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Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald 1775-1860

Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane
HMS Speedy, Cochrane's first ship, captures the Spanish frigate El Gamo, 1801

Thomas Cochrane had a truly remarkable career as a naval officer and a politician. After serving with distinction in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, he was wrongly jailed for fraud, stripped of his naval rank and parliamentary seat. Amazingly he went on to command the Chilean, Brazilian and Greek navies, helping these countries in their fight for independence. He completed a remarkable comeback when he received a Royal pardon and the restoration of his naval rank.

Cochrane soon established a reputation as one of the navy's most audacious and feared commanders. As a Lieutenant in command of his first ship, the sloop Speedy mounting fourteen 4-pounder guns and with a crew of only ninety-two, he captured fifty ships, 122 guns and 534 prisoners in just a year. The most famous engagement, illustrating the brilliance and daring that typified his career, was the capture of the 32-gun Spanish frigate El Gamo on 6 May 1801. Cochrane ordered the hoisting of the American flag to confuse the Spanish. El Gamo's broadsides missed and Speedy got close enough for her guns to open fire killing the Spanish Captain. Cochrane then stormed the Spanish ship with a boarding party who included the entire crew, except Speedy's surgeon. He ordered one man to climb the mast and haul down the colours, whereupon the Spanish crew of 319 surrendered.

Promoted to Post-Captain and given command of the frigates Pallas and later Imperieuse, Cochrane terrorized shipping along the French and Spanish coasts to such a extent that Napoleon referred to him as the Sea Wolf. In 1808 he attacked Valencia in Spain and captured several ships, some of which turned out to be American.

At the legendary Battle of Basque Roads in 1809 Cochrane used fireships and explosion vessels to cause terror among the French squadron, most of which was run aground. Unfortunately the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Lord Gambier, hesitated to deploy the main fleet and the opportunity to annihilate the French was lost. Infuriated Cochrane, who had been elected as a radical MP in 1806, opposed a motion of thanks for Gambier in the House of Commons. Gambier insisted on a court martial to clear his name and as the establishment closed ranks he was duly acquitted. In 1812 Cochrane presented the Admiralty with an innovative gas warfare plan. It was rejected on the grounds that it was inhuman although technically realistic.

Cochrane had made some powerful enemies and his campaign against corruption in the navy offended other leading figures including some, such as Earl St Vincent, who was sympathetic to his views. The establishment was determined on revenge and seized on an opportunity to put Cochrane on trial for stock exchange fraud in 1814. Convicted after a suspect trial, he was swiftly dismissed from the navy and Parliament. After sensationally escaping from prison in 1815, Cochrane was soon released but the authorities put him under serious financial and political pressure and he decided there was little reason to remain in Britain.

In 1817 he left the country and for the next ten years conducted a series of incredible operations for the Chilean, Brazilian and Greek navies. The formidable Spanish fortress of Valdivia was captured by 300 Chilean troops under Cochrane command in 1820 and in the same year he cut out the flagship of the Spanish South American fleet, the Esmeralda, from the port of Callao. In charge of the embryonic Brazilian fleet and against all the odds, Cochrane captured the Portuguese garrison of Bahia and accepted the surrender of the fortress at Maranhao after an outstanding campaign of deception.

Cochrane was reinstated in the Royal Navy in 1832 under a new King, William IV, and a sympathetic Whig government. His final appointment in 1847 was to be Commander-in-Chief of the North American and West Indies Station. During the Crimean War the government publicised the possibility of Cochrane commanding a Baltic fleet. With Cochrane's unrivalled reputation for coastal warfare, the Russians correctly interpreted this as a threat to their capital St Petersburg. One of Britain's most flamboyant and daring naval heroes and a reforming politician, Cochrane died in 1860 at the age of 85 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Further reading:

  • The Hon. M. Cochrane, "Cochrane: Basque Roads, 1809" in E.J. Grove (Ed.) Great Battles of the Royal Navy (London, 1994). R. Harvey. Cochrane: The Life and Exploits of a Fighting Captain (London, 2000). A. Lambert, War at Sea in the Age of Sail (London: 2000). W. Tute, Cochrane: The Life of Admiral the Earl of Dundonald (London, 1965).