NEAL CONAN, host:
The pages of historical fiction are awash in British naval heroes of the Napoleonic wars. The best known, of course, are C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey and there are plenty more -intrepid captains who steer their frigates into harm's way, outsail, outfight and outwit French or Spanish rivals who were twice their size.
To a lesser or greater degree, they are all based on Thomas Cochrane, an auburn-haired, blue-eyed Scot. A new biography argues persuasively that his real-life exploits were often far more daring and more exciting than those of his fictional counterparts.
On his death in 1860, the Times of London concluded, history can produce few examples of such a man or of such achievement. There have been greater heroes because there have been heroes with greater opportunities, but no sailor or soldier of modern times ever displayed a more extraordinary capacity than the man who now lies dead.
If you have questions about the life and legacy of Lord Cochrane, give us a call. 800-989-8255. E-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org. That new biography is titled "Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander." It's author, David Cordingly, joins us from the BBC Southern County Studio in Brighton, England. And welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. DAVID CORDINGLY (Author, "Lord Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander"): Hello, Neal. Good to be with you.
CONAN: Readers of Patrick O'Brian's novel "Master and Commander" will remember Jack Aubrey's improbable victory over a much larger Spanish vessel, a battle that is lifted directly from the life of Lord Cochrane.
Mr. CORDINGLY: That's right. What is amazing about the "Master and Commander" novel, the first in the Patrick O'Brian series, is that every major incident in that novel is based on Lord Cochrane's life. And that battle - in fact, in the novel, the ship is called the Sophie. It's originally called the Speedy, and it fought a Spanish ship, something like three times bigger than the little brig sloop.
By a series of cunning moves, actually captured the ship, which had four times as many crew, and it made Cochrane's reputation, really, and he then went on to do a series of amazing coastal raids across the Mediterranean.
And the high point in his life before some of the low points we can get home to was a fire ship attack on an entire French fleet of the French - the West French Coast, when he actually led personally, in a sort of explosion vessel, which he then set far to and jumped into a little boat and rode away in it.
It resulted the entire French fleet going aground. And for that, he was made a knight of the Bath and became a national hero.
CONAN: He also made and squandered enormous fortunes and prize money and got into amazing confrontations with his superiors, including his commander at that very battle.
Mr. CORDINGLY: Well, he did. The trouble with Cochrane was he used to run these people that is his own worst enemy. He couldn't - he should have - when he should have kept his mouth shut, he didn't. And the problem with that particular fire ship attack was that he believed that his commander, somebody called Lord Gambier didn't support him and didn't send in a fleet, so that they could finish off the French.
And he then refused to endorse a vote of thanks in the house of parliament because he'd actually become an MP himself. And as a result, Lord Gambier insisted on having a court martial of himself in order to prove his innocence.
And it was a complete stitch up. The naval high command just closed ranks and froze out Lord Cochrane and he subsequently got involved in a major stock exchange fraud in which he was found guilty, though I believe he was actually innocent of it.
And the result of that, he was sent to prison and thrown out of the navy, serve his life from having been a major hero, to something he was in disgrace -without a job.
CONAN: And, again, readers of Patrick O'Brian's books will remember an incident quite close to that in one of his books, where Jack Aubrey is pilloried. But Cochrane himself, you think of him as this fire eating, you know, commander, you know, ready to charge, but a charmer, a shy man.
Mr. CORDINGLY: Yes. Yes, he was. What I find amazing is that his letters on his parliamentary speeches are very combative and quite, you know, using quite nasty language, really. But in fact, everybody who met him said that he was remarkably quiet, self-assured like some of those great sportsmen, you see who, you know, when you meet them, they're quite confident people, but when you get them on the sports field, you know, it's sort of whirlwind of action.
And he was rather like that. He was - normally, when you met him, he didn't impress particularly apart from his great height and, of course, he had a lovely Scottish accent. But he did charm people very much and I find him a very endearing character.
CONAN: Though, you admit, a flawed character, a man who, as you said, made enemies when he did not have to, and a man who was obsessed with money.
