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Thomas Chochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald
can produce few examples of such a man and such achievements.' He was
the last man in Britain to be sentenced to the pillory. He was jailed
for fraud and escaped from prison. He was a radical politician, a
talented inventor and, above all, one of the most formidable fighting
sailors of his time.
Thomas Cochrane was born at Annsfield, near Hamilton, South Lanarkshire,
Scotland, the son of Archibald Cochrane, 9th Earl of Dundonald.
Cochrane had six brothers. Two served with distinction in the military:
William Erskine Cochrane of the 15th Dragoon Guards, who served under
Sir John Moore in the Peninsular War and reached the rank of major; and
Archibald Cochrane, who became a captain in the Navy.
Cochrane was descended from lines of Scottish aristocracy and military
service on both sides of his family. Through his uncle Admiral Sir
Alexander Cochrane, the sixth son of the 8th Earl of Dundonald, Cochrane
was cousin to his namesake Sir Thomas John Cochrane. Thomas Cochrane had
a naval career and was appointed as Governor
of Newfoundland and later Vice-Admiral of the United Kingdom. By 1793
the family fortune had been spent, and the family estate was sold to
joined the Royal Navy when he was 17 and after a six-year apprenticeship
at sea was posted to the Mediterranean, one of the theatres in the war
against France. Stuck on the flagship and bored, he fell out with his
venal first lieutenant who accused Cochrane of disrespect and had him
court-martialed. The admiral was furious with both of them. He acquitted
Cochrane, but put a reprimand on his record. Inability to suffer fools
gladly and hatred of corruption were two of Cochrane's characteristics
and both would lead to him falling foul of the authorities throughout
With a blot on his record, he was grudgingly given a command of
Speedy, a brig of only 158 tons with 14 four-pounder guns. Cochrane
found he could carry the shot for a full broadside in his pockets. He
was ordered to cruise the coast of Spain in the western Mediterranean to
raid coastal shipping. By using superb seamanship, meticulous planning,
trickery and exemplary courage, within a year he captured more than 50
prizes and took 534 prisoners.
His most extraordinary feat was an attack on a Spanish frigate that
ambushed him off Barcelona. The Gamo carried 319 men and 32 guns.
With half the crew ferrying prizes, Speedy was down to 54 men and
its puny guns were only effective within a 50-yard range. Instead of
fleeing, Cochrane sailed straight at the frigate. It fired a broadside
but Speedy was too close and the shot passed overhead. Cochrane
spun his ship and crossed on the opposite side. He timed it so that the
frigate was on another roll, its broadside again flying harmlessly
overhead. Speedy, triple-shotted, fired at point blank range when
the swell pointed its guns upwards, straight into the Gamo's gun
deck. He performed this maneuver three times. Then he boarded, his men
with blacked faces to frighten and confuse their opponents. Their
captain dead, the demoralized Spaniards surrendered and were herded
below deck before they realized how few attackers there were. Speedy
had three men killed against 15 Spaniards. Cochrane became a national
hero, but he complained when he and his men lost a fortune through
corruption in the prize court. The Admiralty, itself rotten right to the
top, was not amused.
During the 14-month peace in Europe after the Treaty of Amiens in 1802,
Cochrane studied moral philosophy at Edinburgh University. When
hostilities resumed, he pestered the Admiralty for a ship and they sent
him north of Shetland to do nothing but 'protecting the fisheries’ for
15 months. The appointment of a Scot as First Lord of the Admiralty led
to Cochrane being given the frigate Pallas. He created absolute
terror down the French coast by burning signal stations, cutting ships
from protected waters, destroying coastal fortifications, and disrupting
trade and supply routes. Napoleon called him 'Le Loup des Mers' (The
Wolf of the Seas).
In 1807 he took a month's leave and was elected as MP for Westminster,
one of the two constituencies that elected by popular vote rather than
being in the gift of some magnate. He immediately launched a ferocious
attack against Admiralty corruption in the House of Commons. He was
already considered a troublemaker and he was quickly ordered to sea. The
Channel Fleet under Lord Gambier was blockading a French squadron in the
Aix Roads off La Rochelle and Cochrane was sent to advise. He led an
attack with 27 vessels, sending in fire ships and creating chaos. The
French ships cut their cables and drifted on shore, but Gambier failed
to follow up the attack and they were refloated the following day.
Gambier was offered a parliamentary vote of thanks for the victory.
Cochrane was outraged and said so in the House of Commons. Gambier was
court-martialed, but Cochrane was unable to present his side of the case
and so the admiral was acquitted. Then his enemies were given a chance.
In early 1814 – the year his brother ordered the burning of the White
House, the Capital and the Library of Congress – Cochrane's uncle spread
false rumors that Napoleon was dead and made huge sums shorting
government stocks. Cochrane was innocently involved, but after the
swindle was exposed he was tried for fraud. After being found guilty, he
was stripped of his rank and honors, thrown out of the Commons,
sentenced to the pillory (which was commuted), and jailed for a year.
The public was furious and his constituents re-elected him, but it
seemed his career was over.
But, in 1817, his reputation as a fighting sailor led to an invitation
from the nascent government of Chile, asking for his help to throw off
Spanish rule. Their navy controlled the west coast of South America.
Cochrane arrived in November 1818 and found his ships consisted of one
captured frigate and half a dozen converted merchantmen.
Cochrane never ordered a flogging. His charisma, his victories and the
low casualties in his crews meant that he easily recruited experienced
American and British sailors to his vessels. His qualities made him a
barracuda against a shoal of Spanish herrings and his enemies knew it.
He organized a typical campaign, raiding shipping, attacking forts and
destroying coastal fortifications. He captured the Esmeralda, the
most powerful remaining Spanish ship, which left the Spanish unable to
reinforce their troops and helpless. On his own initiative he sailed
north to Peru, beat up the coastline and forced the Spanish authorities
Having been instrumental in the independence of both Peru and Chile,
which still has a warship named after him, he sailed around the Horn to
Rio in 1823 where the young emperor Pedro employed him against the
Portuguese fleet that still controlled the north of the country.
Cochrane had four serviceable ships, but chased a fleet of 13 Portuguese
warships and 32 transports that fled up the coast before him. Cochrane
sailed ahead of them and bluffed the two remaining strongholds under
Portuguese control to surrender, saying that he had already destroyed
their fleet. It had taken him just three months to deliver the northern
half of the country to the emperor.
Cochrane returned home in 1830, a national hero once again, and received
the salute due to an admiral at Spithead. His last fling was taking
command of the Greek navy in its fight for independence against Turkey.
His name inspired terror in his opponents and forced the great powers to
He returned to England and inherited the earldom of Dundonald in 1831.
In 1832, he was pardoned by the Crown and reinstated in the Royal Navy.
He died in 1860 with the rank of Admiral of the Red, a national
life and exploits inspired the naval fiction of 19th- and 20th-century
novelists, particularly the figures of C. S.
Forester's Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O'Brian's
protagonist Jack Aubrey.