James Duff (British Army officer)

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Sir James Duff
James Duff (1752–1839).png
Born 1752
Died 1839
Nationality Scottish/British

General Sir James Duff (1752–1839) was a British army officer, who fought in the Napoleonic wars [1] and Member of Parliament (1784–1789).[2]


Duff was the eldest illegitimate son of James Duff, 2nd Earl Fife (1729–1809), and Margaret Adam, of Keith. As his mother was of humble status, her three children with Fife were placed in the guardianship of William Rose Fife's factor. Fife liked Duff and took good care of him, sending him to Keith Academy and at King's College, Aberdeen, where he graduated MA in 1771, and after he entered the army paid for Duff's promotions.[2]

Duff entered the army as an ensign in the 1st Foot Guards on 18 April 1769. He was promoted lieutenant and captain on 26 April 1775, and made adjutant of his battalion in 1777, and on 30 April 1779 he was knighted as proxy for the celebrated diplomatist Sir James Harris, afterwards 1st Earl of Malmesbury (and a close friend of his father), at his installation as a knight of the Bath. James Duff was promoted captain and lieutenant-colonel, on 18 July 1780, colonel on 18 November 1790. His regiment was part of the expeditionary force sent to Flanders to campaign against the French as part of the First Coalition (the British contingent under the command of Prince Frederick, Duke of York). He fought at the Battle of Valenciennes commanding the guards' light infantry battalion in 1794. On 30 October he was promoted to major-general.[1][2]

In 1797, Duff received the command of the Limerick district. While there he rendered important services during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and managed to keep his district quiet in spite of the state of affairs elsewhere. His name is associated with the Gibbet Rath executions. He was elected M.P. for Banffshire (1784–9), and colonel of the 50th Regiment of Foot from 1798 to death.[1]

Duff was promoted lieutenant-general on 1 January 1801, and general on 25 October 1809, and at the time of his death, at Funtington, near Chichester, on 5 December 1839, he was the most senior general in the British army, and was one of the few officers who held a commission for over seventy years.[1]

He had as aides-de-camp during his Limerick command two famous officers, William Napier and James Dawes Douglas. There are numerous allusions to him in the Life of Sir William Napier.[1]

Duff benefited from the compensation paid out following the abolition of slavery in 1833. He received a payment of £4,101,0s,1d, an approximate £347,000 in 2015, made by the government of United Kingdom as recorded by the Slave Compensation Commission and the records held at the National Archives in London.[3][4]


On 12 August 1785 Duff married Basilia (d. 1849), daughter and heir of James Dawes of Rockspring, Jamaica, through whom he gained control of a considerable fortune. They had one son and three daughters.[2]



  • Stephens, H. M.; Wood, Stephen (reviewer) (May 2008) [2004]. "Duff, Sir James (1753–1839)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online edn ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/8169.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainStephens, Henry Morse (1888). "Duff, James (1752-1839)". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography. 16. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 129.; Endnotes:
  • Royal Military Calendar
  • Gentlemen's Magazine March 1840
  • Life of Sir William Napier.
Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
Sir James Duff
Member of Parliament for Banffshire
Succeeded by
James Ferguson
Military offices
Preceded by
Sir Thomas Spencer William
Colonel of the 50th Regiment of Foot
Succeeded by
Sir George Walker, 1st Baronet