‘God defend New Zealand – a national hymn’ was first published as a poem in the Saturday Advertiser, a Dunedin newspaper, in 1876. It was written by Thomas Bracken, a young Irish poet and journalist who had arrived in New Zealand in 1869. He was editor of the Saturday Advertiser at the time, and later became a politician.
The publication of the verses was accompanied by an announcement of a competition. The composer of the best tune for the words would win a prize of 10 guineas (about $1,600 in 2019 values). Three Melbourne musicians, Alberto Zelman, Julius Siede and Thomas Zeplin, were the judges. They unanimously chose the composition of John Joseph Woods, head teacher of a Catholic school at Lawrence, west of Dunedin.
First performance and publication
‘God defend New Zealand’ had its first vocal performance on Christmas Day 1876 in Dunedin’s Queen’s Theatre by the Lydia Howarde Burlesque and Opera Bouffe Troupe, accompanied by the Dunedin Royal Artillery Band. In February 1878 sheet music was published.
The following month the premier, Sir George Grey, visited Lawrence, and 800 schoolchildren sang ‘God defend New Zealand’ at his welcome. Impressed, he wrote to Bracken, asking for the original manuscript of the poem. Grey then asked Thomas Henry Smith, a former judge of the Native Land Court, to translate the words into Māori. Smith’s translation, ‘Aotearoa’, appeared in Otago newspapers in October 1878.
When New Zealand’s rowing eight collected their gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the band played ‘God defend New Zealand’ instead of 'God save the Queen'. As 'God defend' was not yet an official anthem, this contravened Olympic rules, and there has been no explanation of why it happened. However, those New Zealanders present felt a sense of national pride. Athlete Dick Quax remembered, ‘I got a big charge out of hearing “God defend” being played…it was the first time I’d ever heard it at a major international event.’1 ‘God defend’ had been played after ‘God save’ at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics in honour of Yvette Williams’ victory in the long jump.
While it was published as a ‘national anthem’, ‘God defend New Zealand’ had no official status. However, it was favourably reviewed, both in and beyond New Zealand, and people often sang it on important occasions, especially in Otago. Woods, who held the copyright from 1877 until 1914, tirelessly promoted it, sending the sheet music to schools, musicians and dignitaries. At Woods’s suggestion, Premier Richard John Seddon presented a copy to Queen Victoria in 1897.
In the 1930s, as New Zealand’s centennial year approached, James McDermott, chief engineer of the Post and Telegraph Department, began to lobby for ‘God defend New Zealand’ to be elevated to the status of a national anthem. He got the support of the under-secretary for Internal Affairs, Joseph Heenan. In 1938 the Centennial Council recommended that the government adopt ‘God defend New Zealand’ as the ‘national song’, preferably to be sung immediately after ‘God save the King’. In 1940 the government announced this new status and acquired the copyright of both words and music. The song continued to be described by many people, incorrectly, as New Zealand’s national anthem.
An authoritative anthem
Different versions of the Māori translation of ‘God defend New Zealand’ have been published, but often they have contained grammatical and spelling errors that have been introduced over the years. The location of Thomas Henry Smith’s original 1878 translation enabled an authoritative version to be published in 2011.
Pressure for ‘God defend New Zealand’ to be designated an official national anthem grew as sports became increasingly popular in the years after the Second World War. At the Commonwealth Games medallists were saluted with national songs, but at Olympic Games there was a rule that only anthems could be played. For New Zealand this was ‘God save the Queen’ – the same as for Britain. After the 1968 Olympics, the New Zealand Jaycees asked for ‘God defend New Zealand’ to be made an official anthem, and organised a national poll on the issue. This sparked further debate. At the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, ‘God defend New Zealand’ was played at medals ceremonies in place of ‘God save the Queen’, and in 1976 a petition to elevate it to anthem status was presented to Parliament. Finally in 1977 it was declared an official national anthem, alongside ‘God save the Queen’.