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The Right Hon. Lord Viscount Duncan, Admiral of the Fleet


Adam Lord Viscount Duncan, one of the most celebrated names in the annals of the British navy, was born at Dundee on the 1st July, 1731. He was the younger son of Alexander Duncan, Esq. of Lundie and Seaside, in the county of Forfar, by Helen, a daughter of John Haldane, Esq. of Gleneagles and Aberuthen.

He entered the navy at the age of sixteen, as midshipman in the Shoreham frigate, in which he served for three years, under the command of his maternal relative, Captain Robert Haldane. From thence he was transferred to the Centurion, which then carried the broad pennant of Commodore Keppel. While on the Mediterranean station, he had the good fortune, by his intrepidity, steadiness, and seamanship, to attract the notice of the Commodore; and, in 1755, when Keppel was selected to command the transport ships destined for North America, he placed the name of Duncan at the head of those he had the privilege of recommending for promotion. He was consequently raised to the rank of Lieutenant, in which capacity he was present at the attack on the French settlement of Goree, on the coast of Africa, where he was wounded, and distinguished himself so much by his bravery, that, before the return of the expedition, he was promoted to be first Lieutenant of Keppel's own ship, the Torbay. Shortly after, he was raised to the rank of Commander.

In 1700, Duncan was appointed Captain of the Valiant, of seventy-four guns, on board which Keppel hoisted his flag as Commander of the fleet destined for Belleisle, where the newly promoted Captain had the honour of taking possession of the Spanish ships when the town surrendered. In the same ship, he was present, in 1762, at the reduction of the Havannah.

In 1773, Captain Duncan had the singular fortune of sitting on the court-martial held on his friend and patron Admiral Keppel, who was not only honourably acquitted, but immediately afterwards received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament.

Having obtained the command of the Monarch seventy-four, the Captain's next expedition was with the squadron sent, under Sir George Rodney, to the relief of Gibraltar, in which they succeeded, and also had the good fortune to capture a fleet of fifteen Spanish merchantmen, with their convoy. Immediately afterwards, on the 16th of January 1779, a Spanish squadron, of eleven ships of the line, hove in sight off Cape St. Vincent. The British fleet directly bore down upon them, when Captain Duncan was the first to come up with the enemy. His daring conduct having been observed by his no less resolute Commander, he was warned of the danger of rushing into a position where he would be exposed to a very unequal contest. "Just what I want," he coolly replied; "I wish to be among them." The Monarch dashed on, and was instantly alongside a ship of larger size, while two of no less magnitude lay within musket-shot. A desperate engagement ensued, but the Captain soon succeeded in disabling the latter, when, directing all his fire against the St. Augustin, that vessel struck in less than half-an-hour; then pushing into the heat of the engagement, the Monarch contributed materially towards the victory which was that day obtained over the Spanish flag.

In 1782, Captain Duncan was appointed to the command of the Blenheim of ninety guns, and was present at the engagement with the united fleet of France and Spain in October, off the mouth of the Straits of Gibraltar. For several years after this, during the peace, he remained in command of the Edgar guardship at Portsmouth ; and, on the 14th September, 1789, was made Rear-Admiral of the Blue. When the late Earl Spencer came to the Admiralty, he inquired for " Keppel's Captain," and, in February, 1795, appointed him Commander-in-Chief of the North Sea Fleet.

It is needless to follow him through his arduous services while holding this important command. When the fate of Ireland hung upon the balance; when a powerful fleet was concentrated at the Texel, for the invasion of that ill-fated country—torn to pieces by internal faction—Admiral Duncan suddenly found himself deserted by his fleet, and left, in the face of the enemy, with only one line of battle ship besides his own. The veteran Admiral, in spite of these disheartening circumstances, maintained his post undaunted. He continued to menace the Texel, by keeping up signals, as if his whole fleet were in the distance; and thus prevented the Dutch from attempting to leave their anchorage.

To give a detailed account of Admiral Duncan's memorable conduct during the mutiny at the Nore, would lead us beyond our limits. Suffice it to say, that by a judicious blending of firmness and conciliation, he entirely quelled the first symptoms of insubordination in his own ship, the Venerable, and also in the Adamant, Captain (now Sir William) Hotham—the only ship which remained with him to the last. His speech to the crew of the Venerable is to be found in the naval history of the country. We may, however, mention the following anecdote, for the authenticity of which Sir William Hotham has vouched. When told, on one occasion, that the Dutch fleet was getting under weigh, he directed Sir William to anchor the Adamant alongside the Venerable, in the narrow part of the channel, and to fight her till she sank, adding—"I have taken the depth of water; and, when the Venerable goes down, my flag will still fly."

On the termination of the mutiny at the Nore, Admiral Duncan was immediately rejoined by the rest of his fleet; and, after cruising for four months, he left a small squadron of observation, and set sail for Yarmouth Roads. He had scarcely reached the Roads, however, when he received intelligence that the enemy were at sea. He instantly gave signal for a general chase, and soon came up with them between Camperdown and Egmont, where the well known and decisive naval combat of the 11th October, 1797, ensued, in which De Winter, and two other Dutch Admirals, were taken prisoners, and the Dutch fleet annihilated. Admiral Duncan's address, previous to the engagement with Admiral de Winter, was both laconic and humorous: "Gentlemen, you see a severe Winter approaching; I have only to advise you to keep up a good fire."

Immediately after the victory, Admiral Duncan was created a peer, by the title of Viscount Duncan of Camperdown and Baron Duncan of Lundie; and a pension of 8000 a-year was granted during his own life and that of the two next succeeding heirs to the peerage. He was presented with the freedom of the city of London, together with a sword of two hundred guineas' value, from the corporation. Gold medals, in commemoration of the victory, were also given to all the Admirals and Captains of the fleet, while the public testified their respect by wearing certain articles of apparel named alter the engagement. The cloth worn on this occasion was a species of tartan, of a large pattern, intended as emblematical of the species of tactics pursued by the British Admiral.

On this occasion the inhabitants of Edinburgh were not to be satisfied with any cold or formal expression of esteem ; they resolved upon a public and special demonstration in honour of their gallant countryman. The animating scene is thus described by the Edinburgh journals of the period:—

"The tribute of gratitude and respect universally due by every Briton to the gallant Lord Duncan, was yesterday (7th February, 1798) paid by his fellow-townsmen, the inhabitants of Edinburgh. The whole brigade of volunteers were called out in honour of the day; and the muster was a very full one, between two and three thousand. The different corps, having assembled in Hope Park, and other places of rendezvous, about two o'clock, soon after entered George's Square, by the north-east corner, through Charles Street, and proceeded through the Square in slow time, passing Lord Duncan's house, before which his lordship stood uncovered, saluting them as they passed. Here the procession was joined by a naval car, on which was placed the British and his lordship's flag, flying above that of Admiral de Winter, attended by a body of seamen; then followed, in carriages, Lord Adam Gordon and his Staff—Lord Viscount Duncan—Captain Inglis of Redhall—the Lord Provost, and the eldest Bailie. The troops marched round the Square, filing off by Windmill Street, Chapel Street, Nicolson Street, across the South and North Bridges—the infantry leading, and the cavalry closing the procession. At the end of the North Bridge the populace took the horses from Lord Duncan's carriage, and drew it during the remainder of the procession, which proceeded through the principal Streets of the New Town. The arrangement of the military procession, which in beauty and grandeur was far beyond any ever seen in this country, did honour to those who planned it. It was one of those happy, but rare instances, in which expectation is exceeded by reality. An elegant entertainment was given to his lordship, in Fortune's tavern, by the Lord Provost and Magistrates, at which he was presented with the freedom of the city in a gold box of elegant workmanship."

Lord Duncan retired from the command of the North Sea squadron in 1800, being desirous of spending the remainder of his days in private life; but he did not long enjoy his retirement. He died of apoplexy at Cornhill, on his way from London, in 1804.

In a brief sketch such as the present, it would be out of place to dilate on the character of one so generally known as Admiral Duncan, or to advert to the importance of those services which his superior genius enabled him to perform. As a naval officer, he is entitled to every credit, both for the soundness of his tactics, and the novel daring and decisive nature of his movements; while in domestic life he was remarkable for those amiable qualities which ever accompany true greatness.

His lordship married, in 1777, Henrietta, daughter of Lord President Dundas, by whom he had four sons and five daughters. Robert, the second son, in consequence of the demise of his elder brother, Alexander, succeeded to the titles and estates, and was created Earl of Camperdown in 1831. He married in January, 1805, Janet, daughter of the late Sir Hugh Hamilton Dalrymple, of Bargeny and North Berwick, Bart., by whom he has issue. The third son, Henry, afterwards Sir Henry, entered the navy and rose to the rank of Post-Captain. He died suddenly on the 1st November, 1835. He was considered a bright ornament to the navy, and one of the most promising officers. A magnificent monument to his memory has recently been erected in the neighbourhood of London by those who served with him during the war.

The widow of Admiral Duncan survived him many years, and died in her house in George Square, November, 1832, lamented by all who knew her. She was a lady of the most bland and attractive manners, and of eminent piety. The house, which is now occupied as the Southern Academy, still remains the property of the Earl. The celebrated painting of "The Battle of Camperdown," by Copley—which cost .1000, and to which the inhabitants of Edinburgh had access annually for many years on the anniversary of the victory—has since the death of the Dowager, been removed to Camperdown House, Forfarshire.


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