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Significant Scots
Lord Viscount Duncan

Lord Viscount DuncanDUNCAN, LORD VISCOUNT, one of the comparatively few naval heroes of whom Scotland can boast, was a younger son of Alexander Duncan, Esq. of Lundie, in the county of Forfar. He was born in Dundee on 1st July, 1731, in which town he also received the rudiments of his education. The family of Lundie, which had for centuries been distinguished for its peaceful and domestic virtues, seems, at his time to have had an inclination directed towards the more active business of war – the eldest son having gone into the array, while the younger, the subject of the present sketch, joined the navy at the aspiring age of sixteen. In 1747, he took the humble conveyance of a carrier’s cart to Leith, whence he sailed to London; and beginning his career in a manner so characteristic of the unostentatious but settled views of his countrymen, he did not revisit the place of his birth until his genius, his virtues, and his courage had secured for him the honour of an admiral’s commission, and the gratitude of his country.

In the year last mentioned, young Duncan went on board the Shoreham frigate, Captain Kaldane, under whom he served for three years. He was afterwards entered as a midshipman on board the Centurion of fifty guns, then flag-ship of commodore Keppel, who had received the appointment of commander-in-chief on the Mediterranean station. While on this station, Mr Duncan attracted the attention and regard of the commodore, no less by the mildness of his manners, and the excellence of his disposition, which indeed, distinguished his character through life, than by the ability and intrepidity which he uniformly displayed in the discharge of his arduous though subordinate duties. How true it is that the sure foundation of future fame can be laid only during that period of youth which precedes the commencement of manhood’s more anxious business! His submission to the severity of naval discipline, the diligence with which he made himself acquainted with the practical details of his professional duties, and the assiduity with which he cultivated an intellect naturally powerful, formed the true germs whence his greatness afterwards sprung. The amiable and excellent qualities which so soon and so conspicuously manifested themselves in his mind and character, gained for him, at an early period of his life, the affection of many whose friendship proved useful to him in the subsequent stages of his professional advancement.

As Keppel, himself a hero, had been the first to discover kindred qualities in his young friend, so he was also the first who had the honour to reward the rising genius of Mr Duncan. In January 1755, the commodore was selected to command the ships of war destined to convey the transports which had been equipped for the purpose of carrying out troops under general Braddock to North America, where the French had made various encroachments on British territory; and it was then that Keppel paid a compliment no less creditable to his own discrimination than flattering to Duncan’s merits, by placing his name at the head of the list of those whom he had the privilege of recommending to promotion. Mr Duncan was accordingly raised to the rank of lieutenant; in which capacity he went on board the Norwich, captain Barrington. Soon after the arrival of the fleet in Virginia, the commodore removed Mr Duncan on board his own ship the Centurion, whereby he was placed not only more immediately under the friendly eye of his commander, but in a more certain channel of promotion. With the Centurion he returned to England, and remained unemployed (still the shipmate of Keppel, now on the home station) for three years. He was soon after-wards, however, called into active service, having been present at the attack on the French settlement of Goree on the coast of Africa; and the expectations which his commander had formed of him were amply realized by the bravery which he displayed in the attack on the fort. Before the return of the expedition he rose to the first lieutenancy of the commodore’s ship, the Torbay.

In September, 1759, he was promoted to the rank of commander, and in February, 1761, being then in his thirtieth year, he obtained a post-captaincy. The ship to which on this occasion he was appointed was the Valiant, of seventy-four guns, on board which Keppel hoisted his flag, as commodore in command of the fleet, which carried out the expedition to Belleisle. Here the critical duty of commanding the boats to cover the disembarkation of the troops devolved on captain Duncan, and in this, as in various other difficult and important services in which he was employed during the siege, he greatly distinguished himself. He had the honour, also, of taking possession of the Spanish ships when the town surrendered to the English.

In the year following, he sailed with the Valiant in the expedition under admiral Pecock, which reduced the Havannah; and he remained in command of the same vessel till the conclusion of the war, in 1763. The powers of Europe, notwithstanding the exhausting conflicts in which they had for many years been engaged, were still too heated to remain long at peace, and the war which followed, again called into active operations all the energies of the British navy. No opportunity, however, occurred that enabled Duncan, now commander of the Suffolk of 74 guns, to distinguish himself. On returning to England on the temporary cessation of hostilities, he had the singular fortune of being called to sit as a member of the court-martial which was held on his brave and injured friend, Admiral-Keppel, whose unanimous and most honourable acquittal was immediately followed by votes of thanks from both houses of parliament for his distinguished services. He discharged perhaps a less irksome, but a not less impartial duty, on the trial of Keppel’s accuser, Sir Hugh Palliser, who, suffering under the censure of the court, and the resentment of the nation, was forced to relinquish all his public offices.

