Friday, 20 January 2017

Admiral Duncan: Forgotten Hero - by Ann Swinfen

Danloux' painting of Duncan on Venerable

Admiral Adam Duncan was once a celebrated hero for his great victory over the Dutch fleet under De Winter off Camperdown in October 1797 – a victory which has been compared, in its strategic importance, with the Battle of Britain in the early years of the Second World War, or the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. And yet over the years it has become a commonplace to claim that Duncan had been insufficiently recognised by government at the time, and unfairly forgotten since, even by his native city - Dundee - itself.
That Duncan was not forgotten in Dundee is illustrated by this stained glass window from the old Town House, a building since demolished.


Much more recently, writing in the volume of essays published to mark the bicentenary of the Battle of Camperdown, Councillor Andrew Lynch complained that the battle ‘has largely and unjustly sunk from public view, just as Adam Duncan, the hero of the hour, had been eclipsed by the memory of the heroically deceased Horatio Nelson’. And it is the case, of course, that there is no Camperdown Square in London, nor a Duncan’s Column.
All this is true, but fortunately only partly true. Duncan’s great victory was by no means overlooked by the government of the day, or the people of the nation. He was ennobled to a Viscountcy. His pension of £2000 a year was the largest pension ever awarded up to that time. Towns like Edinburgh and Dundee offered him the freedom of their city. A substantial range of souvenirs was produced for the people of Great Britain to commemorate their national hero. The fact is, of course, that there is a wealth of material, and especially images and artefacts, to inform the modern student of Duncan’s life, career and achievements.
Adam Duncan was born in the Seagate, Dundee, not far from where his statue now stands, the third son of Alexander Duncan, Provost of Dundee, the third member of his family to hold that office. Adam’s mother was Helen Haldane of Gleneagles, and he had two older brothers – John, who joined the East India Company, and died in their employ, and Alexander, a soldier, who served on the continent and in Canada, before himself dying in1796 – the year before Camperdown.
Adam was born in 1731, and in 1746 he joined the Navy as a midshipman – his first ship being a sloop called Tryal, under the command of his cousin, Robert Haldane, one of their first tasks being to try to capture Bonnie Prince Charlie after Culloden. The following year both Duncan and Haldane transferred to a frigate, the Shoreham, in action against the French in one of the many wars between Britain and France – this time the War of Austrian Succession which lasted from 1740-48. Indeed most of Duncan’s naval career seemed to have been directed by French wars. But war was also an opportunity. During the Seven Years War (again against France), Duncan gained promotion to 3rd Lieutenant in 1755, 2nd Lieutenant in 1756, and 1st Lieutenant in 1759. It was in that year that he was involved in an attack on the island of Goree off Senegal, and was wounded in the leg by a musket ball – the first and only wound he ever received in a career of more than 50 naval actions. In the same year he was promoted to Commander, and soon after that to Captain – appointed as Flag Captain on board Valiant – the flagship of Commodore Keppel.

Painting of Duncan by Reynolds

And that could have been the end of his naval career. If war provided opportunities for employment and advancement, the end of the war by the Peace of Paris in 1763 marked the end of both employment and advancement – at least until next time. For the next 13 years Captain Duncan twiddled his thumbs on half pay – the only compensation being that he met and married Henrietta Dundas, daughter of Robert Dundas, President of the Court of Session in Edinburgh.  Adam had not only gained a wife, but also had married into one of the most powerful families in Scotland.
In 1776 the American War of Independence again offered new opportunities. Appointed first to the Suffolk, with 74 guns, he was transferred to the Monarch, and in 1780 was involved in a fierce action against the Spanish fleet off Cadiz. He should then have gone with the Monarch to the West Indies, but was forced to withdraw for health reasons. In 1787 he finally achieved Flag rank as a Rear Admiral, but was then again on half pay until 1795.

Danloux' painting of Duncan as Rear Admiral


Battle of Camperdown
And so at last to the great battle that was to make his reputation and set the seal on his naval career – Camperdown. Once again Britain was at war with the French – the French Revolutionary Wars. At the end of 1794 the French armies invaded Holland, and in May of 1795 an alliance was concluded between France and the Batavian Republics, whereby Holland would support France with 12 ships of the line and 18 frigates, the plan being to use Holland as the spring board for the invasion of England. Duncan was appointed as Admiral of the Blue to command the North Sea Fleet – its purpose to prevent military expeditions from being dispatched from the Texel Island. The strategy was to blockade the Texel and if possible to destroy the Dutch fleet. This involved having the North Sea Fleet on constant patrol in the area.


