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From a straw poll, it seems that captain Lord Cochrane is not famous in this part of Britain. This may not be so true in his native Scotland and certainly not in Valparaiso, Chile where an obelisk and statue stand in his honour. He deserves to be much better known as an extraordinary sea captain, rivalling such successful men as Nelson, Rodney, Drake and Raleigh.


Why? Because he was sacked from the Royal Navy but later reinstated as an admiral. He was also an admiral in the Chilean Navy and commanded the Brazilian and Greek Navies; he was found guilty of a Stock Exchange swindle, was a radical MP, an inventor, a plotter with Napoleon, and a favoured subject of Queen Victoria. His deeds inspired authors Patrick O’Brian (Captain Aubrey), C.S.Forester (Hornblower) and Bernard Cornwall (Sharpe).


Thomas, Lord Cochrane, Tenth Earl of Dundonald, G.C.B., did not succeed to his title until late in life but he was usually known as ‘Lord’ throughout his career. He joined his first ship at the age of seventeen in 1793, as a midshipman. In three years he became a commissioned lieutenant and two years later he was 8th lieutenant on the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet.


Cochrane was promoted to commander and given his first ship in 1800. This was the Speedy, a sloop of 14 guns and 54 men. In 1801 he captured a Spanish xebec frigate which carried 32 guns and 319 men. Cochrane managed to get very near the much larger xebec so that it could not depress its guns to fire on his ship. However Cochrane could use his broadside on the Spaniards when they made several attempts to board. Then it was the turn of the Speedy’s crew, outnumbered by five to one, who boarded and captured the xebec. This was an extraordinary victory which won Cochrane much praise.


The Speedy spent thirteen months in the Mediterranean during which time Cochrane burned or drove ashore 53 ships but he and the Speedy were eventually captured by three large French warships but soon exchanged with a French officer. At the age of 25 he was promoted to Post-Captain, a much desired rank. Similar exploits formed the outline of part of O’Brian’s Master and Commander and this is acknowledged in a later Author’s Note.


When the peace of Amiens was declared, Cochrane started two years at Edinburgh University where he studied moral philosophy.


By 1806 Britain was again at war and Cochrane was given command of the 38-gun frigate HMS Imperieuse. One of his midshipmen later became the writer, Captain Marryat who is said to have originated the genre of sea adventure stories.

In the Mediterranean, Cochrane used his ship as a base when he carried out two military actions. With the help of Spanish guerrillas he captured a strategic fortress and later he helped defend Rosas, a town in Catalonia. Cochrane led his men on many surprise attacks, using the ship’s boats to cut out enemy ships in harbour, a favourite exploit of Hornblower and Aubrey.


Although by this time Cochrane had become probably the best coastal raider, he had upset the admiralty, particularly Lord St Vincent. His unpopularity stemmed from his hatred of corruption, particularly in the naval dockyards.

In 1809, the French fleet assembled in the Basque Roads near La Rochelle.


The Admiralty decided that Cochrane was the most capable officer for this task. However he was not given overall command which was held by Admiral Gambier. Cochrane organised an attack using exploding and fire ships which panicked the French and resulted in many of their ships being stranded on sand banks. Meanwhile Gambier, who was nine miles away and had refused to take part in the attack, received Cochrane’s signal asking him to sail with his fleet to demolish the stranded French. Gambier remained where he was so Cochrane attacked with few ships in support. Much damage was done but with Gambier’s support, it was said, the victory could have been as great as that at Trafalgar.


When Gambier returned to England the government decided to ask Parliament to give him a vote of thanks for his remarkable victory but Cochrane, who by this time had become a radical opposition MP, made it known that he would oppose such a vote on the grounds that Gambier had been nine miles away. Such votes had to be unanimous so this made Cochrane even more unpopular with the Government.

Cochrane bought rapidly rising Stock in 1816 and sold out after the rise. One of Cochrane’s uncles and others had perpetrated a hoax which caused the rise and Cochrane’s part was apparently confirmed by an impostor seen to enter Cochrane’s house. Those thought to be involved were tried in a court directed by Lord Ellenborough who was a Tory and an enemy of the radicals. All conspirators were found guilty but Cochrane always maintained that he was innocent. Lord Ellenborough refused to enter further evidence which would have cleared Cochrane. Three reviews carried out much later by Lord Chancellors concluded that Cochrane should have been found not guilty. At the time a fine was imposed on Cochrane and he was sentenced to a year in prison and to the pillory but the latter was rescinded because of likely riots in view of his public support. In the last part of O’Brian’s The Reverse of the Medal similar happenings are described as the author acknowledges.