In the summer of 1779, captain Duncan commanded the Monarch, 74, attached to the channel fleet under Sir Charles Hardy; and towards the conclusion of the year, he was placed under the orders of Sir George Rodney, who sailed with a powerful squadron to attempt the relief of Gibraltar. This armament, besides effecting the purpose for which it had been sent out, had the good fortune to capture a fleet of fifteen Spanish merchantment and their convoy, a sixty-four gun ship and four frigates. The admiral had scarcely regulated the distribution of the prizes, when, on 16th January, off Cape St Vincent, he came in sight of a Spanish squadron of eleven ships of the line, commanded by Don Juan Langara. The English admiral immediately bore down with his whole force, and captain Duncan, although his ship was one of the worst sailers in the fleet, had the honour, as it had been his ambition, to get first into action. His gallant impetuosity having been observed by his no less daring commander, the captain was warned of the danger of rushing unsupported into a position where he would be exposed to the fire of three of the enemy’s largest ships. "Just what I want, (he coolly replied,) I wish to be among them,"—and the Monarch dashing on, was in an instant alongside of a Spanish ship of much larger dimensions, while two others of the same rate and magnitude lay within musket shot to leeward of him. In this perilous position—one, however, in which every true British sailor glories to be placed—the Monarch had to contend against fearful odds; but then Duncan knew that allowance was to be made for the difference between British and Spanish skill and bravery, and he calculated, rightly, for though the Spaniards defended themselves with great gallantry, the two ships to leeward soon perceived that there was more safety in flight than in maintaining the contest, and they accordingly made off with all the sail they could carry, leaving their companion, who had no opportunity of escape, to make the best defence in his power. Duncan had now comparatively easy work; and directing all his fire against his antagonist, he had the satisfaction, in less than half an hour, of seeing the St Augustin of 70 guns, strike her colours to the Monarch. This engagement afforded little opportunity for a display of scientific tactics; it was, in seamen’s language, a fair stand-up fight, gained by the party who had the stoutest heart and the strongest arm. But it distinguished captain Duncan as a man of the most dauntless intrepidity, and of judgment competent to form a correct estimate of his own strength, as compared with that of his adversaries. After beating the St Augustin, captain Duncan pushed forward into the heart of the battle, and, by a well-directed fire against several of the enemy’s ships, contributed greatly to the victory which was that day achieved over the Spanish flag. The St Augustin proved a worthless prize. So much had she been shattered by the Monarch’s tremendous fire, that it became necessary to take her in tow; but, taking water rapidly, her captors were under the necessity of abandoning her, in consequence of which she was repossessed by her original crew, and carried into a Spanish port.

On captain Duncan’s return to England in the same year, he quitted the Monarch, and, in 1782, was appointed to the Blenheim, of 90 guns. With this ship he joined the main or channel fleet, under lord Howe. He shortly afterwards accompanied his lordship to Gibraltar, and bore a distinguished part in the engagement which took place in October, off the mouth of the straits, with the combined fleets of France and Spain, on which occasion he led the larboard division of the centre, or commander-in-chief’s squadron. Here he again signalized himself by the skill and bravery with which he fought his ship.

After returning to England he enjoyed a respite for a few years from the dangers and anxieties of active warfare. Having removed to the Edgar, 74, a Portsmouth guard-ship, he employed his time usefully to his country, and agreeably to himself, though he would have preferred the wider sphere of usefulness which a command on the seas would have afforded him, in giving instructions in the science of naval warfare to a number of young gentlemen, several of whom subsequently distinguished themselves in their profession.

Overlooked for several years by an administration who did not always reward merit according to its deserts, he was now destined to receive that promotion to which, by his deeds, he had acquired so just a claim. On 14th September, 1787, he was raised to the rank of rear-admiral of the blue; and three year’s afterwards, he was invested with the same rank in the white squadron. On 1st February, 1793, he received promotion as vice-admiral of the blue, and, on 12th April, 1794, as vice-admiral of the white. On 1st June, 1795, he was appointed admiral of the blue, and of the white, on 14th February, 1799. At none of these successive steps of advancement, except the two last, was he in active service, although he had frequently solicited a command.

