David Robertson-Macdonald was a twenty-eight year old Scotsman in temporary command of HMS Hazard after the accidental death of its previous commander. The Hazard was in port at Kororareka (now Russell) on the 11th of March 1845, when Hone Heke and his army of at least six hundred Maori warriors headed for the town with destruction in mind.
The civilian population of Kororareka had to be evacuated; to remain in town when the Maori horde arrived would have been a death sentence. It had only been two years since the Wairau Massacre and four years since the murders of the Roberton family on Motuarohia Island, so the settlers were well aware of the danger.
Acting Commander Robertson-Macdonald knew what he had to do: he had to buy time. He had to hold off the approaching warriors long enough to allow the civilians to flee to the ships in harbour; the whaleships and trade-ships, his own ship, and the visiting American ship the St. Louis.
Acting Commander Robertson-Macdonald took with him only six marines, two-dozen sailors, and his sword. In a narrow pass on the outskirts of the town, together they held off hundreds of experienced warriors. He and his men killed more than forty of the Maori before he was shot down.
This wasn’t a group of technically advanced Europeans fending off spear-wielding primitives, like at Rorke’s Drift or Bloedrivier, but a small group of white sailors - armed mainly with revolvers and swords - against a much larger force of experienced enemy soldiers with muskets, shotguns, and rifles.
Acting Commander Robertson-Macdonald and his men may have only held the enemy off for less than an hour, but it was long enough. Thanks to his sacrifice and that of his men (eight of whom were killed, and another half-dozen or so who were wounded), only three civilians were killed during the sack of town.
A Maori chief later said of him that 'Of all the braves there, the chief of the sailors was the bravest; no man could stand up before his sword, and had he not been struck by a shot, the Maoris would have been defeated. Four men like him would have killed all the war party.'
David Robertson-Macdonald survived his wounds and would go on to retire as an admiral. He lived to be ninety-three years old.
Another member of HMS Hazard’s crew was Lieutenant George Philpotts, a son of the Anglican Lord Bishop of Exeter and member of the petty aristocracy. He didn’t have to join the navy, come to the other side of the world, and die bringing the Union Jack to these islands - but he did anyway.
Philpotts took command of the naval force after Robertson-Macdonald was wounded during the battle of Kororareka and evacuated the refugees to Auckland, before joining in Colonel Despard’s expedition to bring Hone Heke to justice for his crimes.
Lieutenant George Philpotts was a colourful character, like so many of the day. He was nicknamed Toby, and well known for his 'eccentric behaviour and immoderate language'. He fought a duel with a newspaper owner and once accused Archdeacon Henry Williams of treason for his good relations with the Maori.
Lieutenant George Philpotts, about thirty years of age, was also a brave man. He fought with his sailors and marines in the attack on Ohaeawai, personally leading the charge, shouting rousing words and running through a hail of bullets around the pa to find an entrance.
There was no entrance, so he again lead by example and scaled the outer stockade, and it was only while attempting to get over the second line of defences that he was shot down. His eyeglasses would later be found hanging on one of the palisades.
Unfortunately, he was not as lucky as Acting Commander David Robertson-Macdonald, and did not survive his wounds. Lieutenant George Philpotts, the son of a high ranking English cleric, died in a dirty little fort in the bush of Northern New Zealand.
After his death, the Maori mutilated his body. He was scalped, and would have been eaten if Archdeacon Henry Williams hadn’t managed to bring the body out to be buried. Captain William Grant, who was also killed in the battle, had choice fleshy parts of his body cut off and devoured, while another man was found with his head removed. Private John Heaton had his flesh burnt and torn off, and one man was actually roasted while still alive.
Not the normal end for an English gentleman.