Thomas Cochrane, the tenth Earl of Dundonald, was a man of outstanding courage and determination. He had a brilliant record as a frigate captain but he was also a fearless fighter for radical causes, a friend of the oppressed and a champion of liberty. When Lord Byron learnt of his arrival in the capital of Peru following the liberation of that country from the colonial rule of Spain he wrote, 'there is no man I envy so much as Lord Cochrane. His entry into Lima, which I see in today's paper, is one of the great events of the day' Sir Walter Scott was so impressed by the standing ovation which Cochrane and his wife received in an Edinburgh theatre on their return from South America that he was inspired to write a poem in their honour. William Cobbett, the outspoken campaigner against corruption in public life, and Sir Francis Burdett, the leading spokesman for parliamentary reform, were among Cochrane's closest friends and supporters. When he died in 1860 The Times noted that he had outlived envy and malice, had suffered much, and triumphed at last. 'History can produce few examples of such a man or of such achievements. There have been greater heroes because there have been heroes with greater opportunities, but no soldier or sailor of modern times ever displayed a more extraordinary capacity than the man who now lies dead.'
In an age which saw the rise and fall of Napoleon and the upsurge in poetry, literature and painting of the Romantic movement, Cochrane was the very epitome of the Romantic hero. His life has an epic quality and was marked by a dramatic succession of ups and downs. Remarkable triumphs were all too often followed by disappointment and recriminations. Like so many heroes he was a flawed character with a temperament which led him into conflict and disputes. He imagined enemies where there were none and made enemies of people who should have been his friends. He was frequently out of step with his times and lacked the insight and the humility to understand why this should be and to adapt to it. His most damaging fault was his pursuit of money and his relentless determination to make his fortune. Many naval officers were motivated by the lure of prize money — the reward for the capture and subsequent sale of an enemy warship or merchant vessel. But with Cochrane it became an obsession. When he arrived in Chile he told his brother William, 'I have every prospect of making the largest fortune which has been made in our days, save that of the Duke of Wellington.' There were good reasons for his mercenary attitude, as we shall see, but it was to cause trouble in his lifetime and in recent years has tarnished his once glittering reputation.
Cochrane's autobiographies have also been responsible for the conflicting views about him. The first of these appeared in 1859 and was entitled Narrative of Services in the Liberation of Chili, Peru, and Brazil from Spanish and Portuguese Domination. The second, which was simply called The Autobiography of a Seaman, was a racy account of Cochrane's career in the Royal Navy and was published shortly before his death in 1860. It was widely read at the time and has since become one of the classics of naval literature. Both biographies were compiled when Cochrane was in his eighties and were based on his memories of distant events as well as letters, logbooks, journals, newspaper cuttings and the memoirs of those who had known him. Neither book was written by Cochrane but by a professional author called George Butler Earp. Both contain vivid accounts of his naval actions but the South American volume is marred by the excessive amount of space devoted to arguments about pay and prize money, and The Autobiography of a Seaman is a platform for Cochrane's embittered views of the Basque Roads action, the court martial of Admiral Lord Gambier, and the Stock Exchange trial of 1814.
Cochrane used the biographies to settle old scores and it was not long before his attacks on leading figures of his day produced a backlash from their families and supporters. The first shots came from Lady Chatterton who published a biography of Gambier, commander-in-chief at the time of Cochrane's fireship attack on the anchored French fleet at Basque Roads. She strongly defended Gam-bier's actions and pointed out a number of errors in Cochrane's account. Far more damaging were two books which set out to defend Lord Ellenborough, the formidable judge who had presided over the Stock Exchange trial which had led to Cochrane's imprisonment and disgrace. The first book, by J. B. Atlay, an Oxford scholar and a barrister, was published in 1897 and was a meticulous examination of the background to the trial, the evidence presented and the arguments for the defence and the prosecution. Atlay not only set out a convincing case for the guilty verdict on Cochrane but was dismissive of the autobiography. 'No naval biography is more entertaining,' he wrote. 'Yet this popular book has been compiled in so extraordinary a manner as to have little claim to be considered anything more than a historical romance.' The second book, The Guilt of Lord Cochrane in 1814, which was written by Lord Ellenborough's grandson, underlined Atlay's verdict on the trial and concluded, 'The so-called "Autobiography of a Seaman" has been a fraud on the boyhood of England for over fifty years. It is not an autobiography, it was not even written by a seaman.'
The doubts cast on Cochrane's character and on the reliability of the biographies did nothing to stem the interest in his life. The heroic and dramatic nature of so many of his exploits proved irresistible for later generations of biographers and were a source of rich material for historical novelists. Indeed, Cochrane's literary legacy has proved more significant than his historical legacy. He rarely receives more than a passing mention in most naval histories but his exploits live on in the works of Patrick O'Brian, C.S. Forester and others. Captain Marryat, who had served as a midshipman in the frigate Imperieuse and had taken part in some of the most spectacular of Cochrane's actions, used his experiences as the basis for Frank Mildmay, or the Naval Officer, the first of his many adventure stories which proved popular with Victorian readers and were enjoyed by his friend Charles Dickens. G.A. Henty, a prolific writer whose patriotic tales were avidly read by schoolboys from Edwardian times until they fell out of favour in the 1950s, produced a stirring account of the naval hero in his book With Cochrane the Dauntless; the exploits of Lord Cochrane in South American waters which was first published in 1909. C.S. Forester drew on events in Cochrane's life for several of his Hornblower novels, notably The Happy Return, which is based on Cochrane's exploits with the Chilean navy. Patrick O'Brian freely acknowledged his debt to Cochrane's autobiography. The plots of three of the books in his admired sequence of novels featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and his surgeon Stephen Maturin are taken directly from events in Cochrane's career: Master and Commander is inspired by Cochrane's exploits in the Speedy; The Reverse of the Medalhas Aubrey involved in a scandal on the Stock Exchange; and Blue at the Mizzen includes incidents from Cochrane's actions in South America. Although there are similarities between Cochrane's life and some of the adventures of Hornblower and Aubrey, it has to be said that the real-life exploits of Cochrane were often far more daring and more exciting than those of his fictional counterparts.
