Admiral Viscount Duncan

Admiral Viscount Duncan, National Portrait Gallery

Of Camperdown, ETC, ETC, ETC.

(1 July 1731 – 4 August 1804)

WE doubt whether any individual can have a sincere love for his country, who has not a warm and cordial feeling of admiration to bestow on its eminent men. Emulation is the great incentive to excellence. The young sailor who could coldly turn the page which recorded the devotion and the heroism of those

"Brave hearts! to Britain's pride                                                                                                 Once so faithful and so true,                                                                                                       On the deck of fame that died,"

wants, at least, that most noble impulse which leads us to love a great example—and follow it, till ourselves have obtained one as great. It is he who kindles as he dwells on the deeds he hopes to equal, that gives promise of being the hero to launch

" Our glorious standard once again                                                                                                To meet another foe."

These are no times to encourage an idle thirst of glory for glory's sake ; but let the full debt of national gratitude be paid to those who, with equal valour and ability, averted national danger. Let the life that has been risked be the life that is remembered—when the risk was for public benefit, and the memory is for public honor.

ADAM DUNCAN was born at Dundee in July, 1731. He was the second son of a very old family, which for a long series of years were lairds of Lundie, in Perthshire. Like most younger brothers, he had his way to make in the world, and entered the navy at a very early age. His progress through the first stages of this peculiarly hard and dangerous profession presents nothing remarkable. In 1761 he was appointed Post-Captain of the Valiant, and was with Admiral Lord Keppel at the taking of the Havannah. The friendship thus commenced was as lasting as it was sincere : as soon as his Lordship was appointed to a flag, he named Duncan for his Captain. Captain Duncan was one of the officers on the court-martial which tried Lord Keppel ; but their intimacy remained the same to the day of his death. An old standard friendship is creditable to both parties. From the rank of Rear-Admiral, which he was made in 1787, he rose to that of Vice-Admiral in 1793 ; and, in 1795, he was appointed Admiral of the Blue.

His marriage with a niece of the late Lord Melville, a daughter of the Right Honorable Robert Dundas, Lord President of the Court of Session, gave him the support of powerful interest: and were family interest always as justifiably exerted, it had never needed a defence.

The service on which Admiral Duncan was employed was both arduous and severe ; it was the North Sea station—and a winter in such latitudes, and at sea, is some treat to a man of sixty-five ! The spirit of mutiny which then disorganized the British navy, made the service of blockade one of extreme difficulty. But, notwithstanding a succession of uncommonly stormy weather, and the insubordination of the fleet, Admiral Duncan, by a vigilance as active as it was untiring, effectually imprisoned the enemy in their ports.

In the summer of 1797 the mutiny was at its height ; but though left with only three ships, he daringly retained his station off the Texel ; and not one Dutch vessel succeeded in escaping a blockade, whose vigilance was almost equally important in its consequences as the after victory. On board his own ship, the Admiral was loved and obeyed—but on this head let him speak for himself. At the period when the aspect of the mutiny was most appalling, he assembled his men upon the deck of the Venerable, and addressed them thus with Roman, or, let us rather say, with British simplicity :— " My lads—I once more call you together, with a sorrowful heart, from what I have lately seen—the disaffection of the fleets; I call it disaffection, for the crews 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, seamen, and marines 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 those 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 for us by our ancestors, and which, I trust, we shall maintain to the latest posterity; and that can only be done by unanimity and obedience.
" This ship's company, and others who have distinguished themselves by their loyalty and good order, deserve to be, and doubtless will he, the favourites of a grateful country ; they will also have from their inward feelings a comfort which must be lasting, and not like the fleeting and false confidence of those who have swerved from their duty !

" It has often been my pride with you to look into the Texel, and see a foe which dreaded coming 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 strict 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 effect of personal influence was never more happily illustrated than by this speech. We have heard from one of the common seamen present, that there was not a dry eye among the crew.