In February. 1795, he received the appointment of commander-in-chief of all the ships and vessels in the north seas: he first hoisted his flag on board the Prince George, of ninety guns, but afterwards removed to the Venerable, of seventy-four, a vessel of a more suitable size for the service in which he was about to engage, and one in which he afterwards rendered so glorious a service to his country.

History does not perhaps record a situation of more perplexing difficulty than that in which admiral Duncan found himself placed in the summer of 1797. For a considerable period he had maintained his station off the Dutch coast, in the face of a strong fleet, and in defiance of the seasons, and when it was known with certainty that his opponents were ready for sea, and anxious to effect a landing in Ireland, where they expected the co-operation of a numerous band of malcontents, At this most critical juncture, he was deserted by almost the whole of his fleet, the crews of his different ships having, with those of the channel fleet, and the fleet at the Nore, broken out into a mutiny, the most formidable recorded in history. With the assistance of a foreign force, Ireland was prepared for open rebellion; Scotland had its united societies; and England, too, was agitated by political discontent, when a spirit of a similar kind unhappily manifested itself in the British fleet. Early in the year of which we speak, petitions on the subject of pay and provisions had been addressed to lord Howe from every line of battle ship lying at Portsmouth, of which no notice whatever was taken. In consequence, on the return of the fleet to the port, an epistolary correspondence was held throughout the whole fleet, which ended in a resolution, that not an anchor should be lifted until a redress of grievances was obtained. Accordingly, on the 15th of April, when lord Bridport ordered the signal for the fleet to prepare for sea, the sailors on board his own ship, the Queen Charlotte, instead of weighing anchor, took to the shrouds, where they gave him three cheers, and their example was followed by every ship in the fleet. The officers were astonished, and exerted themselves, in vain, to bring back the men to a sense of their duty. Alarmed at the formidable nature of this combination, which was soon discovered to be extensively organized, the lords of the admiralty arrived on the 18th, and various proposals were immediately made to induce the men to return to their duty, but all their overtures were rejected. They were informed, indeed, that it was the determined purpose of the crews of all the ships to agree to nothing but that which should be sanctioned by parliament, and by the king’s proclamation. In circumstances so alarming to the whole nation, government was compelled to make some important concessions, and a promise of his majesty’s pardon to the offenders. These, after much deliberation, were accepted, and the men returned to their duty with apparent satisfaction. The ringleaders of the mutiny were still, however, secretly employed in exciting the men to fresh acts of insubordination; and, taking hold of some parliamentary discussions which had recently been published, the mutiny was, in the course of fourteen days, revived at Spithead with more than its original violence; and, under pretence that government did not mean to fulfil its engagements, the channel fleet, on the 7th of May, refused to put to sea. Such officers as had become objects of suspicion or dislike to their crews were put on shore. Flags of defiance were heisted in every ship; and a declaration was sent on shore, stating, that they knew the Dutch fleet was on the point of sailing, but, determined to have their grievances redressed, they would bring matters to a crisis at once, by blocking up the Thames! At this dreadful crisis, an act was hurried through parliament, increasing their wages; but, so far from satisfying them, this conciliatory and liberal measure served only to increase their insolence, and to render them the more extravagant in their demands. Four ships of Duncan’s fleet, from Yarmouth, were now moored across the mouth of the Thames. Trading vessels were prevented alike from entering and leaving the river, and all communication with the shore was prohibited. A regular system was adopted for the internal management of each ship, and Richard Parker, a person who had recently employed himself as a political agitator in Scotland, was placed at the head of the disaffected fleet. On the part of government, preparations were made for an attack on the mutineers. All farther concession was refused; the eight articles submitted to government by Parker were rejected; and it was intimated, that nothing but unconditional submission would be accepted by the administration. This firmness on the part of government had, at length, the desired effect. Dismayed at their own rashness and folly, the ships escaped one by one from Parker’s fleet, and submitted themselves to their commanders; and the apprehension, trial, and execution of Parker and others of the mutineers, which speedily followed, closed this most disgraceful and formidable mutiny. The anxiety of the nation all this time was intense; that of Duncan, deserted as he was by the greater part of his fleet, while in the daily expectation of an enemy coming out, must have been extreme. On the 3d of June, when thus forsaken, he called together the faithful crew of his own ship, the Venerable, and gave vent to his feelings in a speech, which has been admired as one of the finest specimens of simple eloquence— "My lads," said he, "I once more call you together with a sorrowful heart, from what I have lately seen of the disaffection of the fleets: I call it disaffection, for they have no grievances. To be deserted by my fleet, in the face of an enemy, is a disgrace which I believe never before happened to a British admiral, nor could I have supposed it possible. My greatest comfort, under God, is that I have been supported by the officers and seamen of this ship, for which, with a heart overflowing with gratitude, I request you to accept my sincere thanks. I flatter myself much good may result from your example, by bringing these deluded people to a sense of the duty which they owe not only to their king and country, but to themselves. The British navy has ever been the support of that liberty which has been handed down to us by our ancestors, and which, I trust, we shall maintain to the latest posterity, and that can be done only by unanimity and obedience. The ship’s company, and others who have distinguished themselves by their loyalty and good order, deserve to be, and doubtless will be, the favourites of a grateful country. They will also have, from their inward feelings, a comfort which will be lasting, and not like the fleeting and false confidence of these who have swerved from their duty. It has often been my pride to look into the Texel, and see a foe which decided oncoming out to meet us. My pride is now humbled indeed! My feelings are not easily to be expressed. Our cup has overflowed, and made us wanton. The all-wise Providence has given us this check as a warning, and I hope we shall improve by it. On Him then let us trust, where our only security can be found. I find there are many good men among us; for my own part, I have had full confidence of all in this ship, and once more beg to express my approbation of your conduct. May God, who has thus far conducted you, continue to do so; and may the British navy, the glory and support of our country, be restored to its wonted splendour, and be not only the bulwark of Britain, but the terror of the world. But this can only be effected by a spirit of adherence to our duty, and obedience; and let us pray that the Almighty God may keep us in the right way of thinking; God bless you all!" The crew of the Venerable were so affected by this simple, but impressive address, that on retiring there was not a dry eye among them.

