Thomas Cochrane was a public hero but a thorn in the side to both Napoleon and the British naval establishment
England had never seen the likes of it. In late February 1805, as the naval war with Napoleon intensified, a string of captured enemy merchantmen began streaming into the busy harbor at Plymouth manned by exuberant British prize crews.
Not only was each ship laden with more riches than the previous, they had all been captured by the same man — the colorful and controversial Capt. Thomas Cochrane.
It was enough to set the crowded waterfront buzzing. So when Cochrane himself followed his flotilla into the harbor on a blustery late March day — a 5-foot gold candlestick tied to each masthead broadcasting the good fortune of his frigate Pallas — Plymouth went wild.
Cochrane had even gotten Napoleon’s attention, with one of the greatest exploits in Britain’s rich naval history. Again aboard the Pallas, Cochrane was confronted by a squadron of French corvettes totaling 64 guns — his crew outnumbered three to one. Using a combination of bluff and bravado, he chased them down and destroyed them. Napoleon, emperor of France and conqueror of Europe, was furious. Cochrane, he cried, was “le Loup de Mer,” or “the Sea Wolf.”
A century and a half after his death, Lord Thomas Cochrane, ship’s captain and 10th earl of Dundonald, remains one of the most remarkable — and contradictory — characters from The Age of Fighting Sail. For British historian Capt. Richard Woodman, Cochrane is “one of the finest British naval commanders in an age that produced many outstanding officers.” Fellow historian and Cochrane biographer Robert Harvey calls him “perhaps Britain’s greatest sea captain.”
Famed novelist Patrick O’Brian chose Cochrane as the model for Capt. Jack Aubrey, hero of his best-selling Aubrey-Maturin series. Cochrane’s capture of the Spanish frigate El Gamo, O’Brian wrote, provided him “with one of the most spectacular single-ship actions” of the Napoleonic Wars.
As much as he was a public hero and Napoleon’s bane, the progressive, outspoken and opinionated Cochrane was despised by his conservative political foes and thwarted by jealous navy superiors stung by his public criticisms. Knighted for his gallantry by the king of England, he was later convicted of stock fraud, kicked out of the navy, and stripped of his titles and honor. Yet in the end, all eventually were returned — even his knighthood — and he was buried in Westminster Abby, where only England’s greatest are interred. Says maritime history professor John Hattendorf: “Few naval officers have been so talented and had so tumultuous a career.”
Captain of the Speedy
The El Gamo incident propelled Cochrane to notoriety at age 26 and marked the first of the Scottish commander’s many battles with the naval establishment. The young lieutenant showed his courage and tactical genius in capturing the ship — along with his thin skin and lack of tact when dealing with superiors. The navy board, in its turn, showed its dislike for this upstart skipper with radical politics.
In 1800, Lt. Cochrane assumed command of the 14-gun brig Speedy, a 78-foot two-master he described as a “burlesque on a vessel of war.” It mounted tiny cannons shooting nearly worthless
4-pound balls. (Cochrane would walk Speedy’s deck with a whole broadside’s worth of cannon balls in his coat pockets.)
In May 1802, Cochrane’s cockleshell warship met El Gamo in the western Mediterranean. The enemy outgunned and outmanned Speedy by a considerable margin, firing 32 guns using 9- and 12-pound cannon balls and carrying a crew of 319 to Cochrane’s 54. Instead of fleeing, Speedy charged El Gamo, whose weaponry was mounted too high to damage the smaller brig. Showing his tactical brilliance Cochrane fired back with his 4-pounders loaded with four cannon balls each, turning them into quasi 16-pounders.
Speedy ran alongside El Gamo, tangling the Spanish ship’s rigging. Cochrane then boarded the enemy vessel, leading a cutlass-wielding crew with blackened faces and uttering hideous screams in a surprise attack. The unbelieving Spanish immediately surrendered. It took about an hour. Cochrane lost three men, the Spanish 15, including the captain.
News of the battle caused a sensation back in England. But Cochrane, a hero to the public, was snubbed by the Admiralty. Normally, a lieutenant performing such a deed won immediate promotion to post-captain. However, the navy dallied for three months before giving Cochrane his upgrade. A requested promotion for his severely wounded lieutenant was refused — in part because the “small number of men killed did not warrant the application” in the eyes of the navy.
Cochrane’s reply to the fire-breathing first lord of the Admiralty, Earl St. Vincent, called attention to “his Lordship’s own promotion to an earldom” in a battle in which there was “only one man killed on board his own flagship.” It was not a good career move. From then on, Cochrane would feel the growing enmity of powerful figures in the navy, whose resentment increased with each of his successes.
Cochrane later, as a member of Parliament, took to railing against corruption in the dockyards and unabashed patronage in the promotion list, earning still more enemies. As a result, he was sometimes given poor ships to command and undesirable assignments. He was even sent overseas at one point to silence his political voice. Yet the same officials who disliked him professionally weren’t above sharing in the spoils of his victories, and more than one admiral made himself rich off Cochrane’s prize-taking.
Victory and controversy
Cochrane’s success at sea continued. His three-year “cruise” in the frigate Imperieuse, beginning around 1806-07, is again the stuff of legend. Operating in the western Mediterranean, Cochrane made a series of innovative amphibious landings and commando-style raids along the Spanish coast in support of British troops against Napoleon. Along the way, he captured scores of enemy ships, again filling harbors with his prizes.
Yet he claimed he was being shortchanged by the prize courts, which were in charge of awarding money to the captain and crew according to the worth of the captured vessel. It caused a furor and the contention bore bitter fruit in later years. For Cochrane, victory always begat controversy.