To keep the Dutch penned in, Duncan deployed his ships in three ranks – the small cutters close to the coast, frigates next, and then two lines of battle ships further out – making it difficult for the Dutch to see just how many shops there were ranged against them.
            Then came the additional complication of the Mutiny, which gave rise to one of the great stories of Duncan’s career. There was growing unrest throughout the British Navy - mainly over rates of pay. The trouble started on Duncan’s flagship Venerable in April 1797, but he was able to deal with it and good order was re-established. He then visited every ship in the squadron, listening to their grievances, and demanding to know whether anyone dared to dispute his authority or that of their officers. On the 13th May, on the Adamant, one brave or foolhardy sailor did just that, giving rise to the famous incident when Duncan (he was a large man, 6 ft 4 inches in height) held the miscreant over the side with the words ‘ My lads, look at this fellow, he who dares to deprive me of the command of the fleet.’ This was of course by no means the end of unrest within the Navy – later that month the much more serious mutinies at Sheerness and the Nore broke out, and were not suppressed until well into June.
            The outbreak of mutinies in the British fleet was a distraction but not a fatal one. Duncan’s combination of personal courage combined with a willingness to listen had quieted unrest in his squadron. Duncan and the Venerable, with Vice Admiral Onslow in the Adamant, were able to sail to the Texel where they stationed themselves opposite to the main Dutch naval base. With an inspired deception, involving sending signals to an imaginary fleet out of sight of the Dutch, they succeeded in persuading the enemy to stay in port.
As it happened, when the Dutch did eventually attempt a breakout, most of Duncan’s ships were anchored off Great Yarmouth, taking on stores. Early in the morning of 9th October 1797, the lugger Speculator was sighted coming towards the fleet. It raised the signal ‘The Dutch Fleet is out’.
            By the morning of the 11th October, Duncan’s ships were off the Dutch coast, and they could see the Dutch making their way north-west back to their base, sailing near the village of Camperduin towards the shallower coastal waters. Duncan gave the order ‘to give battle’.

The two fleets immediately before the battle

Formed into two groups, the one under Duncan himself and the other under Onslow, the British ships concentrated on breaking the enemy’s line.

De Louthenbourg painting of the battle

In this they eventually succeeded. During the course of the battle the colours of the Venerable were shot away, giving rise to the famous incident when seaman John Crawford climbed up the mast and nailed the flag back up again. The battle was certainly no walk over, as the Dutch were experienced seamen and fought back with determination. After about three hours of intensive fighting, nine Dutch ships of the line had surrendered, and the rest had fled back to the Texel. Casualties on both sides were huge, but eventually the Dutch admiral, De Winter was forced to surrender.

Surrender by De Winter

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this victory. Up until now, the war with France had gone badly for Britain and her allies. The battles of Valmy in 1792, and Tourcoing in 1794, had been notable French victories. The Netherlands and Spain turned from being Britain’s allies to being its enemies. Only the occasional naval victory, as at Cape St Vincent in February 1797, offered some hope.
            Camperdown was a turning point. This was a stunning victory. At the ‘Glorious First of June’ in 1794, Admiral Howe had captured six French ships and sunk one, out of a fleet of twenty-six. It was hailed as a triumph. At Cape St Vincent in February 1797 Admiral Jervis, with the aid of the young Horatio Nelson, had taken four Spanish ships out of twenty-seven, and the news caused great celebrations. Duncan had surpassed them both, capturing nine ships out of sixteen plus two frigates
            Camperdown undoubtedly had a significant impact on British strategy. Prime Minister William Pitt now adopted a more aggressive policy involving a return to the Mediterranean, leading to Nelson’s great victory at the Nile nine months later. Duncan’s ‘victory at Camperdown was as dramatic and complete as anything Nelson ever achieved, and it is difficult to see how he could have done anything better’.
            An editorial in the Times later in the month stated: ‘The consequences resulting from Admiral Duncan’s victory must be of the highest importance to the interests of this country….to destroy such a fleet at such a time, when an invasion is dreaded, is the more singularly fortunate, as besides ensuring our domestic tranquility we shall no longer be under the necessity of keeping up a large naval establishment to watch the motions of the enemy in the North Sea. But what we consider to be the most interesting consideration is the perfect establishment of our naval superiority for a long time to come, which must induce us to treat every attempt on the part of France to make a descent on our coast as a ridiculous chimera.’

