Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Shaking Hands with History

Recently, and quite by chance, I found myself speaking to a relative of Adam Duncan; a man I respect greatly. As a bonus he bore a remarkable resemblance, both physical and in personality, to his glorious ancestor, (and was kind enough to buy a copy of True Colours). My day was made.
The following is a short bio I wrote about Duncan, and originally published in Chronicles

Duncan of Camperdown
forgotten man, forgotten battle?

1797 was an eventful year in an eventful war. The Battle of Cape St Vincent had raised morale, and with it a new hero was launched upon the public (although the publicity was to a great extent engineered by the subject). But Nelson was to go on to lose a campaign and an arm, at Tenerife, a few months later, and the year had opened with an attempted invasion of Ireland that was defeated more by the weather, and incompetence on behalf of the French, than any British warship. It was also the time of the Spithead mutiny when men, tired of wages and conditions that had hardly altered in 150 years, and urged on by the recent increase in “intellectual” recruits, raised by the Quota Act, rose up and demanded change.

At this time Adam Duncan, a tall and strikingly charismatic Scotsman, who had served with Rodney and Keppel, had charge of the North Sea Fleet. It was his responsibility to keep the Eastern approaches safe for British shipping, and to blockade and eventually destroy the powerful Dutch fleet that was set to mount an invasion of England. To achieve this he was allowed a motley collection of tired ships, several of which had been converted from merchants, manned by men to whom promises made by a desperate Admiralty following Spithead seemed likely to be broken.

On the 12th of May the inevitable happened; the Nore rose up in revolt; the North Sea Fleet refused to sail, and England was left undefended. In his own flagship Duncan had met with a rebellious crew, although his understanding, reassurance and pure strength of character proved sufficient to quell an outright rebellion. It was left to him to maintain the watch over the Dutch base with only his flagship Adamant (74) and the smaller Venerable (50) plus an assortment of lighter craft, while the rest of his ships lay at anchor, under the command of Richard Parker's “Floating Republic”. Not for the first, or last, time Britain was open to invasion.

The Dutch fleet was a powerful one, mainly consisting of line of battleships specifically designed with a low draft, for the shallow waters off their coast. In addition there were several powerful frigates, and over one hundred transport vessels and supply ships ready to carry the mighty French army based nearby. The two British warships supported by a handful of smaller craft were no match for such a force. However Duncan was able to fool the enemy into thinking his ships were just the inshore squadron of a far superior fleet.

Anchoring his flagship outside the Dutch harbour, he began to signal to a non existent battle-fleet that was seemingly sailing just out of sight of land, while his supporting vessels sailed to and fro, carrying “messages”, and alternating their appearance and colours to bolster the ruse. For a few desperate days all shipping, including small craft and fishing vessels, were prevented from sailing, Duncan being well aware that firm news of Britain’s vulnerable state would see the enemy fleet at sea, and wiping his scant squadron away without a thought.

In time the situation on shore stared to ease; the first British ships rejoined Duncan on June 4th. with more following on the 9th. By October the fleet was back under full control, although the men were still disturbed by the events of the previous months. Then, on October 9th, news arrived that the Dutch battle-fleet had finally sailed.

Duncan went to meet them with eleven sail, seven of which were crewed by men who, only months before, had been mutineers. The Dutch force consisted of sixteen line of battleships, five frigates and five brigs. Duncan’s fleet was soon reinforced but still remained outnumbered.

The action took place to the south of the Texel. The Dutch, conforming to conventional tactics, formed a line of battle. Duncan had no preformed plan, although he trusted his officers in the same way that Nelson would later in the wars. By 12.30 the British were bearing down on the Dutch in a two column formation that anticipated Trafalgar by several years. Despite the poorer quality of his ships, the men of the North Sea Fleet were eager to prove their loyalty and fought well; one man, John Crawford of the Venerable, achieving immortality by literally nailing the colours to the mast, after they had been shot away.

The battle that ensued was one of the bloodiest of the wars. Both navies were highly professional, and the British, although fewer in number, and equipped in the main with worn out ships, were clearly in the underdogs. One of the more interesting aspects of the action was the mutual respect shown by each force, and it is significant to note that the two opposing admirals survived the battle, and remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

Now, more than two centuries later, the memory of Duncan has fallen into decline. On the bi-centennial of the battle, Dundee City Council published a volume of essays about the man and his times. This included an excellent appraisal by Brian Lavery, although the title is now out of print. Neil Duncan also produced a biography in 1995 which has suffered a similar fate. Christopher Lloyd brought out St Vincent and Camperdown, a study of the two actions, in 1963 and two other biographies were written, one in 1898 and one in 1900. Considering the plethora of Nelson related volumes that have appeared on the market recently (one figure quoted is 40 biographies in the last ten years), it seems unfair that such a fascinating character who achieved so much should not be better remembered.

Alaric Bond's novel True Colours is a fictionalised account of the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore, and covers Adam Duncan's heroic defence of Great Britain, and the pivotal Battle of Camperdown.

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