One of the ironies of Lord Nelson’s famous “England Expects” signal before the Battle of Trafalgar, is the number of its recipients who were not English. Among his fleet that day some forty percent of the ratings were drawn from other nations. Many were Irish and plenty more came from Wales, North America or Scandinavia. Even aboard his flagship, the Victory, his crew included Swiss, Indians, Brazilians and four Frenchmen. On the quarterdecks of his ships the cultural mix was different, but no less surprising. Up to a third of the commissioned officers at Trafalgar were from Scotland. The 18th century Royal Navy attracted a large number of Scottish officers, many of whom rose to senior rank. Perhaps the most remarkable of these was Adam Duncan.
Duncan was born in Dundee, the second son of an aristocratic Scottish family. He joined the Royal Navy as a fifteen year old in 1746, rising to the rank of lieutenant by 1755. He was a striking man, who is said to have drawn crowds when he walked through the streets of Chatham as a young officer. He was six foot four inches tall (at a time when this was very unusual), was exceptionally handsome, known to be physically very strong with great personal charisma. During the early years of the Seven Years War he was involved in several actions, including the attack on the Basque Roads and the capture of the French island of Gorée in 1758. He was promoted to post captain, given command of the Valliant (74), and took part in several notable actions, including the capture of Havana in 1762. By the time of the American War of Independence Duncan was a trusted senior captain. He was given command of another ship of the line, the Monarch which he commanded during Rodney’s victory in the Moonlit Battle.
By the time that war broke out again with Revolutionary France, Duncan was an admiral, and in 1795 he was given command of the North Sea Fleet. One of his principal duties was to guard the Dutch fleet, which was now allied to France. In April 1797 the Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet mutinied over a variety of grievances, including pay, and this disorder spread to affect Duncan’s ships too. No sooner had this happened than he learnt that the Dutch were preparing to leave port. Duncan used his considerable personality to prevent mutiny breaking out on his flagship, the Venerable. He quickly identified and removed the six ringleaders, and then persuaded the rest of the crew to stay loyal. He then had himself rowed across to the nearby Adamant, and personally confronted the leaders of the mutiny there, holding one of them over the side with one arm, whilst addressing the crew. But he was not able to prevent the rest of his fleet from joining the mutiny, so he raised anchor and went to sea with his flagship and the Adamant.
All through that long summer Duncan played an extraordinary game of deception with the Dutch fleet, sailing up and down outside their main base at the Texel, and signalling to a non-existent fleet just over the horizon. The Dutch could have come out and overwhelmed the Venerable and Adamant at any stage, but Duncan’s ruse worked. They remained at anchor until October, by which time the mutiny had been resolved, and Duncan had control over his ships once more.
The fleets met on the 11th of October seven miles out from the little coastal village of Camperdown. Duncan fought the battle with typical courage and determination, ordering his ships to break through the enemy battle line so as to get between them and their home base. The Dutch, under Vice-Admiral Jan de Winter, fought with great courage and stubbornness, and the Battle of Camperdown was one of the Royal Navy’s hardest victories. Casualties were high on both sides, but Duncan prevailed, capturing seven of de Winter’s eleven ships of the line, including his flagship.
The news of the Scotsman’s victory was received with jubilation at home, not least because it showed that formerly mutinous ships would still fight the enemy. He was made a peer, given a large pension, and received the freedom of several cities, including Dundee and London. He continued in command of the North Sea Fleet until 1801, when at the age of seventy he stepped down, and he died three years later.