Perhaps the ultimate example is the battle at Basque Roads, in which he single-handedly crippled a French flotilla, then waited as his uncooperative admiral failed to destroy it. Cochrane’s action during this battle in 1809 has been called one of the most brilliant deeds in England’s naval history, yet it led to the low point of his public and private life, and left him an embittered man.
Basque Roads, on France’s Biscay coast near Rochefort, was at the time the temporary anchorage for 11 French ships of the line — massive vessels with up to 100 cannons each. This force had been gathered to thwart British supply ships during the Peninsular War, a contest for control of the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars.
The conservative English admiral Lord Gambier was sent with a fleet, which included Cochrane, to blockade the enemy. Cochrane, for his part, was picked to lead an attack on the French using fire ships — uncrewed vessels stuffed with combustibles and maneuvered into position, then set afire to drift against an anchored ship, setting it afire. Perilous and seldom-used (though Cochrane had previous experience with them), fire ships were regarded as a barbaric tactic. Gambier, Cochrane’s own commander, called them “un-Christian.”
Under cover of night, Cochrane sent flaming ships riding a swift incoming current into the crowded harbor. The result was complete panic. A host of French vessels caught fire, while others weighed anchor in hopes of drifting out of danger in the flame-lit darkness. The current, however, was against them. Dawn showed nearly every ship in the French fleet helplessly grounded, ripe for destruction by Gambier’s fleet, stationed offshore. Cochrane signaled his superior to bring the big British ships in for the kill.
They never made it. Gambier considered the fleet already destroyed (though the now-incredulous French could be seen refloating some of the grounded ships) and refused to risk his fleet on Cochrane’s word. Stunned by this inaction, Cochrane attacked the French by himself, matching Imperieuse’s 38-guns against three of the big ships of the line, taking them all on at once. Gambier finally sent frigates to Cochrane’s aid and together they finished off the three ships. Amazingly, Gambier recalled the little fleet the next morning, leaving a frustrated Cochrane to go after the French flagship on his own. In the end, four ships were destroyed, others crippled, and the threatening fleet scattered, leaving the enemy demoralized.
Gambier claimed a great victory; Cochrane saw failure. He vociferously refused to be included in a parliamentary “vote of thanks” to Gambier and his fleet. “The result of the victory was by no means commensurate with the tone of exultation assumed,” Cochrane wrote in his autobiography. “The French fleet was not destroyed.” Again, not a good career move. Though Cochrane was a public hero, the navy board gave him no new command, and Cochrane was to play no part in the remainder of the Napoleonic conflict.
Cochrane apparently had few quams about taking on the naval establishment. He tangled with the Admiralty Court over his Mediterranean prize money. He backed anti-establishment proposals in Parliament while constantly reminding his peers of inequities in the navy. Still the patriot, he also offered a series of carefully thought-out plans for attacking various enemy ports and using innovative methods of warfare, only to see his ideas rejected.
“For simply urging the common-sense employment of our Navy … I was regarded as a common disturber of the peace,” Cochrane wrote.
Finally, someone had enough. It was time to silence the incorrigible captain once and for all. In June 1814, Cochrane was convicted, along with a few others, of manipulating London stock prices by spreading a false rumor of Napoleon’s death. Cochrane claimed to the end of his life that he was framed, and historians still debate the affair to this day.
The tale is worthy of a novel, complete with spies, disguises, mysterious darkened coaches and a crotchety, prejudiced old judge. In the end, the court ordered its greatest living naval hero to the public pillory, or stocks, a little-used and humiliating punishment. Cochrane, master of the quarterdeck, listened to the judgment “without color in his face, his eyes staring … without expression,” a contemporary wrote. “He left the court … as if stupefied.”
There was a public outcry against the court, particularly the pillory sentence. Even Napoleon came to Cochrane’s defense. “Such a man should not be made to suffer so degrading a punishment,” he said at the time. An embarrassed court quickly reversed course and rescinded the punishment.
Still, Cochrane was expelled from Parliament, stripped of his knighthood and struck off the navy list. Though later reinstated in the navy, he would not command a British ship for more than 30 years while he waited for his knighthood to be restored.
That left Cochrane to perform some of his greatest exploits while commanding the rag-tag navies of Brazil, Chile, Peru and Greece. From 1818 through 1828, his ingenuity and leadership helped these countries fight off despotism and colonial rule on the sea. A firm believer in the cause of each country, Cochrane was as valorous as ever. He captured Valdivia, the “Gibraltar” of Chile, with a single ship; harassed a convoy with more than 60 Portuguese merchantmen from Brazil to the Canary Islands, leaving fewer than 20 afloat or uncaptured; and took two key ports in northern Brazil virtually without a fight, liberating an entire province. In Chile, in particular, he remains a hero to this day. Yet he received little official reward.
To the bitter end
Cochrane was 53 years old in 1828 when he returned permanently to England. A new king, William IV, the “sailor king,” was sympathetic to his cause, and Cochrane was reinstated and made rear admiral. In 1847, with his knighthood restored, he was made commander in chief of the navy’s North American and West Indian stations. A year later, he sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, once again as captain of a British ship.
Cochrane, the courageous adventurer, had a wife of nearly 50 years, with whom he had five children. He seemed to prize her devotion.
Cochrane’s bitterness against the naval establishment remained close to the surface. Nearing his death at age 84, Cochrane reread the journals he kept as a youthful midshipman. Even they are bittersweet, and he calls them “recollections which to this day [call] forth somewhat of the freshness of boyhood to a mind worn down, not so much with age as with unmerited injuries, which have embittered a long life and rendered even the failings of age premature.”
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This article originally appeared in the Dece,.ber 2009 issue.