Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Duncan, Adam

DUNCAN, ADAM, Viscount Duncan (1731–1804), admiral, second son of Alexander Duncan of Lundie in Perthshire, entered the navy in 1746 on board the Trial sloop, under the care of his maternal uncle, Captain Robert Haldane, with whom, in the Trial and afterwards in the Shoreham frigate, he continued till the peace in 1748. In 1749 he was appointed to the Centurion, then commissioned for service in the Mediterranean, by the Hon. Augustus (afterwards Viscount) Keppel [q. v.], with whom he was afterwards in the Norwich on the coast of North America, and was confirmed in the rank of lieutenant on 10 Jan. 1755. In August 1755 he followed Keppel to the Swiftsure, and in January 1756 to the Torbay, in which he continued till his promotion to commander's rank on 21 Sept. 1759, and during this time was present in the expedition to Basque Roads in 1757, at the reduction of Goree in 1758, and in the blockade of Brest in 1759, up to within two months of the battle of Quiberon Bay, from which his promotion just excluded him. From October 1759 to April 1760 he had command of the Royal Exchange, a hired vessel employed in petty convoy service with a miscellaneous ship's company, consisting to a large extent of boys and foreigners, many of whom (he reported) could not speak English, and all impressed with the idea that as they had been engaged by the merchants from whom the ship was hired they were not subject to naval discipline. It would seem that a misunderstanding with the merchants on this point was the cause of the ship's being put out of commission after a few months. As a commander Duncan had no further service, but on 25 Feb. 1761 he was posted and appointed to the Valiant, fitting for Keppel's broad pennant. In her he had an important share in the reduction of Belle Isle in June 1761, and of Havana in August 1762. He returned to England in 1763, and, notwithstanding his repeated request, had no further employment for many years. During this time he lived principally at Dundee, and married on 6 June 1777 Henrietta, daughter of Robert Dundas of Arniston, lord-president of the court of session [q. v.] It would seem that his alliance with this influential family obtained him the employment which he had been vainly seeking during fifteen years. Towards the end of 1778 he was appointed to the Suffolk, from which he was almost immediately moved into the Monarch. In January 1779 he sat as a member of the court-martial on Keppel, and in the course of the trial interfered several times to stop the prosecutor in irrelevant and in leading questions, or in perversions of answers. The admiralty was therefore desirous that he should not sit on the court-martial on Sir Hugh Palliser [q. v.], which followed in April, and the day before the assembling of the court sent down orders for the Monarch to go to St. Helens. Her crew, however, refused to weigh the anchor until they were paid their advance; and as this could not be done in time, the Monarch was still in Portsmouth harbour when the signal for the court-martial was made (Considerations on the Principles of Naval Discipline, 8vo, 1781, p. 106n.); so that, sorely against the wishes of the admiralty, Duncan sat on this court-martial also.

During the summer of 1779 the Monarch was attached to the Channel fleet under Sir Charles Hardy; in December was one of the squadron with which Rodney sailed for the relief of Gibraltar, and had a prominent share in the action off St. Vincent on 16 Jan. 1780. On returning to England Duncan quitted the Monarch, and had no further command till after the change of ministry in March 1782, when Keppel became first lord of the admiralty. He was then appointed to the Blenheim of 90 guns, and commanded her during the year in the grand fleet under Howe, at the relief of Gibraltar in October, and the rencounter with the allied fleet off Cape Spartel. He afterwards succeeded Sir John Jervis in command of the Foudroyant, and after the peace commanded the Edgar as guardship at Portsmouth for three years. He attained flag rank on 24 Sept. 1787, became vice-admiral 1 Feb. 1793, and admiral 1 June 1795. In February 1795 he was appointed commander-in-chief in the North Sea, and hoisted his flag on board the Venerable. A story is told on the authority of his daughter, Lady Jane Hamilton, that this appointment was given him by Lord Spencer, at the instance of Mr. Dundas, afterwards Lord Melville (Keppel, i. 144n.); but as Lord Spencer was not at that time, nor for two years afterwards, first lord of the admiralty, the anecdote is clearly inaccurate in at least one of its most important details.

