Cochrane: Britannia's Sea Wolf

Donald Thomas

First published 1978. Edition reviewed: Cassell 1999, ISBN 0-304-35282-9

This historical biography recounts the colourful career of Thomas Cochrane, later 10th Earl of Dundonald, whose daring naval exploits during and shortly after the Napoleonic Wars were far more outrageous than any novelist would dare to invent.

Cochrane was born in 1775 to an eccentric aristocratic father with a large ancestral estate but very little money, who proceeded to lose what was left of the family fortune by inventing various scientific innovations (such as gas lighting) by accident whilst looking for something else. The young Cochrane entered the Royal Navy as a midshipman in 1793, through the good offices of his uncle Captain Alexander Cochrane. His astonishing military talent was soon displayed when he was given command of a tiny warship, the Speedy. One of his most daring and spectacular actions was the capture of a Spanish frigate, the Gamo, which was far superior to the Speedy in size and armament. He first deceived the Gamo's officers by flying the US flag, which allowed him to get so close to the frigate that its guns literally fired over his head and could do minimal damage, while his own guns could be angled upwards to rake the Gamo's gundecks with shot. After about an hour of this, with the Spanish captain dead and the crew demoralised, Cochrane led a boarding party and by a mixture of cunning and ferocity convinced the Spanish to surrender. Further actions saw his tiny ship capture and destroy enemy shore forts, and destroy a squadron of French cavalry on the coast road, as well as taking numerous ships as prizes. Napoleon called him "le loup des mers", the Sea Wolf, and later his Spanish adversaries in Chile were to call him El Diablo, the Devil.

Remarkably, Cochrane's military successes were accomplished with very few casualties, often very few on either side. Frederick Marryat, who served under Cochrane as a midshipman (later becoming a captain and a successful novelist), wrote of him, "I never knew any one as careful of the lives of his ship's company as Lord Cochrane, or any one who calculated so closely the risks attending any expedition".

However, Cochrane's military skill was only equalled by his talent for making enemies on his own side. He conducted a long-running feud with the Admiralty's officials, who refused to buy his prizes and tried to avoid giving him the coveted promotion to post-captain. At one point they resorted to giving him command of a wallowing tub of a collier and stationed him in the Orkneys for a year in an attempt to keep him out of their hair. One can sympathise to some extent, as Cochrane was irascible, uncompromising, unforgiving and supremely confident to the point of arrogance, evidently not an easy man to get along with.

Nevertheless, the official system of naval procurement and some of the men who ran it deserved all the trouble he could possibly cause. The scale of corruption and mismanagement in the Admiralty in the early years of the nineteenth century was astonishing. Ships were built of substandard timber that rotted almost as fast as it was laid, and the metal nails that held a ship together were stolen by corrupt contractors and replaced with false heads and tips, with predictably fatal results. Work, if done at all, was charged for several times over. Cables could be hundreds of feet short of the specified length. Provisions were frequently rancid. Valuable copper compass mounts were stolen and replaced with iron, which deflected the ship's compass and meant it might misread by 30 degrees or more, quite enough to put a ship hopelessly out of position and aground on rocks or reefs, as Cochrane found out to his cost when his frigate narrowly escaped being wrecked on the Brittany coast. A Commission of Enquiry conducted at the end of the Napoleonic Wars estimated that anything up to a quarter of the annual government expenditure on the navy had simply vanished into the pockets of fraudsters. It seems remarkable that Britain ever got a fleet to sea at all, and still more remarkable that Nelson and his colleagues managed to defeat not only the external enemy but the enemy at home as well.

Instead of putting up with the system, Cochrane stood for Parliament on a ticket of naval reform. In politics, he displayed an extraordinary mix of guile and naivete. On the one hand, he must be one of the very few men ever to have comprehensively outmanoeuvred the grasping voters of a Rotten Borough (in his case, Honiton), who to their chagrin found they had elected him to Parliament without the customary payment for their votes. On the other, he was shouted down in Parliament (which was evidently at least as much of an unedifying bear pit then as Prime Minister's Questions is now) with little achieved for his cause, and was then embroiled in a Stock Exchange fraud by his crooked uncle.

The fraud could have come straight from the pages of The Count of Monte Cristo. The crooked uncle made a fortune in speculative share dealings and skipped before the subsequent trial delivered its verdict; Cochrane stayed to plead his innocence and was jailed after a biased trial. He promptly escaped from prison by means of some heroics with a smuggled rope, took his seat in Parliament, was arrested again, incarcerated in an unventilated dungeon which threatened to break his health, and was finally persuaded by his friends to pay a fine as a condition of his liberty, which he did with the defiant words, "I submit to robbery that I may protect myself from murder".

Cochrane was now permanently out of a job with the Royal Navy, but other governments were eager to employ his talents. In 1818, Cochrane accepted the post of commanding admiral of the Chilean navy in Chile's war of independence against Spain.

His career as a mercenary admiral in Chile followed the by now familiar pattern, defeating the Spanish military with daring and panache by land and sea, and then being done out of most of the rewards by more politically adept governments and rivals. After Chile, he fought equally successfully for Brazil in their war of independence against Portugal, and then with rather more mixed results for the Greeks in their attempt to throw off Turkish rule. At the age of 54, having gained massive fame and rather more modest financial rewards, Cochrane came home for good. For the rest of his life he applied himself with undiminished energy to campaigning to clear his name of the Stock Exchange fraud and inventing various ingenious military devices such as saturation bombardment and gas warfare, few of which were taken up. He died aged 85, having outlived most of his enemies, and was lauded by the Victorian public as a hero to rival Nelson. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Nor was the romance in Cochrane's life only of the military variety. At the age of 39, he fell in love with Kitty Barnes, an eighteen-year-old beauty with no money or prospects, whereupon another uncle, the only one of the family with any money, threatened to disinherit him. Undeterred, Cochrane and Kitty eloped together to Scotland, got married no less than three times, had four sons and a daughter, at least one of whom accompanied them on campaign in South America, and lived happily ever after.

This is a clear, engaging and very readable biography of a man whose extraordinary life needs no embellishment whatsoever. As you will have gathered, the author succeeded in gaining my admiration for Cochrane. Yet the biography doesn't idolise him. For all his military brilliance, Cochrane was his own worst enemy and much of his misfortune came from his political ineptitude and the ease - one could almost say the determination - with which he made and retained enemies in high places. Once Cochrane decided he hated someone, there was no possibility of compromise or of letting bygones be bygones. Nothing short of total victory would satisfy him, and this capacity to stoke the flames of a feud alienated men who might otherwise have been his allies. The author points out that Cochrane's all-too-frequent response to officials who crossed his will was to flounce out and threaten to resign. While he was undoubtedly a star he was also something of a prima donna.

Think of every fictional action hero you have ever admired - Zorro, Hornblower, Aubrey, Sharpe - roll them all into one and move up a gear, and you get some idea of Cochrane's extraordinary career. A remarkable man who lived a remarkable life, far outshining his fictional counterparts.