Sir Charles Douglas

1727- 1789. The third of six sons of a physician, Charles Ayton Douglas of Kinglassie, Fifeshire, and of his wife, Christian Hepburn, he was descended from King James II of Scotland and William Douglas of Lochleven, the 6th Earl Morton.

Douglas entered the Navy in 1740, seeing service in Canadian waters during the War of the Austrian Succession and passing his examination for lieutenant in February 1747, although he did not achieve this rank at this time. He served as an interpreter when Vice-Admiral George Anson fought the French at the Battle of Cape Finisterre on 14 May 1747, and he continued on the Invincible 74, Captain William Lloyd, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Warren in home waters.

Following the peace of 1748 he took up a position in the Dutch Navy, in which service he was promoted lieutenant in the following year, and in which he went out to the Iberian Peninsula. Upon returning to the British Navy he was commissioned lieutenant on  4 December 1753, and promotion to commander followed on 24 February 1759 when he was given the armed vessel Boscawen 16. In the same year he served in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and at the reduction of Quebec, using his proficiency of the French language to engage and manage pilots for the British forces, although the voyage across the Atlantic with the pilots in foul weather and the very leaky cutter Rodney was a fraught one.

He was posted captain with seniority from 13 March 1761, having taken command of the Unicorn 28 off Brest in succession to the fallen Captain Joseph Hunt, and he assisted the Tweed 32, Captain William Paston, in the capture of the Brest-based privateer Maréchal de Broglie 8 off the Lizard on 7 March. Being superseded shortly afterwards by Captain Charles Fielding, Douglas recommissioned the Siren 20 later that month for service in the Downs, sharing in the capture of the privateer Ernestine 10 off Dunkirk on 6 November 1761. He later went out to the West Indies, and he was employed on the Newfoundland station after sailing there in the following April, being active in the campaign to recapture St. Johns from the French. Sent home with despatches, he received a £500 reward and retained his command until the autumn.

He next assumed command of the Tweed 32 on Christmas Day 1762, going out once more to Newfoundland in April 1763 and supervising Lieutenant James Cook’s survey of the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, prior to them being handed back to the French. He left this vessel at the end of March 1764, whereupon he spent a year in the Russian service as their senior rear-admiral after arriving at St. Petersburg in June and being introduced to Catherine the Great by the British ambassador. He returned to England via the Netherlands in 1765 with the intention of collecting his family for a return to Russia, but resigned his position over a conflict in his conditions of service. His second-in-command, Samuel Greig, remained in the Russian service for the next twenty-five years and was responsible for its impressive development.

 

Sir Charles Douglas

Sir Charles Douglas

From the summer of 1766 until August 1769 Douglas commanded the Emerald 32, arriving at Leith in early August and being employed off the Scottish islands. In the early summer of 1769 he undertook a mission to the North Cape to view the transit of Venus, although poor weather meant he was unable to complete his observations. He also undertook scientific experiments including testing the temperature of seawater off Lapland and Norway.

 In January 1771 he commissioned the new St Albans 64 at Chatham, and having received orders for a foreign station she left that port in May to take on her guns and powder at Blackstakes. She eventually sailed from Portsmouth for Antigua at the end of August, and whilst in the Leeward Islands her crew assisted in the aftermath of a huge fire that had destroyed much of George Town, Grenada in December. By July 1772 the St. Albans was back at Portsmouth, and she remained at Spithead through the early autumn before entering Gosport to be docked in October. She then resumed her station at Spithead as a guardship, and Douglas retained her until September 1773 when he briefly commanded the Ardent 64 for four months at as a guardship at Chatham, and from the end of November at Sheerness, until succeeded by Commodore George Mackenzie in January 1774.

In November 1775 he was appointed to commission the new Isis 50. Sent to relieve Quebec which was under blockade by the America rebels, he sailed in the spring of 1776 and by forcing his way through the ice relieved the city on 6 May. thereafter remaining on the station until the autumn as commodore in command of a small squadron. During this period he superintended the creation of a naval force that could be transported across land, and the ships he built fought the Battle of Lake Champlain with the Americans over 11 – 12 October, although he was not present. After returning to Portsmouth on 9 December following a thirty day voyage with Major-General John Burgoyne a passenger he was created a baronet on 23 January 1777 in recognition of his services.

