Saturday, 29 January 2011

Who's Who in Scottish Military history - Adam Duncan, 1st Viscount Duncan of Camperdown

The Dundonian Adam Duncan is hardly known outside Angus and even there he is known mainly because his family gifted Camperdown Park to the city nearly 150 years after his death.

He really should be better known because his victory at Camperdown in 1797 was an overwhelming defeat of the Dutch Navy; which at the time was still a powerful fleet and a threat to the UK .

Duncan was born on 1st July 1731 in Lundie, a few miles from Dundee , into a prosperous local family. His father was Provost of Dundee between 1744 and 1747.

At fifteen Duncan joined the Royal Navy. Just in time for the Seven Years War which saw British ships fight for supremacy of the seas against the French and Spanish. There was a lull in his active service between the Seven Years War and the American War of Independence and then he served as a captain from 1778 to 1782 where he distinguished himself in various actions against French and Spanish ships.

In 1783 the war was over and he returned to Portsmouth and was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue. Over the next twelve years he was steadily promoted until in 1795 he was promoted Admiral and made Commander-in-Chief in the North Seas . Duncan ’s appointment was to a very important post. In the late eighteenth century the Dutch had one of the strongest navies in the world and with Holland under the control of the French it meant they were a threat to Britain and more importantly a threat to the Thames sea trade which ultimately paid for the Royal Navy and protected the country from Napoleon.

By 1797 Duncan had managed to blockade the bulk of the Dutch fleet in the port of Texel with only four ships. Keeping ninety five Dutch ships in port with only four ships pretending to be many more was a sleight of hand which would put Paul Daniels to shame. It couldn’t last though and autumn storms forced Duncan back into Yarmouth to refit.

The Dutch took the opportunity to head for the open sea. They weren’t actually going anywhere, it was just a political move to show that they were no longer trapped in port. It was a mistake they would soon regret. On 7th October 1797 Duncan left port again, this time with sixteen ships and on 11th October 1797 the two fleets met off the small Dutch fishing village of Camperduin in North Holland.

The Royal Navy took the advantage straight away and in a bold stroke Duncan ordered his sixteen ships to fight their way in between the eighteen Dutch ships and put themselves between the Dutch fleet and the coast so that the Dutch could not run away into port.

The fighting was a brutal slugging match with ship pounding ship but in the end the Royal Navy’s gunners were better than their Dutch equivalents and sunk nine ships. The rest of the Dutch fleet had been badly mauled and scattered out to sea.

In one day Duncan had effectively destroyed the Dutch Navy; a fleet which had been feared by the British for over one hundred and thirty years.

Duncan was a hero at home and was made a Viscount. His family thought he deserved an earldom (and that was granted to his son) but he was also awarded a pension of £2000 which was no trifling amount in 1797.

That was a fitting end to Duncan ’s long career but he didn’t have a long retirement. Old age and a punishing life at sea caught up with him and he died suddenly on 4th August 1804 at Cornhill in Berwickshire, and is buried in the churchyard at Lundie.

Apart from Camperdown Park in Dundee he is commemorated with a statue in his home town. It was unveiled in 1997 in Dundee , on the 200th anniversary of his most famous battle.

His name also lives on in the Royal Navy. The seventh HMS ‘Duncan’ a Type 45 Destroyer was recently launched on the Clyde. Appropriately it was launched on 11th October - the anniversary of the Battle of Camperdown.

You can see a video of that launch here:

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