“I would much rather take a brave man's hand than his sword" - the Battle of Camperdown in 1797

11 October 1797, the Battle of Camperdown was fought off the coast of North Holland between the navies of the Dutch Batavian Republic under the command of Vice-Admiral Jan de Winter and the Royal Navy under Admiral Adam Duncan, resulting in one of the most decisive British naval victories won at sea during the French Revolutionary Wars.

"Melancholy cries for assistance were addressed to me from every side by wounded and dying, and piteous moans and bewailing from pain and despair. In the midst of these agonising scenes I was able to preserve myself firm and collected . . . Many of the worst wounded were stoical beyond belief; they were determined not to flinch and, when news of the shattering victory was brought down to them, they raised a cheer and declared they regretted not the loss of their limbs." (Robert Young, surgeon of HMS “Ardent” during the battle)

Philip de Loutherbourg: “The Battle of Camperdown“ (1799)

Bull at the gate was Duncan’s style. At court-martials, at sea, in a fight and when the British Channel and North Sea squadrons mutinied at Spithead and the Nore in the spring of 1797, the broad chested, 6’4’’ sexagenarian Scottish admiral grabbed a sailor who challenged his authority by the neck, held him over the side of HMS “Adamant” and cried "My lads - look at this fellow - he who dares to deprive me of command of the fleet" and the crew of his own flagship, HMS “Venerable”, apologised: “We humbly implore your honour's pardon with hearts full of gratitude and tears in our eyes for the offense we have given to the worthiest of commanders who has proved a father to us". For a couple of weeks though, the British battle fleet in the North sea consisted of these two ships-of-the-line while almost the whole navy of the Dutch Batavian Republic was fitted out and ready to sail for the Channel and land 30,000 men in Ireland to support Wolf Tone’s rebellion. If it wasn't for the strong easterly gales that blew from the Atlantic that summer that kept the Dutch under Admiral de Winter bottled up in the Texel, history might have taken a quite different course. By the end of August, Duncan’s Nore squadron was back in full strength off North Holland and ready to give battle.

Red flags hoisted aboard the North Sea Squadron in the Nore during the Great Mutiny in 1797,
 as imagined by Geoff Hunt*

De Winter, a fervent supporter of the Revolution, still planned to strengthen the French in the Channel who were suffering from their losses received at the Battle of the Glorious First of June three years before, or, at least, bring a portion of Duncan’s squadron to bay. Weather in the North Sea remained rather inclement in early October and visibility at sea was poor. The Dutch managed to slip out of the Texel on 8 October with 16 sail of the line and four frigates and were sighted by Duncan three days later off Camperduin, using their design to creep along the coast far closer than the British men-of-war with their deeper draught could, them being constructed for service on the High Seas. And while de Winter was about to order a solid line of battle to receive the British, Duncan actually meant to cut it with his own 16 battleships in two divisions like Howe did at the Glorious First of June, but his flag signals were barely visible in the rain and what use are mere tactics anyway, bull at the gate, a general attack was ordered that was acknowledged and understood by everyone and Duncan’s ships charged like hunters at a steeple chase. In the general melee that ensued and lasted until the late afternoon, the training of the British crews to fire three broadsides in the time the Dutch fired two decided the battle. 

Thomas Whitcombe’s “The Battle of Camperdown, 11 October 1797“ (1798), showing Duncan’s “Venerable” in the centre of the painting with the battered “Vrijheid” to the left and the burning Dutch “Hercules”, later HMS “Delft”, to the right.

His flagship “Vrijheid” was shot to pieces around his ears and one third of his crew of dead or wounded, de Winter was finally discovered by a British boarding party from Captain “Breadfruit” Bligh’s “Dictator” while he helped his carpenter to repair the ship’s barge that he needed to transfer his command to a less damaged ship and continue the fight. Duncan received him aboard his HMS “Venerable” and when De Winter wanted to surrender his sword, Duncan answered: “I would much rather take a brave man's hand than his sword". De Winter lost a rubber of whist against Duncan afterwards and complained that it was rather hard to be beaten by the same man twice on the same day. 200 British and 540 Dutch sailors had lost their lives during the battle though, and 1,200 men were badly wounded. The action off Camperdown was among the hardest fought battles during the Age of Sail and both navies had the custom to fire at the enemy’s hull to cripple ship and crew instead of disable a vessel by firing high at her rigging like the French and the Spanish did, resulting in unusually high casualties. Only five Dutch ships-of-the-line escaped from the battle, the rest was captured by the British and French plans to invade the British Isles had to be postponed for the next five years until the threat was finally banished by Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805.

Daniel Orme: “Duncan Receiving the Surrender of De Winter at the Battle of Camperdown, 11 October 1797“ (1797)

* Geoff Hunt's image above was found on:

And more about the Battle of Camperdown on: