Thomas Cochrane

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Thomas Alexander Cochrane, (1775 - 1860), was the eldest son of the 9th Earl of Dundonald, and was known as Lord Cochrane until he inherited his father's title in 1831. He was a naval officer and a radical politician. His career as one of the most daring and successful captains of his times led to him becoming an inspiration for both C.S. Forester's and Patrick O'Brian's naval fiction.

After being convicted of involvement in an attempt to rig the Stock Exchange, he was dismissed the service and later helped create the independent navies of Chile and Brazil during the colonists rebellions against Spain. He also aided the Greeks in their fight to throw off the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Eventually he was reinstated in the Royal Navy and became an admiral.

His uncles included Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane. Through the influence of his uncle, he was listed as a member of the crew on the books of four Royal Navy ships although he probably never served aboard them. He joined the Royal Navy in 1793 at the advanced age of seventeen upon the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars.


Service in the Royal Navy

In 1799 Cochrane briefly commanded the captured French battleship Genereux. In 1800 Cochrane was appointed to command the sloop HMS Speedy. Later that year he was almost captured by a Spanish warship concealed as a merchant ship. He escaped by flying a Danish flag and dissuading an attempt to investigate by claiming his ship was plague-ridden. Chased by an enemy frigate, and knowing it would follow him in the night by the light from the Speedy, he placed a light on a barrel and let it float away. The enemy frigate followed the barrel and Speedy escaped.

One of his most famous exploits was the capture of the Spanish xebec frigate El Gamo, on 6 May 1801. El Gamo carried 32 guns and 319 men, compared with the 14 guns and 54 men on Speedy. Cochrane flew an American flag to get close, finally approaching so closely to Gamo that its guns could not depress to fire on the Speedy's hull. This left only the option of boarding, but whenever the Spanish were about to board Cochrane would pull away briefly, and fire on the concentrated boarding parties with his ship's guns. Cochrane then boarded the Gamo, despite still being outnumbered about five to one, and captured her. The Gamo was not bought into the Navy: as a result Cochrane and the crew of the Speedy received no prize money.

On a subsequent cruise he was trapped by three French battleships and he was captured and witnessed the Battle of Algeciras Bay from the French ship Desaix commanded by Captain Christi-Palliéere, he was exchanged for a French captain after the battle. He was promoted to Post Captain in August 1801.

Following the resumption of war after the Peace of Amiens, St Vincent assigned him to command of a converted collier, HMS Arab. This ship was posted to the North Sea and afforded Cochrane no opportunities for glory.

In 1804 St Vincent was replaced by the new government and Cochrane was appointed to command of the 32-gun frigate [[HMS Pallas|HMS Pallas]]. In 1807 he was given command of the frigate Imperieuse. On this ship, one of his midshipmen was Frederick Marryat. Cochrane used this ship to raid the Mediterranean coast of France. In 1808, a French army marched into Catalonia and besieged Roses, Cochrane took part in the defence of the town by occupying and defending the fort for a number of weeks.

In 1809 he was chosen to command flotilla of fire ships attack as part of the Battle of the Basque Roads. Some damage was done, but Cochrane felt that a great opportunity was lost, for which he blamed the fleet commander Admiral Gambier.

He was dismissed from the Navy following the stock exchange fraud and eventually took service in South America when it became obvious that he would not be reinstated.

Service in Chile

He left the UK in official disgrace, responding to a request from Bernardo O'Higgins to command the Chilean Navy in its war of independence against Spain.

Accompanied by Lady Cochrane and his two children, he reached Valparaiso in 1818. Cochrane was named Vice-Admiral and reorganized the Chilean navy, and took command of the frigate O'Higgins and raided the coasts of Chile and Peru as he had France and Spain. He introduced British naval customs into the Chilean navy. He organized and led the capture of Valdivia, Spain's most important base in Chile. In 1820, forces under his command, cut out and captured the Esmeralda, the most powerful Spanish ship in South America.

Later, he was ordered by Bernardo O'Higgins to lead the Chilean fleet to free Peru from the Spanish, while San Martin would lead the Freedom Army. This would result in Peruvian independence.

Cochrane made plans to free Napoleon from his exile on Saint Helena and to make him ruler of a unified South American state. Before he could carry out his plan, Napoleon had died in 1821.

Service in Brazil

Brazil was fighting its own war of independence against Portugal. Cochrane took command of the Brazilian navy and its flagship the Pedro Primeiro. By bluff he convinced the Portuguese army in Maranhão into surrendering. As a result of rebellions and attempted palace coups, Cochrane found himself governor of the province of Maranhão. Dissatisfied with his situation, Cochrane boarded a frigate and sailed it to England.

Service in Greece

Cochrane next joined the Greeks who were rebelling against the Ottoman Empire, however, he did not make much impression during the war as the Greek sailors were too undisciplined to fight effectively.

Political career

In 1806 Cochrane was elected to the House of Commons by the rotten borough of Honiton, despite being in favour of parliamentary reform. In 1807 Cochrane was elected as MP for Westminster. He would hold this seat until 1818.

Cochrane's campaign for parliamentary reform combined with his outspoken criticism of the conduct of the war and the corruption in the Navy made him powerful enemies in the government. His criticism of Gambier's conduct made him enemies in the Admiralty. As a result his campaigns were not very successful despite his popularity with his constituents.

In 1831 his father died and Cochrane became the 10th Earl Dundonald. As such he was eligible to sit in the House of Lords.

Stock Exchange Fraud

Cochrane was tried and convicted as a conspirator in the Stock Exchange fraud in 1814, although he maintained his innocence throughout his life. The summing up of the presiding judge Lord Ellenborough was biased against Cochrane. Most historians agree that the weight of circumstantial evidence against Cochrane indicated that at the least he had been the pawn of his uncle.

He was sentenced to the pillory, a fine of £1000 and a year's imprisonment. He was excused from doing pillory for fear that his supporters might riot. He was also expelled from Parliament and the Navy. As an additional humiliation he was stripped of his knighthood. He was, however, immediately re-elected for Westminster. There was considerable public anger at his trial and sentence, especially the pillory. The fine of £1000 that was also imposed on him was paid by popular subscription.

For the rest of his life, Cochrane would campaign to have his conviction reversed and his knighthood restored. He would receive a royal pardon in 1832, and be restored to the navy list and gazetted rear admiral. Not until 1847 was his knighthood restored, by the personal intervention of Queen Victoria.

Return to Royal Navy

Despite his restoration to the navy list in 1832, Cochrane's return to full Royal Navy service was delayed by his refusal to take a command until his knighthood had been restored. Cochrane later served as commander-in-chief of the East Indian station, and as commander-in-chief of the North American and West Indies station from 1847 to 1851. During the Crimean War he was considered for a command in the Baltic, but it was decided that there was too much risk he would lose his fleet in a risky attack.

In his final years he wrote his autobiography. This was somewhat self-serving but is the source for many of the descriptions of his exploits in naval fiction.

In the Canon

SPOILER WARNING:  Plot or ending details for "Master and Commander, The Reverse of the Medal, The Wine-Dark Sea and Blue at the Mizzen"  follow.

Cochrane is briefly mentioned in the Canon, once when Stephen Maturin thinks that Jack Aubrey is very unlike Cochrane. However, many of the incidents in Master and Commander are very closely based on actual incidents from Cochrane's autobiography and his cruises in HMS Speedy. Aubrey's trial and sentence for stock exchange fraud in The Reverse of the Medal is an obvious parallel to Cochrane's trial, though Aubrey is reinstated far more quickly. Many of Aubrey and Maturin's later adventures in South America, from The Wine-Dark Sea and Blue at the Mizzen are also taken from events in Cochrane's life as admiral in the Chilean navy.

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