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The Career of Captain Dundas

Once I saw that “Captain Dundas” had come up in the dispute between James Otis, Jr., and John Robinson, I had to figure out who that was and what role he played in the coming of the Revolution.

In September 1769, Otis called Dundas “a well known petty commander of an armed schooner,” meaning he was in the Royal Navy. (The Customs service had just lost its one and only armed schooner, the Liberty.)

Fortunately, the Royal Navy keeps good records, and websites like Three Decks make that information available as long as one keeps running searches. So here’s what I’ve put together.

Ralph Dundas was born on 12 Oct 1732, the eldest son of Ralph and Mary Dundas of Manour, Scotland. He was serving in the Royal Navy by 1748, when he was in his mid-teens, and passed the exam to be a lieutenant in October 1757.

Lt. Dundas received his first command in 1764: H.M.S. St. Lawrence (also spelled St. Laurence). In British Warships in the Age of Sail 1714-1792 Rif Winfield writes that this schooner was “purchased on stocks at Boston [or Marblehead?],” though J. J. Colledge and Ben Warlow’s Ships of the Royal Navy says the Royal Navy bought it in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

It carried thirty men, six three-pounder cannon, and twelve swivel guns—by no means a fearsome warship but powerful enough for peacetime patrols, carrying messages, and supporting larger vessels as a “tender.” Among the crew was master’s mate John Whitehouse, who later sailed under Capt. James Cook.

On 28 July 1766, the Boston Evening-Post reported:

Friday last arrived a Schooner from Louisbourg, by whom we learn, that some time before he sail’d fro thence, his Majesty’s armed Schooner the St. Laurence, commanded by Lieut. Dundas, was struck by Lightning as she lay at Anchor there, which set Fire to the Powder Magazine in the Fore Part of the Vessel and blew her up, by which Accident three Men were instantly killed, and several others terribly wounded, two of whom died the next Day:

We hear that the Officers on board, being in the Cabin, escaped unhurt; and that the Bows of the Vessel being carried away by the Explosion, she sunk in a few Minutes after.

The Boston Post-Boy of the same date said the explosion happened “between two and three Weeks ago.” The Narrative of American Voyages and Travels of Captain William Owen, R.N. names the site of the wreck as Neganishe, now probably called Ingonish.

Commodore Samuel Hood then bought a merchant’s sloop called the Sally, renamed it St. Lawrence, and assigned it to Lt. Dundas.

In the spring of 1768, the St. Lawrence accompanied H.M.S. Romney from Halifax to Boston. On 23 May, the Boston Chronicle carried Lt. Dundas’s advertisement for four deserters. Keeping the sloop fully manned was a challenge. Within a month the town was upset about a “man pressed by Capt. Dundas, and carried down to Halifax.” Capt. John Corner of the Romney and Councilor Royall Tyler sat down to discuss that issue and others, according to the 27 June Boston Chronicle.

The Boston News-Letter and Post-Boy show that over the next several months the St. Lawrence sailed back and forth along the northeast coast: off to Halifax in August, back to Boston in November and then heading off to Halifax again, collecting military stores at Canso and Louisburg over the winter, then back to Halifax. The St. Lawrence returned to Boston again in August 1769.

That put Lt. Dundas in town for the busy fall of 1769. He probably wasn’t in the British Coffee-House when Robinson and Otis started hitting each other with their canes on 5 September. Otis hinted that he participated in the fight, but Robinson denied that. Otis also said rumor had it Dundas “swore last year that the whole Continent was in open Rebellion.” However, the lieutenant’s name doesn’t appear to have come up again in this or other political disputes, which suggests that Otis’s Whig allies didn’t think they could make a case against him, even to their own followers.

The next month brought the Neck Riot on 24 October, followed four days later by the attacks on printer John Mein and sailor George Gailer. In the next couple of weeks, Royal Navy captains helped to hide Mein from the crowd. On 11 November, provincial secretary Andrew Oliver reported to Gov. Francis Bernard that Mein “thinking it unsafe for him to continue in Tow has taken his passage for England with Capn. Dundass.” In fact, it looks like Mein sailed away on another ship, but Oliver’s letter indicates that Dundas left Boston early in the month.

In April 1770, the sailmaker Ashley Bowen wrote in his diary that Dundas’s schooner had come into Marblehead harbor. However, the diary’s annotations suggest he mistook that ship for the Magdalen under Lt. Henry Colins. That suggests how common it was for New Englanders to see Dundas’s schooner. The 16 July 1772 Massachusetts Spy stated that Dundas had sailed the St. Lawrence to the Bahamas, and the 17 June 1773 Boston News-Letter reported that it had come back from the Bahamas to Boston.

As of June 1774, the Royal Navy listed the St. Lawrence, with six guns and thirty men, at Boston. It was small part of the big fleet under Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves sent to enforce the Boston Port Bill. In November Lt. Dundas sailed for London; part of a letter he carried was forwarded to Lord North as useful intelligence in January 1775.

That was the last voyage of that St. Lawrence, at least as a naval schooner. In May 1775, immediately after the war began, Graves reported that he had bought and armed two schooners at Halifax and planned to call one the St. Lawrence. He assigned it to a new commander. Lt. Dundas’s ship was sold off in London the next year.

Ralph Dundas became commander of the new fourteen-gun sloop Bonetta in April 1779, then the new sixteen-gun sloop Calypso (shown above) in December 1782. He served in that post until 1787. Dundas died that year at age fifty-four, having spent about four decades in the Royal Navy. He was buried at St. Clement Danes in Middlesex County. He left no known wife or children.

Commander Dundas served during two wars, but his naval career was overshadowed by his little brother George (1756-1814), who rose to be a rear admiral—having presumably joined the navy with Ralph as inspiration. An intervening brother, David (1749-1826), became a doctor to George III and a baronet.

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