Thus, admiral Duncan, by acts of mildness and conciliation, and by his uniform firmness, contrived, when every other British admiral, and even the government itself failed in the attempt, to keep his own ship, as well as the crew of the Adamant, free from the contagion of the dangerous evil that then almost universally prevailed.

Fortunately for Great Britain the enemy was not aware of the insubordination that existed throughout the fleet. At a time, however, when Duncan had only two line of battle ships under his control, his ingenuity supplied the place of strength, and saved this country from the disgrace of a foreign invasion; for it cannot be doubted, that had the Dutch commander known the state of helplessness in which the nation was placed, when its right arm was so effectually bound up by the demon of rebellion, they would have chosen that moment to run for our shores. It was then that the happy thought occurred to the anxious mind of Duncan, that by approaching the Texel with his puny force, and by making signals as if his fleet were in the offing, he might deceive the wary De Winter into the belief that he was blocked up by a superior squadron. This stratagem was employed with entire success, nor indeed was it known to De Winter that a deception had been practised upon him, until he had become his antagonist’s prisoner. This manoeuvre, so singular in its conception, so successful in its execution, and performed at a moment of such extreme national difficulty, stands unparalleled in naval history, and alone gave to him who devised it as good a claim to the honour of a coronet, and to his country’s gratitude, as if he had gained a great victory.

