The Blunderbuss of General Thomas Graham
By Seth Isaacson
The Blunderbuss of General Thomas Graham
One of the most fascinating aspects of working at Rock Island Auction Company and studying firearms, especially antique firearms, is uncovering their historical connections. All are tangible artifacts from varying eras, and some have complicated and lengthy periods of use that included multiple conflicts, sometimes on multiple continents. Such was the case with this brass barrel blunderbuss when it first came through the door. It seems that every one of Rock Island Auction Company’s Premiere Firearms Auctions has one or more truly historic firearms and collectibles connected to an influential cultural, political, or military figure, and many of these guns are tied to well-known individuals readily recognizable to the public at large. This is clearly the case with the Elvis revolvers and badge and Porfirio Diaz Mauser pistol in our May 2017 Premiere Firearms Auction, but for most firearms few specifics about their individual pasts have been recorded.
It is clearly a fine example of a British brass blunderbuss which means it was certain to get some attention from collectors thanks to the blunderbuss’s place as one of the most well-known weapons of the era, often associated with pirates, the colonial era, and early 19th-century naval warfare. It was built in the shop of Swiss-born gunmaker Durs Egg in London in the early 19th century and is fairly standard for the commercial blunderbusses of the period, but closer inspection revealed one small detail that suggested this was something much more remarkable than a typical blunderbuss: the rear lock screw washer/side plate is inscribed with “CANDIDE UT SECURE” in a banner over a perched eagle and “TG.” This is the motto of Clan Graham and of Scotsman Thomas Graham (1750-1843), 1st Baron Lynedoch of Balgowan (Laird Balgowan), Knight of the Portuguese Order of the Tower and Sword, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, Knight of the Spanish Order of St. Ferdinand, British general, Governor of Dumbarton Castle, and Whig Member of Parliament from Perthshire. The motto literally translates as “Candidly and Securely,” but period sources list its meaning as “Honesty is the best policy.” Few blunderbusses have inscriptions, and fewer still are found inscribed to military officers and nobles.
Graham may have lived out his life a relatively insignificant noble had his beloved and beautiful wife, Mary, not died while they were en route to southern France in 1792 in an attempt to improve Mary’s poor health. She likely suffered from tuberculosis as it was common for doctors to suggest those suffering from the deadly, often prolonged disease head to warmer, drier climates. While her casket was being sent back to Scotland, French soldiers reportedly opened it and desecrated her body. In his sorrow and rage, Graham enlisted in the British Army to fight the French. His romantic devotion was well-known, and Sir Walter Scott even included him in one of the final stanzas of the poem “Vision of Don Roderick.” Graham had previously spent time living in France and the German principalities and mastered their languages, but any love he had for the French was drowned by his grief and fury at the loss and treatment of his wife.
Most references to him prior to Mary’s death indicate he was a scholar and gentleman, but one interesting case clearly indicates his valor and spirit were long a part of his character. In London while he, his wife, and the Duchess of Athole were on their way to attend a party, a group of three highwaymen stopped the carriage and demanded they turn over their valuables at gunpoint. Rather than yield, Graham leaped across the carriage and out the carriage door, drew his dress sword, and seized the primary assailant by the collar. He threatened to kill the man if the others did not release the horses and flee, and then turned the man over to the authorities. Had he been armed that day with a blunderbuss in addition to his sword, at least one of the highwaymen may not have escaped with his life.
Once in the Royal Army, Graham’s courage and intellect proved valuable to the UK’s war effort against Revolutionary France and Napoleon’s French Republic in many parts of Europe. He became a full general in 1821 after having led men in several battles. Among his most important military achievements was his part in the successful two-year siege and capture of the Island of Malta (1798-1800). The island remained an important United Kingdom territory until it was granted independence in 1964. Another of his remarkable exploits was the defeat of two French divisions and the capturing of French regimental eagle and several cannons by his single division at the Battle of Barrosa in 1811 despite being outnumbered nearly 2 to 1 and having marched through the night and part of the day before. He was also party to the Defense of Toulon in 1793 during which he picked up the musket of a wounded soldier and led an attack from the head of his formation, the siege and capture of Ciudad Rodrigo in 1812, the defeat of the French Army at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813, the siege and capture of San Sebastian in 1813, and more. Reports from his military career indicate he behaved in battle much as he had during the attempted robbery of his carriage; he seized opportunities and did not back down from a fight. He is known to have used daring tactics such as covering the advance of his men firing artillery right over their heads. When his unit was placed on garrison duty, he requested a transfer to join the Austrian Army and fight along the Rhine, and he carried intelligence through enemy territory in disguise.
It is not clear why or when Baron Graham acquired this gun, but blunderbusses were among the most popular firearms for defending coaches and ships in the late 18th and early 19th century and were also used by mounted troops and some officers. It was manufactured around the early 19th century when Graham was actively fighting the French, and it would have been a very suitable weapon during his travels by both sea and horseback. Regardless of when and how it was used, its connection to an important British Army officer and Scottish noble certainly enhances the historical importance and long-term value of the weapon well beyond its worth as a fine example of one of the most iconic of all flintlock firearms.
‘Nor be his praise o’erpast who strove to hide
Beneath the warrior’s vest affection’s wound;
Whose wish Heaven for his country’s weal denied;
Danger and fate he sought, but glory found.
From clime to clime, where’er war’s trumpets sound
The wanderer went; yet Caledonia! still
Thine was his thought in march and tented ground:
He dreamed ‘mid Alpine cliffs of Athole’s hill,
And heard in Ebro’s roar his Lynedoch’s lovely rill.
– Excerpt describing Thomas Graham in Sir Walter Scott’s Vision of Don Roderick
Brett-James, Antony. General Graham, Lord Lynedoch. London: St. Martin’s Press, 1959.
Lodge, Edmund. Peerage British Empire as at Present Existing Arranged and Printed from the Personal Communications of the Nobility. London: Saunders & Otley, 1834.
Taylor, James. The Great Historic Families of Scotland, Volume 2. London: J.S. Virtue & Co., 1889.