During the first two years of Duncan's command the work was limited to enforcing a rigid blockade of the enemy's coast, but in the spring of 1797 it became more important from the knowledge that the Dutch fleet in the Texel was getting ready for sea. The situation was one of extreme difficulty, for the mutiny which had paralysed the fleet at the Nore broke out also in that under Duncan, and kept it for some weeks in enforced inactivity. Duncan's personal influence and some happy displays of his vast personal strength held the crew of the Venerable to their duty; but with one other exception, that of the Adamant, the ships refused to quit their anchorage at Yarmouth, leaving the Venerable and Adamant alone to keep up the pretence of the blockade. Fortunately the Dutch were not at the time ready for sea; and when they were ready and anxious to sail, with thirty thousand troops, for the invasion of Ireland, a persistent westerly wind detained them in harbour till they judged that the season was too far advanced (Life of Wolfe Tone, ii. 425–35). For political purposes, however, the government in Holland, in spite of the opinion of their admiral, De Winter, to the contrary, ordered him to put to sea in the early days of October. ‘I cannot conceive,’ wrote Wolfe Tone (Life, ii. 452), ‘why the Dutch government sent out their fleet at that season, without motive or object, as far as I can learn. My opinion is that it is direct treason, and that the fleet was sold to Pitt, and so think Barras, Pleville le Pelley, and even Meyer, the Dutch ambassador, whom I have seen once or twice.’ This of course was scurrilous nonsense, but the currency of such belief emphasises De Winter's statement to Duncan, that ‘the government in Holland, much against his opinion, insisted on his going to sea to show they had done so’ (Arniston Memoirs, 250). Duncan, with the main body of the fleet, was at the time lying at Yarmouth revictualling, the Texel being watched by a small squadron under Captain Trollope in the Russell, from whom he received early information of the Dutch being at sea. He at once weighed, with a fair wind stood over to the Dutch coast, saw that the fleet was not returned to the Texel, and steering towards the south sighted it on the morning of 11 Oct. about seven miles from the shore and nearly halfway between the villages of Egmont and Camperdown. The wind was blowing straight on shore, and though the Dutch forming their line to the north preserved a bold front, it was clear that if the attack was not made promptly they would speedily get into shoal water, where no attack would be possible. Duncan at once realised the necessity of cutting off their retreat by getting between them and the land. At first he was anxious to bring up his fleet in a compact body, for at best his numbers were not more than equal to those of the Dutch; but seeing the absolute necessity of immediate action, without waiting for the ships astern to come up, without waiting to form line of battle, and with the fleet in very irregular order of sailing, in two groups, led respectively by himself in the Venerable and Vice-admiral Onslow in the Monarch, he made the signal to pass through the enemy's line and engage to leeward. It was a bold departure from the absolute rule laid down in the ‘Fighting Instructions,’ still new, though warranted by the more formal example of Howe on 1 June 1794; and on this occasion, as on the former, was crowned with complete success. The engagement was long and bloody; for though Duncan, by passing through the enemy's line, had prevented their untimely retreat, he had not advanced further in tactical science, and the battle was fought out on the primitive principles of ship against ship, the advantage remaining with those who were the better trained to the great gun exercise (Chevalier, Histoire de la Marine Française sous la première République, 329), though the Dutch by their obstinate courage inflicted great loss on the English. It had been proposed to De Winter to make up for the want of skill by firing shell from the lower deck guns; and some experiments had been made during the summer which showed that the idea was feasible (Wolfe Tone, ii. 427); but want of familiarity with an arm so new and so dangerous presumably prevented its being acted on in the battle.

The news of the victory was received in England with the warmest enthusiasm. It was the first certain sign that the mutinies of the summer had not destroyed the power and the prestige of the British navy. Duncan was at once (21 Oct.) raised to the peerage as Baron Duncan of Lundie and Viscount Duncan of Camperdown, and there was a strong feeling that the reward was inadequate. Even as early as 18 Oct. his aunt, Lady Mary Duncan, wrote to Henry Dundas, at that time secretary of state for war: ‘Report says my nephew is only made a viscount. Myself is nothing, but the whole nation thinks the least you can do is to give him an English earldom. … Am sure were this properly represented to our good king, who esteems a brave, religious man like himself, would be of my opinion. …’ (Arniston Memoirs, 251). It was not, however, till 1831, many years after Duncan's death, that his son, then bearing his title, was raised to the dignity of an earl, and his other children to the rank and precedence of the children of an earl.

Till 1801 Duncan continued in command of the North Sea fleet, but without any further opportunity of distinction. Three years later, 4 Aug. 1804, he died quite suddenly at the inn at Cornhill, a village on the border, where he had stopped for the night on his journey to Edinburgh (ib. 252). He left a family of four daughters, and, besides the eldest son who succeeded to the peerage, a second son, Henry, who died a captain in the navy and K.C.H. in 1835. It was of him that Nelson wrote: ‘I had not forgot to notice the son of Lord Duncan. I consider the near relations of brother-officers as legacies to the service’ (11 Jan. 1804, Nelson Despatches, v. 364), and to whom he wrote on 4 Oct. 1804, sending a newspaper with the account of Lord Duncan's death: ‘ There is no man who more sincerely laments the heavy loss you have sustained than myself; but the name of Duncan will never be forgot by Britain, and in particular by its navy, in which service the remembrance of your worthy father will, I am sure, grow up in you. I am sorry not to have a good sloop to give you, but still an opening offers which I think will insure your confirmation as a commander’ (ib. vi. 216).

Duncan was of size and strength almost gigantic. He is described as 6 ft. 4 in. in height, and of corresponding breadth. When a young lieutenant walking through the streets of Chatham, his grand figure and handsome face attracted crowds of admirers, and to the last he is spoken of as singularly handsome (Colburn's New Monthly Magazine, 1836, xlvii. 466). His portrait, by Hoppner, has been engraved. Another, by an unknown artist, but presented by the first Earl of Camperdown, is in the Painted Hall at Greenwich. Another, by Copley, has also been engraved. A statue by Westmacott, erected at the public expense, is in St. Paul's.

[Ralfe's Naval Biography, i. 319; Naval Chronicle, iv. 81; Charnock's Biographia Navalis, vi. 422; James's Naval History of Great Britain (edit. 1860), ii. 74; Keppel's Life of Viscount Keppel.]

J. K. L.