There is no doubt that Cochrane was his own worst enemy. He had few equals as a man of action but he was lacking in tact and diplomacy. He was constantly upsetting his superior officers, dashing off provocative letters and imagining plots and slights against him. His greatest mistake was to get involved in the politics of his day. It was not unusual for serving naval officers to enter Parliament but Cochrane did not have the necessary qualities for success in that noisy bear garden. His passionate embracing of worthy but unpopular causes, his lack of any political subtlety, his impatience to get results, combined with his personal attacks and his intemperate language, proved a disastrous combination.
What is so striking about Cochrane is the contrast between the combative tone of so many of his letters and speeches and his unusually quiet and reserved manner. The novelist Mary Russell Mitford, who met him in the garden of William Cobbett's home in Hampshire when he was at the height of his fame as a frigate captain, was surprised to find him nothing like the common notion of a warrior: A gentle, mild young man was this burner of the French fleets and cutter-out of Spanish vessels . . .' Cyrus Redding, the writer and journalist, found him to be 'a remarkably plain, quiet, fine young man, wholly unassuming'. Maria Graham, the widow of a naval officer and a travel writer of distinction who saw much of Cochrane in Chile, also noted his unassuming manner but was impressed by the man behind the calm front which he presented to the world. 'Though not handsome, Lord Cochrane has an expression of countenance which induces you, when you have once looked, to look again and again. It is variable as the feelings which pass within; but the most general look is that of great benevolence. His conversation, when he breaks his habitual silence, is rich and varied; on subjects connected with his profession or his pursuits, clear and animated; and if ever I met with genius, I should say it was pre-eminent in Lord Cochrane.'
This book began as a study of Cochrane's career in the Royal Navy with the aim of examining his version of the story as it appears in The Autobiography of a Seaman and comparing it with relevant contemporary documents. These documents include the logbooks and muster books of his ships; his letters and reports to his commanding officers and the Admiralty in London; the letters and memoirs of his fellow officers; court martial reports; the minutes of the Navy Board and Board of Admiralty; reports in the newspapers and in the Naval Chronicle; the observations of people who met him during his years as a frigate captain; charts and contemporary pictures of the ports, harbours and coasts which he visited; and the plans of his ships (curiously neglected by other biographers — we find, for instance, that the brig sloop Speedy was steered by a tiller and not by a wheel, and that the hated Arab bore little resemblance to a slab-sided collier).
It soon became evident that it was impossible to do justice to Cochrane's achievements as a naval commander without taking into account the truly astonishing feats which he carried out while in command of the navies of Chile and Brazil. It was equally difficult to ignore his activities as a Member of Parliament because these were originally prompted by his desire to draw attention to injustices, corruption and dangerous practices which he came across as a naval officer. His interest in the scientific and engineering advances of his day also had to be taken into account because he was constantly experimenting and inventing: he was among the first naval officers to make use of Congreve's rockets when attacking coastal targets; the 'explosion ships' at Basque Roads were largely of his own devising; he invented a convoy lamp for the use of merchant convoys; and he was a leading exponent of steam power for warships and devoted years of his life to devising and building a rotary steam engine.
In addition to the naval documents there is a great deal of material available on the other aspects of Cochrane's life. Because he was so often involved in controversial schemes, in legal battles and in claims for large sums of money including prize money and back pay, he and his secretary, and later his family, made sure that copies of his letters and parliamentary papers, and the records of his dealings with foreign governments were preserved. These, and much of the correspondence between him and his wife and their five children, have been deposited in the National Archives of Scotland and the National Library of Scotland and are a wonderfully rich resource for students of his life. The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich has a number of relevant documents including the correspondence between Cochrane and his Scottish surgeon, James Guthrie. (It would be interesting to know whether Patrick O'Brian was aware of the life-long friendship between Cochrane and Guthrie when he created the ingenious and fascinating character of Dr Maturin.) And there is also valuable material in the British Library, notably the Collingwood Papers, the Auckland Papers and the Minutes of Evidence given before the House of Lords Committee of Privileges in 1861 — the latter is particularly revealing about Cochrane's domestic life and the details of his courtship and runaway marriage to a young and pretty orphan in defiance of the wishes of his wealthy uncle.
We also know exactly what Cochrane looked like at different stages of his life. He sat for his portrait on several occasions and these paintings remain in the family collections. There are also some fine engraved portraits and a few caricatures by some of the leading cartoonists of his day. These, together with the descriptions of many people who met him, indicate that he was impressively tall and powerfully built, and that his hair was not red, as so many biographers have suggested, but auburn (the descriptions vary between sandy and reddish). He had blue eyes, a prominent nose and a fair complexion which his life at sea caused to be tanned and sun-freckled. Samuel Bamford, the radical activist, said that 'he stooped a little and had somewhat of a sailor's gait in walking'. And since he was born and brought up in Scotland it is not surprising to find that he spoke with a distinctive Scottish accent. His grandson recalled, 'I was a boy when my grandfather died, and I well remember him — his striking personality, his impressive manner of speech, with a lowland Scottish accent, and his kindness to children.' He was always intensely proud of his Scottish roots, and his Scottish friends and connections were a constant source of support during his long and turbulent life.
Excerpted from Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander by David Cordingly. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.