Admiral Adam Duncan, 1st Viscount Duncan

One of the crucial figures in British naval history at the time of the mutinies at Spithead and The Nore was Admiral Adam Duncan. Often history has a way of inserting the right man at the right place at the right time and Admiral Duncan can be single handedly credited with keeping the Dutch fleet in port while the British government flailed about trying to resolve the mutinies.

Duncan was born in 1731, the offspring of minor Scots gentry. His maternal uncle was a naval officer and accepted Duncan aboard the sloop HMS Trial when Duncan was 15. In 1749, he was assigned to HMS Centurion (60) under Admiral Augustus Keppel who became his mentor. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1755 and made commander in 1759 and posted captain in HMS Valiant (74) in 1761. When the Seven Years War ground to a halt in 1763, Duncan found his politics out of favor in Parliament and himself beached for the next 15 years.

His marriage in 1777 into a prominent Dundee family enabled him to gain another command. In 1779 he was a member of the court martial of Admiral Keppel in the aftermath of the fiasco of the First Battle of Ushant and brazenly used his position on the court to obstruct its proceedings. Though his mentor was acquitted he was forced to retire. Keppel, however, remained influential within the service and remembered Duncan’s loyalty.

He was present at the “Moonlight Battle” of Cape St. Vincent (January 16, 1780) eventually ascending to flag rank 1n 1787, his first command as a flag officer was not until February 1795 when he hoisted his flag as commander-in-chief of the North Sea. His primary role there was keeping the Dutch fleet bottled up so it could not effect a union with the French. This was especially critical as 1797 approached and it became more likely that the French would attempt to intervene in Ireland.

The mutiny which raged at The Nore also infected Duncan’s fleet and his fleet refused to leave their anchorage at Yarmouth. Duncan was a large man, standing about 6′-4″, and was a champion for his sailors and he was not accustomed to being trifled with.

On April 30 there was an outbreak in Duncan’s own flagship, the Venerable (74), then lying in Yarmouth Roads. Her crew assembled on the forecastle and in the shrouds, and suddenly gave three cheers [editor’s note: this was the signal used by the mutineers at Spithead and The Nore to start the mutiny]. The Nassau at once followed her example. Duncan, in the Venerable, acted with the most admirable tact and firmness. He mustered the officers. The marines — who rarely or never made common cause with the seamen, and who, even to-day, fraternise rather with the stoker than the bluejacket proper, so enduring are service traditions of hostility — fell in under arms. Then he went forward among the mutineers. His noble and splendid appearance, his known affection for and sympathy with the common seaman, and the simple eloquence with which he appealed to every great motive in his men had great influence with them. He refused to permit his admiral’s flag to be lowered and replaced by the red standard of revolt. He was ready, too, to go to extremes; for it was with difficulty that his chaplain restrained him from cutting down an insolent mutineer on the spot. Five ringleaders were seized and brought aft to him on the quarter-deck, in the presence of the whole crew. He sternly rebuked them, showed them the wickedness of mutiny at such an hour, and then pardoned them.

Unfortunately, Duncan could not be on all his ships and Venerable and HMS Adamant (50) sailed alone to blockade Texel in the face of rumors and reports that a sortie by the Dutch fleet was imminent. Duncan deployed his two ships as if they were the inshore squadron of a much larger fleet and sent regular reports via signal flag to the imaginary fleet which lay just over the horizon. This enabled the Dutch to see what they wanted to see and, along with prevailing westerly winds, delayed their coming out until October. By then the mutinies had been settled and the North Sea fleet was ready to administer a drubbing to Admiral de Winter at Camperdown.

Duncan was as overpowering in his tactics as he was in his personality. At Camperdown he forsook the advantage of attacking with a compact force because he feared the Dutch gaining the safety of the heavily shoaled waters inshore. His attack was composed of two mobs of warships which fought through the Dutch line, got to leeward of that line and prevented it from retreating. De Winter lost 11 of 25 ships and his fleet ceased to be a threat to Britain.

For this he was created Viscount Duncan of Camperdown and Baron Duncan of Lundie. He continued in command of the the North Sea fleet until the Peace of Amiens. When the Peace broke down, Duncan campaigned for another command. On his way home from London he died suddenly on August 4, 1804.


Filed under Age of Sail, Naval Biography

6 responses to “Admiral Adam Duncan, 1st Viscount Duncan

  1. Jim

    Interesting to note that Duncan was offered command of the Med. Fleet, which he declined, due to previous ill health, recommending Jervis in his place.

    Camperdown was fought with worn out second rate ships, sent to fight a professional navy, and yet Duncan captured more than twice the number that Nelson and Jervis managed a few months earlier at St Vincent.

    • I’ve always thought that Duncan’s improvised, on-the-spot tactics at Camperdown heavily influenced Nelson’s plan at Trafalgar. Not to take anything away from the latter’s reputation tactician, but the similarities between both actions are striking, though obviously Trafalgar was on a much larger scale.

      Is there anything in Nelson’s writings that would support this?

      • billcrews

        Nelson was a protege of Duncan and carried a portrait of Duncan in his cabin on Victory. It would stand to reason that he compared what brought on Duncan’s decisive victory at Camperdown with the rather indecisive Glorious First of June.

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  4. @billcrews …actually a more personal emblem of Nelson’s admiration for his mentor was a small miniature bust of Duncan which Nelson had encased in a special wooden presentation box made from exotic wood. It went with him everywhere he went. If he went ashore the box and the bust went with him…when he went to sea again…so did the bust.

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