The Public response to Camperdown.
Both government and the public at large were quick to appreciate the implications of Duncan’s great victory – the removal, at least for the time being, of the threat of French invasion, and the prospect of lower taxes if it was no longer necessary to support such a large naval establishment. In the eighteenth century there were well established rituals to signal the nation’s approval of the victor’s conduct – both in terms of ceremonies and in ritual gifts – many of the latter have survived to the present day.
            First there was the conferment of the Viscountcy. Then there was a brief visit to Venerable of the King on his way to the opening of Parliament, while Lord Spencer in the Lords and Henry Dundas in the Commons moved votes of thanks. When Duncan himself was introduced to the Lords in November, he was told that the House had ordered all the peers to attend – an unprecedented distinction – but one ‘called for by the general admiration your conduct has inspired, and strongly expressive of that peculiar satisfaction which the peers must feel upon your Lordship’s promotion to a distinguished seat in this House’.
            Then came a grand service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral on November 10th planned by the King himself to commemorate not only Duncan’s victory on the Texel, but also the defeat of the Spaniards by Earl St Vincent, and of the French by Lord Howe. It was a magnificent affair, the procession led by a division of Marines complete with music, followed by two hundred seamen. The captured colours of defeated French, Dutch and Spanish navies were carried in three great artillery wagons, followed by Duncan himself in his own carriage. It set off along Charing Cross and the Strand, with the streets lined with men of the Foot Guards and the Horse Guards. Arriving at St Paul’s, the flags were taken down from the wagons, and ‘under the loudest shout of applause and grand martial music’, were carried in procession into the Cathedral, where they were placed in a circle at the centre of the dome.
            There is plenty of evidence, then, to show that government at the time pulled out all the stops to honour the victor of Camperdown – the grant of a Viscountcy, a very substantial pension to be paid to himself and his two succeeding heirs, tax free and backdated to the date of the battle, the grandest public ceremonies. These were followed by all kinds of lesser honours, presentations, and gifts. Fourteen civic authorities presented him with the freedom of their cities.

Freedom casket from Edinburgh

The Common Council of London presented him with this ceremonial sword: The gold, enameled and diamond-set hilt has Camperdown motifs and the Duncan coat of arms on the pommel.


The County of Forfar gave him a silver-gilt soup tureen and commissioned his portrait by John Hoppner.

Silver-gilt tureen

Duncan was elected to honorary membership of numerous societies, from the Marine Society of Merchants to the Royal College of Surgeons. The Directors of the East India Company (the employers of older brother John) gave a dinner in his honour at the London Tavern, with between 90 and 100 guests, including Prime Minister William Pitt and members of his Cabinet.
            With his combination of bravery, professional skill, and personal modesty, Duncan was a popular hero, and not just in government circles. When he went to dine with the Lord Mayor of London, we are told that his ‘chariot was drawn by the mob down Fleet Street and all the way down to the Guildhall. The Ladies greeted him with huzzas and the waving of handkerchiefs.’ When he went out to dine with friends in Covent Garden, he was recognised, and the assembled company stood to drink his health. ‘The uproar was tremendous; the Admiral got up upon his legs and in a stentorian voice said: “Gentlemen, I thank you.” Not another word. They all cheered louder than ever. The people outside heard who they were, took their horses out of the coach, and drew it round Covent Garden, and it was with difficulty that they were allowed home.’
            As you might expect, Duncan’s achievement was nowhere more deeply appreciated than in Scotland. The Town Council of Dundee, at its first meeting after the battle, adopted the following resolution: ‘The Council unanimously Resolve to present Admiral Viscount Lord Duncan with a piece of Plate, value One Hundred Guineas, with a suitable inscription as a mark of their esteem for his Lordship, and of their high sense of the signal and splendid Victory obtained by his Lordship over the Dutch Fleet on the eleventh day of October last of so much consequence to the prosperity of Great Britain.’

Silver tea urn

Finally, as was the tradition, Duncan was presented with the spoils of war in the shape of the ship’s bell and figurehead from De Winter’s flagship, the Vryheid. The latter stood for many years in the grounds of the Camperdown estate.



Then as now the widespread esteem in which Duncan was held provided a golden opportunity for the purveyors of memorabilia and souvenirs. Camperdown muslins, Duncan caps, a Duncan plaid, Camperdown Clubs, prints, china figures, commemorative tokens, cameos, porcelain mugs, and many portraits all bore witness to the immense popularity of this famous admiral.

While it is certainly true that the name of Duncan as a great naval hero of the period has since been overshadowed by that of Horatio Nelson, we cannot fairly blame his contemporaries for that. Duncan’s victory was celebrated at every level of society. He was rewarded, feted, and even exploited by artists and makers of memorabilia. If his name is no longer commemorated alongside that of Nelson, it is a failure of the present day.

Ann Swinfen
http://www.annswinfen.com

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