Cochrane was thrown out of Parliament but immediately re-elected. Earlier in his career he had been made a Knight Grand Cross of the order of the Bath but in an ancient ceremony his banner was torn down from Westminster Abbey in the middle of the night and he (actually a substitute) was literally kicked down the Abbey steps.

He escaped from prison by joining smuggled-in lengths of cord and using his sailor’s skills to climb from his upper story quarters on to the roof and then down to and over the prison walls. He was later recaptured. A short time before the Stock Exchange scandal, Cochrane eloped with Katherine Barnes, an orphan about half his age. Kitty, as he called her, supported Cochrane in all his adventures and followed him in sub- sequent foreign campaigns. They were married three times: originally in a form of civil marriage at the Queensbury Arms, Annan, Scotland, then in an Anglican rite and lastly, in the Church of Scotland. They had six children at least one of whom crossed the Andes with his mother fromChile to Argentina. Such was Cochrane’s reputation, that a delegation from Chile rebelling against Spanish rule pleaded with him to become admiral commanding the rebel Navy. He accepted, but he left Britain disgraced and expelled from the Royal Navy. Apart from a few strongholds which could be sup- plied by sea, the rebels, under a half Irish general, Bernado O’Higgins, controlled Chile. Having a small navy they could not achieve an end to Spanish rule especially against the largest and most effective Spanish ship, frigate Esmeralda.

Cochrane introduced British naval discipline, training, and methods, and ranged along the Chilean and Peruvian coast attacking and blockading towns and ports. Largely as described in detail in the novel Sharpe’s Devil he attacked and took Valdivia

(as acknowledged by the author Bernard Cornwall). This Spanish town was defended by five forts and Cochrane had only about three hundred men. Having defeated one fort, the others fell with little opposition when the garrison heard that the invincible Cochrane was in command. In a later action Cochrane cut out and captured the Esmeralda.


Napoleon figured in Cochrane’s plans for South America. Napoleon had told his commanders before Waterloo that his ambition was to lead a Latin republic in South America to rival the United States. However when Cochrane’s messenger arrived in

St Helena, Napoleon was dying.


Portugal was in control of part of Brazil at this time and Cochrane was invited to become admiral of the Brazilian Navy. His exploits there were of the same type and order as in Chile and in recognition he was made Marquess of Maranhao. In 1827 he took part in the Greek attempt to free itself from the Ottoman Empire but he achieved only limited success.


In 1828 Cochrane attempted to have his name cleared from involvement in the Stock Exchange scandal but it was not until ‘the sailor king’ William IV was crowned that progress was made. Kitty had two interviews with the Prime Minister, Lord Grey, and Cochrane had an audience with the King in the Brighton Pavilion. Finally Kitty also saw the King who offered a pardon but Cochrane felt this was not appropriate since he had done nothing wrong. However Kitty persuaded him and a pardon was granted. Cochrane was reinstated on the navy list as a rear admiral. By this time his father had died and he had become 10th Earl of Dundonald.


When Cochrane was sixty-two he was interested in the power of steam and a Dr Gosse visited Cochrane on a steamship while suffering from a fever. Cochrane devised a bath using steam from the ship’s boilers and he lifted Gosse into it so that he perspired copiously. “My illness disappeared as by enchantment” wrote the Doctor. His interest in steam led Cochrane to design a ship for Chile, the Rising Star, which was the first steamship to cross the Atlantic. He invented a rotary steam engine which was intended to avoid the use of a reciprocating engine and drive a paddle directly. This invention was at first turned down by the Admiralty but later used in a new frigate.


After some prolonged discussion within the cabinet, the leader of the House of Lords was granted an audience with Queen Victoria who then said “with or without the Privy Council’s approval she would confer the next vacant Order of the Bath on Lord Dundonald” so restoring Cochrane’s knighthood. With his honours restored he accepted an appointment at the age of seventy-two which in effect made him admiral of Britain’s Atlantic fleet.


Lord Cochrane published his autobiography, and continued in political and naval life until he died in 1860 shortly before his eighty-fifth birthday.CH


More about Lord Cochrane can be found in: D. Thomas. Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, 1978 Wikipedia. Cochrane, Britannia’s Last Sea King

Lord Cochrane