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Napoleonic Wars: Admiral Sir John Duckworth

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Napoleonic Wars: Admiral Sir John Duckworth

Admiral Sir John Duckworth

Photograph Source: Public Domain

John Duckworth - Early Life & Career:

John Thomas Duckworth was born February 9, 1747, at Leatherhead, England. One of five sons born to Vicar Henry Duckworth and Sarah Johnson, he briefly attended Eton College before being encouraged to join the Royal Navy by Admiral Edward Boscawen. Entering the service in 1759, he was posted as a midshipman to Boscawen's flagship HMS Namur (90 guns). After time aboard Namur and HMS Prince of Orange (70), he received orders to join HMS Guernsey (50) which was commanded by the Governor of Newfoundland, Admiral Hugh Palliser, on March 5, 1764.

Two years later, on May 13, 1766, Duckworth passed his exams for promotion to lieutenant. Confirmed in that rank on November 14, 1771, he joined the newly-built frigate HMS Diamond five years later for service during the American Revolution. Proving a capable officer, he earned his first command, the sloop of war HMS Rover (16), in 1779. Cruising in the Caribbean, he gained promotion to captain on June 16, 1780. With his new rank, Duckworth was given command of HMS Grafton (74) and tasked with escorting convoys. After the end of hostilities in 1783, he took over HMS Bombay Castle (74).

John Duckworth - Wars of the French Revolution:

Serving as flag captain to Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney, commander of the West Indies squadron, when the French Revolution began, Duckworth returned to Britain and took command of HMS Orion (74) in 1793. While aboard, he led the ship during Admiral Lord Howe's victory at the Glorious First of June the following year. After service as a commodore in the Caribbean in 1796, Duckworth returned to European waters in 1799 and oversaw the squadron that supported the capture of Minorca in November 1798. For his service at Minorca, he was promoted to rear admiral on February 14, 1799.

Appointed Commander-in-Chief at Barbados and Leeward Islands in early 1800, he captured a large Spanish convoy that April while en route to his new posting. His share of the prize money from this success totaled around £75,000. After playing a minor role in the failed Ferrol Expedition that August, Duckworth was made Commander-in-Chief at Jamaica. Returning to the Caribbean, he seized the islands of St. Bartholomew, St. Martin, St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix in early 1801. These accomplishments earned him a knighthood in the Order of Bath.

John Duckworth - Napoleonic Wars:

Promoted to vice admiral on April 23, 1804, Duckworth returned to Britain the following year. Though the Admiralty desired him to join with Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson prior to the Battle of Trafalgar, shipyard issues prevented Duckworth from getting to sea. Flying his flag from HMS Superb (74), he finally put to sea with a force of seven ships of the line. Having missed the battle, he was ordered to oversee the blockade of Cadiz.

Arriving off Cadiz on November 15, he soon received word of a French squadron operating against British convoys around the Savage Islands. Though generally thought of as slow and cautious by his peers, Duckworth abandoned the Cadiz blockade and sailed south to investigate. Finding nothing, he reached the Cape Verde Islands before turning to return to Cadiz. En route, he encountered HMS Arethusa (38) which reported that its convoy had been attacked by the French. Setting a course that he believed would intercept the enemy, Duckworth pressed northwest and spotted a French squadron on December 25.

John Duckworth - Battle of Santo Domingo:

Pursuing the enemy into the next day, his squadron gained on the enemy but became strung out in the process. On these questionable grounds he called off the chase and set course for Barbados to re-supply. Arriving, he next moved north to St. Kitts where he was joined by two ships of the line under Rear Admiral Alexander Cochrane. Learning that there was a French force at Santo Domingo, he quickly made sail to intercept. Approaching on February 5, Duckworth attacked the next day. In the Battle of San Domingo, he crushed the French fleet capturing three ships of the line and driving ashore two more.

In the final fleet action of the Napoleonic Wars, the only French ships to escape were two frigates and a corvette. Though the victory was widely celebrated and his officers given a variety of rewards and peerages, Duckworth only received his prize money, the thanks of Parliament, and a £1,000 annuity. This was largely due to his superior's, Vice Admiral Lord Collingwood, anger over his abandoning Cadiz, failing to bring the French to battle in December, and sailing for the Caribbean rather than returning to Spain. Feeling slighted, Duckworth believed this perceived lack of recognition to be slur on his reputation.

John Duckworth - The Dardanelles:

Returning to the Mediterranean, Duckworth was dispatched to the Dardanelles in 1806 with a force of eight ships of the line. As the French were intriguing to bring the Ottoman Empire into the war as an ally, the British sought to impose their will to prevent this from occurring. These efforts failed and in late December the Ottomans declared war on Russia. Though not at war, Duckworth had orders to advance through the straits to bombard Constantinople and capture the Ottoman fleet. After delaying tactics by the Turks, his fleet penetrated the straits on February 19, 1807 and reached the Sea of Marmara.

After winning a minor engagement, the British reached Constantinople the next day. Sailing off the city for a week and half, Duckworth was unable to entice the Ottomans fleet to fight. Learning that the Ottomans were enhancing their shore batteries in the Dardanelles, he elected to withdraw on March 2 and fought his way back through the straits. The entire operation proved a failure and he neglected to even shell the city. Though blamed for indecisiveness by the Admiralty, Duckworth asserted that operations could not continue in the straits without a strong force on land to silence the enemy batteries.

John Duckworth - Later Career

Tasked with covering the Alexandria Expedition's convoys later that year, he was dismayed by its failure. Now an admiral, Duckworth was assigned to command the Channel Fleet in 1808. He remained in this position until March 1810 when he was appointed governor of Newfoundland. A relative backwater, he worked to improve relations with the local Native American tribes and enhance the colony's defenses. With the outbreak of the War of 1812 in June 1812, he began directing operations against American shipping. Returning to England that December, he resigned his governorship and accepted a seat in Parliament representing New Romney.

Duckworth was created a baronet on December 2, 1813. In January 1815, he was given his final assignment when he was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth. Though a largely quiet posting, he oversaw the arrival of Napoleon on HMS Bellerophon (74) and subsequent transfer to HMS Northumberland (74) that June. In doing so, he was the last senior British commander to speak with the fallen emperor. Duckworth died at his post on August 31, 1817 and was buried in his family's vault in Topsham, Devon.

Selected Sources

  • Government House: Sir John Thomas Duckworth
  • Canadian Biography: Admiral Sir John Thomas Duckworth
  • Sir John Duckworth at the Dardanelles

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