In the spring of 1777 he commissioned the new Stirling Castle 64 at Chatham, and in July received orders to join a squadron of observation congregating at Spithead. After participating in the Battle of Ushant on 27 July 1778 he was appointed in September to the Duke 98, serving in the Channel in succession to the discarded Captain William Brereton, and with his ship entering Portsmouth in January 1779 for repairs. During the time that he commanded this vessel he gave evidence advantageous to Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel at his court martial, and he also enhanced his schemes for improving the gunnery of the man of war. He was later present in the Channel Fleet Retreat of August 1779, the campaign of June to December 1780, during which period the Duke came within feet of a fatal collision with the Prince George 98 in a hurricane off Cape Finisterre, the Relief of Gibraltar on 12 April 1781, and the Channel Fleet campaign of June to November 1781.

At the end of November 1781 Douglas was appointed captain of the fleet to the commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands station, Admiral Sir George Rodney, serving aboard the Formidable 90 from early 1782, and fighting at the Battle of the Saintes on 12 April. Many commentators credited him with the revolutionary decision to break the French line; indeed it was reported that he positively insisted upon Rodney doing so, but doubts were cast over whether Douglas would have had the strength of personality to convince his single-minded, arrogant and disdainful commander-in-chief of such a move. The equally forthright second-in-command, Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, clearly doubted Douglas’ abilities, and in particular he deplored Douglas’s strange decision to order the fleet to shorten sail on the night of the 10-11 April. Following Rodney’s recall in the summer of 1782 Douglas remained as captain of the fleet to Admiral Hugh Pigot until the peace of 1783.

In August 1783 he was appointed the governor and commander-in-chief at Halifax, sailing in October with his broad pennant aboard the Assistance 50, Captain William Bentinck, although his first winter was spent in the Leeward Islands. This proved to be a most testing appointment, and after falling out with the local officials and even managing to upset the Admiralty he failed to see out his full three year tenure, being recalled in February 1785 to return home aboard the Hermione 32, Captain John Stone.

In November 1786 he was reported to have enjoyed a long conference with the King, and he was promoted rear-admiral on 24 September 1787 to the detriment of many above him on the captain’s list who were set aside. Despite speculation that he would be given the East Indies command he was re-appointed commander-in-chief of the North American station in November 1788, but before departing to take up his new position he died of an apoplectic fit when entering the Assembly Room in Edinburgh on 10 March 1789.               

Douglas was married three times, firstly to Uranie Lidie Marteilhe on 23 June 1760 in Amsterdam, which lady died on 13 June 1769 in the Dutch city, then Sarah Wood of Yorkshire on 1 January 1771, and following her death at Gosport on 16 August 1779 to Jane Baillie on 10 November 1781 in Edinburgh. He had eight children from his first two marriages, one of whom, Sir Howard, became a general, and another, Sir William Henry, became a vice-admiral. A daughter, Lydia, married the Reverend Richard Bingham, Canon of Chichester, and bore two sons who served in the Navy. In 1764 Douglas inherited £9,000, equivalent to £1.5min today’s money, from his relation, the Viscountess Irwin.

Douglas brought a scientific mind to gunnery improvements, fitted flintlocks to all carriage guns aboard the Duke, and was renowned and respected as an innovative tactician. A supporter of the Keppel faction in the Navy, he boasted a classical education that he utilised to the utmost, particularly with analogies, and he could apparently speak six languages. He remained steadfastly loyal to Lord Rodney despite many differences of opinion, and was particularly  modest regarding his own part in the great Battle of the Saintes. He is said to have had a strong temper if aroused, and despite being regarded as benevolent, charitable and kind to his men he displayed poor man-management skills. Most contemporaries admired and liked him, but the splenetic Viscount Hood despised him, stating that amongst other shortcomings Douglas was a ‘yes man’ who was weak and irresolute, unqualified for the position of captain of the fleet, short of memory and understanding, and no more fit for his station than Hood was to be an archbishop. Following a difficult passage across the Atlantic in the cutter Rodney in 1759 Douglas lost the use of his left arm.