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Significant Scots
Sir Charles Douglas


DOUGLAS, (SIR) CHARLES, a distinguished naval officer, was a native of Scotland; but we have not learned where he was born, nor to what family he belonged. His education must have been very good, as he could speak no fewer than six different European languages with perfect correctness. He was originally in the Dutch service, and it is said that he did not obtain rank in the British navy without great difficulty. In the seven years’ war, which commenced in 1756, he was promoted through the various ranks of the service till he became post-captain. At the conclusion of the war in 1763, he went to St Petersburg, his majesty having previously conferred upon him the rank of baronet. On the war breaking out with America in 1775, Sir Charles had a broad pendant given him, and commanded the squadron employed in the Gulf of St Lawrence. His services on this station were, after his return to England, rewarded with very flattering honours, and he soon after obtained command of the Duke, 98 guns. Sir Charles was remarkable not only as a linguist, but also for his genius in mechanics. He suggested the substitution of locks for matches in naval gunnery; an improvement immediately adopted, and which proved of vast service to the British navy. On the 24th of November, 1781, he was appointed first captain to Sir George Rodney, then about to sail on his second expedition to the West Indies. Sir George, having hoisted his flag in the Formidable, Douglas assumed the command of that vessel, and they sailed on the 15th of January, 1782, from Torbay. On the 12th of April, took place the celebrated engagement with the French fleet, in which the British gained a most splendid victory, chiefly, it is supposed, in consequence of the Formidable having been directed across the enemy’s line. In our memoir of Mr Clerk of Eldin, we have recorded part of the controversy which has been carried on respecting the originator of this idea. It was there shown, that Sir Charles Douglas utterly denied the claims of Mr Clerk: we must now show what claims have been put forward for himself. Douglas, it must be remarked, was an officer of too high principle to make any claims himself. He thought it a kind of insubordination for any one to claim more honour than what was allowed to him by his superiors in the despatches or in the gazette. Hence, whenever any one hinted at the concern which he was generally supposed to have had in suggesting the measure, he always turned the conversation, remarking in general terms, "We had a great deal to do, Sir, and I believe you will allow we did a great deal." The claim has been put forward by his son, major-general Sir Howard Douglas, who, at the same time, speaks in the following terms of his father’s delicacy upon the subject: "He never, I repeat, asserted, or would accept, when complimented upon it, greater share in the honour of the day, than what had been publicly and officially given him, and I am sure his spirit would not approve of my reclaiming any laurels of that achievement from the tomb of his chief." The principal proof brought forward by Sir Howard consists of the following extract from a letter by Sir Charles Dashwood, a surviving actor in the engagement of the 12th of April, though then only thirteen years of age. "Being one of the aides-de-camp to the commander-in-chief on that memorable day, it was my duty to attend both on him and the captain of the fleet, as occasion might require. It so happened, that some time after the battle had commenced, and whilst we were severely engaged, I was standing near Sir Charles Douglas, who was leaning on the hammocks (which in those days were stowed across the fore part of the quarter-deck), his head leaning on his one hand, and his eye occasionally glancing on the enemy’s line, and apparently in deep meditation, as if some great event were crossing his mind: suddenly raising his head, and turning quickly round, he said, ‘Dash, where’s Sir George?’ ‘In the after-cabin, Sir,’ I replied. He immediately went aft: I followed; and on meeting Sir George coming from the cabin, close to the wheel, he took off his cocked hat with his right hand, holding his long spy-glass in his left, and, making a low and profound bow, said, ‘Sir George, I give you joy of the victory!’—‘Poh!’ said the chief, as if half angry, ‘the day is not half won yet.’—‘Break the line, Sir George!’ said Douglas, ‘the day is your own, and I will ensure you the victory.’—‘No,’ said the admiral, ‘I will not break my line.’ After another request and another refusal, Sir Charles desired the helm to be put a-port; Sir George ordered it to starboard. On Sir Charles again ordering it to port, the admiral sternly said, ‘Remember, Sir Charles, that I am commander-in-chief,—starboard, Sir,’ addressing the master, who during this controversy had placed the helm amidships. The admiral and captain then separated; the former going aft, and the latter going forward. In the course of a couple of minutes or so, each turned and again met nearly on the same spot, when Sir Charles quietly and coolly again addressed the chief—‘Only break the line, Sir George, and the day is your own.’ The admiral then said in a quick and hurried way, ‘Well, well, do as you like,’ and immediately turned round, and walked into the after-cabin. The words ‘Port the helm,’ were scarcely uttered, when Sir Charles ordered me down with directions to commence firing on the starboard side. On my return to the quarter-deck, I found the Formidable passing between two French ships, each nearly touching us. We were followed by the Namur, and the rest of the ships astern, and from that moment the victory was decided in our favour."

Referring the reader for a further discussion of this controversy to the 83d number of the Quarterly Review, we may mention that lord Rodney never failed to confess that the advantages of the day were greatly improved by Sir Charles Douglas. After the conclusion of the war, the gallant officer was intrusted with the command of the Nova Scotia station, which, however, he resigned in consequence of some proceedings of the Navy Board with which he was displeased. During the preparations for war in 1787, he was promoted to the rank of rear-admiral, and next year was re-appointed to the Nova Scotia station. He expired, however, January 1789, in the act of entering a public meeting at Edinburgh, a stroke of apoplexy having cut him off in a single moment. Over and above all his claims to the honours of the 12th of April, he left the character of a brave and honest officer. His mechanical inventions have been followed up by his son, Sir Howard, whose work on naval gunnery is a book of standard excellence.


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