This medal was created because members of New Zealand’s local armed forces were not eligible for the Victoria Cross. Only 23 were awarded, all to men who served in the New Zealand Wars, making it one of the rarest military honours in the world.
The New Zealand Cross was instituted by Governor Sir George Bowen by order in council. It was intended to meet the need for a decoration equivalent to the Victoria Cross, for which colonial military personnel were eligible only if they had been under the command of a British officer at the time of their exploit.
Bowen was rebuked by the Secretary of State for the Colonies for overstepping the limits of his authority. Though the Queen was officially ‘the fountain of all honour’, five Crosses had been awarded before Britain was even notified. In defending his actions, Bowen argued that the low morale of the local troops (who were simultaneously fighting the forces of Te Kooti and Tītokowaru) meant that some tangible form of recognition for bravery in action was urgently needed. The Cross could also be awarded without the delay inherent in referral to Britain for royal approval.
Queen Victoria had little option but to ratify the order in council. Initially the new award was referred to as a ‘Decorative Distinction’. The title ‘New Zealand Cross’ was not adopted for some time. Lobbying for the honour was intense and persistent; the last award was not made until 1910.
In 1999 a ‘new’ New Zealand Cross, similar in design to the original award, was instituted to replace the George Cross. Today this is the premier New Zealand award for ‘acts of great bravery in situations of extreme danger’. Unlike its namesake it is intended primarily for civilians, but may be awarded to military personnel in some circumstances.