched, and the Australian government gave $1 million for oral history projects.
The precedent of using commissions to subsidise and support anniversaries was followed on several subsequent occasions.
In 1992 an Abel Tasman Commission encouraged projects to recall the 350th anniversary of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s visit to New Zealand. They included a book (Tasman’s legacy), a television programme and a memorial to Tasman in Christchurch. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands visited New Zealand and presented a statue of Tasman’s ships.
In 1993 the Suffrage Centennial Year Trust was established to mark the centenary of New Zealand becoming the first country where women gained the vote. The trust gave out $5.3 million in funding for relevant activities, including:
In February there was a ‘summits for suffrage’ weekend, during which 4,000 women climbed to the top of hills or mountains, including Aoraki/Mt Cook.
The prominence given to Kate Sheppard in 1993, aided by the launching in 1992 of a $10 note bearing her image, was reflected in public awareness of her, which rose from 39% of the adult population at the start of the year to 83% by the end. Knowledge that women had won the vote in New Zealand in 1893 rose from 49% to 80%.
Compared with the 1990 sesquicentennial, which aimed to look forward rather than back, there was far more attention paid to the history of women and their achievements. However, there were also projects examining the present situation and future challenges.
Once again, in preparation for the millennium, the government established a body – the Towards 2000 Taskforce, supported by the New Zealand Millennium Office – to support celebrations of the new millennium. It was also responsible for celebrations around the America’s Cup defence and the Sydney Olympics. The millennium was seen as an opportunity for New Zealand because the east of the country was claimed to be the first place in the world to see the sun in the new millennium – hence the marketing slogan: ‘First to the future’.
The office gave out some $5 million in funding, primarily for events in three locations which were part of the Official Millennium Dawn Programme: the Chatham Islands, Mt Hikurangi on the East Coast and Midway Beach at Gisborne. These three events were broadcast by TV3 around the world, and at Gisborne the highpoint featured world-renowned opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa singing ‘Pōkarekare ana’ as the sun came up.
As the new millennium arrived at midnight on 31 December, the eyes of the world were on New Zealand with as much concern as joy. There was a worldwide anxiety that computers, which had originally been programmed with only two figures for years, would falter when 99 turned to 00 and create infrastructural chaos. Banks, power, traffic lights and airports were considered in danger. In the event, years of preparation to cure the ‘Y2K bug’ paid off, and the lights stayed on.
The office gave out smaller sums to community groups for a range of local celebrations around the country, which were in many places affected by bad weather.
Anniversaries continued to be important moments when institutions, from schools to businesses to government departments, surveyed their history and their achievements. Many history books resulted.
The state also provided support for the commemoration of major military anniversaries such as battles and the end of the Second World War.
From 2014 to 2018, a focus of both private and public attention was the centenary of the First World War. Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington was opened in 2015 as a place to remember and reflect on this country’s experience of war, and how it has shaped our ideals and sense of national identity. The publication of a series of scholarly books about New Zealand and the First World War was enabled by government funding. The WW100 programme produced educational material and supported many community events.
In 2019, the Tuia 250 programme supported events around the country which commemorated the 250th anniversary of the early encounters between Māori and the crew of James Cook’s Endeavour, interactions which were facilitated by the Tahitian priest and navigator Tupaia. Tuia 250 emphasised New Zealanders’ dual heritage and shared future.
Celebrating women: a suffrage year handbook. Wellington: Suffrage Centennial Year Trust Whakatū Wāhine, 1994.
Davison, Graeme. ‘Cities and ceremonies: nationalism and civic ritual in three new lands.’ New Zealand Journal of History 24, no. 2 (October 1990): 97–117.
Hamilton, Fiona. ‘Pioneering history: negotiating pakeha collective memory in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. ’New Zealand Journal of History 36, no. 1 (April 2002): 66–81.
Renwick, W. L., ed. Creating a national spirit: celebrating New Zealand’s centennial. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2004.