The object of the imprisoned fleet was to invade Ireland, as has since been ascertained. Could the French have effected their object in landing troops, these islands must have suffered all those horrors which being the actual seat of war entails, and from which we have been hitherto so happily exempt. After incessant and most harassing watch, Admiral Duncan was forced to put into Yarmouth to refit, leaving Captain Trollope on the look-out. The Batavian Admiral seized the opportunity, and put to sea. Captain Trollope lost not a moment in conveying the intelligence, and all Admiral Duncan's movements were decided upon, and regulated, with a readiness and promptitude rarely equalled. With a masterliness of naval manoeuvering. which has elicited as much admiration from the judges in nautical tactics, as its success has won from the public in general, the British Commander threw himself between the Batavian fleet and the Texel; so that a return to their harbour, without an engagement, was impossible. The battle took place between Camperdown and Egmont, along a peculiarly shallow (nine fathoms' water) and dangerous coast. Admiral Duncan's own ship broke the enemy's line of battle, and engaged alongside with Admiral de Winter, who, after a most gallant resistance, was forced to strike. The moment the victory was decided, Admiral Duncan assembled his crew, and, kneeling down on the red and smoking deck, returned thanks to God. The silence, in an element which one half-hour before had been alive with earthly thunder, was now only broken by the voice of the veteran Admiral offering up a thanksgiving, to be afterwards echoed by a nation.

The joy with which the news was received in England was commensurate with its importance. A day of general thanks-giving was appointed, and for years afterwards " the Fight off Camperdown" was the one popular ballad which was sure to collect its crowd of listeners. The brave old Admiral was created Lord Viscount Duncan of Camperdown, and Baron Duncan of Lundie, in Perthshire. At the same time a pension of £3000 per annum was granted to himself and the two next heirs of the peerage ; for though through the death of his elder brother, Colonel Duncan, he had inherited his patrimonial estate, its rental was barely five hundred pounds a year. Pension lists have recently been published, and made the object of much comment ; yet no one, even in our days of calculation and caution, but would think such reward was just and deserved. The Chancellor's speech, when Lord Duncan was introduced into the House of Lords, well imbodies these sentiments.

" He congratulated his Lordship upon his accession to the honor of a. distinguished seat in that place, to which his very meritorious and unparalleled professional conduct had deservedly raised him ; that conduct (the Chancellor added) was such as not only merited the thanks of their Lordships' House, but the gratitude and applause of the country at large ; it had been instrumental, under the auspices of Providence, in establishing the security of his Majesty's dominions, and frustrating the ambitious and destructive designs of the enemy."

Indeed, the peculiarity of the crisis at which this great triumph was achieved, as well as its being a victory over the best sailors of the continent of Europe, conferred upon it a degree of interest and splendour which few of our greatest naval and national exploits could boast. With the exception, perhaps, of the immortal names of the Nile and Trafalgar, the memory of Camperdown will long hold its place as one of the proudest of Britain's " deeds of fame." The mighty object of the enemy, the preceding fearful state of our force, the equality of the combatants, the skill and talent displayed by the English commander, all combined to throw a lustre over the battle, which was reflected from every corner of the kingdom.—Patriotic exultation seemed to be at its height—every thing was of " Camperdown," from the ribbons of peasants to the illuminations of cities, and the applause of the senate and the throne.

The after conduct of the conqueror, likewise, added much to the lustre of his character. A life of honorable service, but unattended with any opportunity to render that which was most meritorious also most brilliant, had passed away ; so that Admiral Duncan, though duly appreciated by his brethren in arms as an officer of transcendent abilities, was not so well known to the general public. His admirable conduct, therefore, on this splendid occasion, partook somewhat of the nature of an unexpected glory ; and the people rejoiced in the assurance which it gave, that wheresoever the duty was confided, Britannia would rule the waves. The result only brought the veteran's past deserts more forcibly into light; and the modesty and piety with which he wore his laurels, crowned him with a yet more unfading wreath at the time, which will flourish for
to come.

Lord Duncan died on the fourth of August, 1804, and was succeeded by his son. Robert Dundas Duncan Haldane, the present Viscount.

His character in private was most amiable ; and while we trust not again to require such services as those of his public life, we equally trust that such service would be rendered, if so required. An example like Lord Duncan is a legacy of honor and encouragement to the British navy.