On the termination of the mutiny, admiral Duncan was joined by the rest of his fleet, very much, humbled, and anxious for an opportunity to wipe away, by some splendid achievement, the dishonour they had incurred. The two rival fleets were now placed on an equal footing; and all anxiety for the event of a collision was completely removed. Having blockaded the Dutch coast till the month of October, Duncan was under the necessity of coming to Yarmouth roads to refit, leaving only a small squadron of observation under the command of captain Trollope. But scarcely had he reached the roads, when a vessel on the back of the sands gave the spirit-stirring signal that the enemy was at sea. Not a moment was lost in getting under sail, and early on the morning of the 11th of October he was in sight of captain Trollope’s squadron, with a signal flying for an enemy to leeward. He instantly bore up, made signal for a general chase, and soon came up with them, forming in line on the larboard tack, between Camperdown and Egmont, the land being about nine miles to leeward. The two fleets were of nearly equal force, consisting each of sixteen sail of the line, exclusive of frigates, brigs, &c. As they approached each other, the British admiral made signal for his fleet, which was bearing up in two divisions, to break the enemy’s line, and engage to leeward; each ship her opponent. The signal was promptly obeyed; and getting between the enemy and the land, to which they were fast approaching, the action commenced at half-past twelve, and by one it was general throughout the whole line. The Monarch was the first to break the enemy’s line. The Venerable was frustrated in her attempt to pass astern of De Winter’s flag ship; but pouring a destructive broadside into the States-General, which had closed up the interval through which the Venerable intended to pass, she compelled that vessel to abandon the line. The Venerable then engaged De Winter’s ship the Vryheid, and a terrible conflict ensued between the two commanders-in-chief. But it was not a single-handed fight. The enemy’s Leyden, Mars, and Brutus, in conjunction with the Vryheid, successively cannonaded the Venerable, and she found it expedient to give ground a little though not forced to retreat. In the meantime the Triumph came up to her relief, and, along with the Venerable, gave a final blow to the well fought and gallantly defended Vryheid, every one of whose masts were sent overboard, and herself reduced to an unmanageable hulk. The contest throughout the other parts of the line was no less keenly maintained on both sides; but with the surrender of the admiral’s ship the action ceased, and De Winter himself was brought on board the Venerable, a prisoner of war. His ship and nine other prizes were taken possession of by the English. Shortly after the States-General had received the fire of the Venerable, she escaped from the action, and, along with two others of rear-admiral Storey’s division, was carried into the Texel, the admiral having afterwards claimed merit for having saved a part of the fleet. The British suffered severely in their masts and rigging, but still more so in their hulls, against which the Dutch had mainly directed their fire. The loss of lives also was great, but not in proportion to that suffered by the enemy. The carnage on board of the two admirals’ ships was particularly great, amounting to not less than 250 men killed and wounded in each. The total loss of the British was 191 killed, and 560 wounded, while the loss of the Dutch was computed to have been more than double that amount. At the conclusion of the battle, the English fleet was within five miles of the shore, from whence many thousands of Dutch citizens witnessed the spectacle of the destruction and defeat of their fleet. When the conflict was over, admiral Duncan ordered the crew of his ship together, and falling down upon his knees before them, returned solemn thanks to the God of battles for the victory he had given them, and for the protection he had afforded them in the hour of danger. This impressive act of pious humility affected the Dutch admiral to tears.

Naval tacticians accord to admiral Duncan great merit for this action. It stands distinguished from every other battle fought during the war by the bold expedient of running the fleet between the enemy and a lee shore with a strong wind blowing on the land, a mode of attack which none of his predecessors had ever hazarded. The admiral also evinced great judgment in the latter part of the contest, and in extricating his fleet and prizes from a situation so perilous and difficult - while the Dutch sustained all the character of their best days. The battle of Camperdown, indeed, whether we view it as exhibiting the skill and courage of its victor, the bravery of British seamen, or as an event of great political importance, will ever stand conspicuous among the many naval victories that adorn our annals.

On the arrival of admiral Duncan at the Nore on 17th October, he was created a peer of Great Britain by the title of viscount Duncan of Camperdown, and baron Duncan of Lundie, to which estate he had succeeded by the death of his brother; and a pension of 2,000 a-year was granted his lordship for himself and the two next heirs of the peerage. The thanks of both houses of parliament were unanimously voted to the fleet—and the city of London presented lord Duncan with the freedom of the city, and a sword of 200 guineas value. Gold medals were also struck in commemoration of the victory, which were presented to the admirals and captains of the fleet, The public too, by whom the benefits of no action during that eventful war were more highly appreciated than the one of which we have been speaking, paid Lord Duncan a flattering mark of respect by wearing, the women, gowns and ribands, and the men vests of a particular kind which were named "Camperdowns," after the victory.

Lord Duncan continued in the command of the north-sea squadron till the beginning of the year 1800, when there being no longer any probability of the enemy venturing to sea, and having now arrived at his 69th year, he finally retired from the anxieties of public, to the enjoyment of private life; which he adorned as eminently by his virtues, as he had done his public station by his energy and talents.

In 1777 his Lordship married Miss Dundas, daughter of lord president Dundas, of the court of session in Scotland, by whom he had several children. He did not long enjoy his retirement, having been cut off in the 73rd year of his age by a stroke of apoplexy at Cornhill, on his way from London, in the summer of 1804. He was succeeded in his estates and titles by his eldest son,—in elevating whom to an earldom, William IV. not only paid an honourable tribute of respect to the memory of the father, but a just compliment to the talents, public spirit, and worth of the son.

We close this sketch in the words of a late writer: "It would perhaps be difficult to find in modern history, another man in whom with so much meekness, modesty, and unaffected dignity of mind, were united so much genuine spirit, so much of the skill and fire of professional genius; such vigorous and active wisdom; such alacrity and ability for great achievements, with such indifference for their success, except so far as they might contribute to the good of his country. Lord Duncan was tall, above the middle size, and of an athletic and firmly proportioned form. His countenance was remarkably expressive of the benevolence and ingenuous excellencies of his mind."

Admiral Duncan
By the Earl of Camperdown (1898) (pdf)

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