Mr. CORDINGLY: Yes. I - in a way, you can see the reason for this because he came from an ancient Scottish family. He was, in fact, he became the 10th Earl of Dundonald, even though he was called Lord Cochrane as a sort of courtesy title. And his father, who was sort of a mad inventor, squandered all the family money so that the house that they owned up in Scotland, the sort of family estate that have passed through generations of Cochranes - because the father went bankrupt, it was actually sold off.
So Cochrane, as the eldest son, decided that he'd spend his life, really, making money out of prize money, and in other ways, in order to buy back the family home. And that was one of the reasons that sort of drove his obsession with making a fortune.
CONAN: We're talking with David Cordingly. His new book is "Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander." If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, e-mail: email@example.com. And Karl(ph) is on the line. Karl is calling us from Tempe, Arizona.
KARL (Caller): Hello?
CONAN: Hello, Karl. Go ahead, please.
KARL: Yes. I was just saying I had lived in Chile for a year, and the Chileans see him as quite a hero. There was a street named after him, he is a man of great acclaim and…
Mr. CORDINGLY: Yes.
KARL: …and was just amazed to see, you know, how far the guy's reputation precede him.
CONAN: Yes, that's the other part of his career, David Cordingly.
Mr. CORDINGLY: Yeah. Well, what happened was having been checked out of the British Navy, he was out of work. And he'd made such a reputation for himself, a worldwide reputation that the Chilean patriots, the people who were trying to get rid of the Spanish, who were the sort of colonist in Chile, invited him to be their commander in chief, and he came over to Chile.
And in a series of amazing actions, he captured an entire fortified seaport, captured of many Spanish ships, and was - virtually was on to overdrive in the Spanish out of Chile, and he is one of the sort of national heroes of Chile. And as your - person who's phoned in says, the many streets in Chile are named after Cochrane. And in fact, I passed on the waterfront in Valparaiso, the great port of Chile, an amazing great bronze statue to him. So in Chile and in Brazil, where he did more as the same thing, he was responsible for driving the Portuguese out of Brazil. He's also a great hero.
CONAN: There's a great line of - is it Byron, who writes of him entering the capital?
Mr. CORDINGLY: Yes, that's right. Yes. And Byron said there's no man I envy as much as Lord Cochrane, and this was because we was seen as a sort of liberator of oppressed nations. Just as - in his early life as a member of parliament, he had fought on behalf of the common sailor, which have made him very unpopular with the admirals, who felt that the common sailor should be kept in his place.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Karl. And the - you write of him. This was a romantic age. We mentioned Byron, of course…
Mr. CORDINGLY: Indeed.
CONAN: …as the epitome of the romantic hero.
Mr. CORDINGLY: Well, he was, and in so many ways. And one way was that he married an orphan girl who was extremely pretty and against the wishes of his -one of his uncles who wanted him to marry an heiress. He married this pretty girl called Catherine and went off to Gretna Green in Scotland, where you could get married across the border. And so he defied his uncle, married Catherine. He always called her my lovely Kate.
And she joins him on many of his adventures, in fact, joined him in Chile and in Brazil. And they had a very happy marriage, really for, until he was in his '60s, when she got fed up with him. He turned to inventions in his old age and invented the steam engine and became obsessed by that and she just got fed up with the way he was squandering all the money that she'd earned, really.
CONAN: And it ended up living to a ripe old age, outliving most of his enemies and writing a couple of books which were best-sellers.
Mr. CORDINGLY: Well, yes. I mean, the great lesson in life is to live a long time - if you want to restore your reputation. And he lived long enough to fight back all his enemies. He was - he'd been - the knighthood of the Bath had been stripped away from him. He got that put back by Queen Victoria, and he was made a rear admiral in the British Navy again and ended up being buried in Westminster Abbey. So he was able to recover his reputation, and partly by writing very racy, autobiographies - he wrote up an autobiography about his time in South America.
But his most famous autobiography was called "The Autobiography of a Seaman," which listed all his great naval feats, and it was really that that was used by Patrick O'Brian and C.S. Forester and others as a basis for many of the adventures in their books.
CONAN: And as spectacular as many of his deeds of daring do were, as brilliant a commander as he was, you suggested, in fact, his literary legacy is probably more important than what he achieved in life.
Mr. CORDINGLY: Well, the trouble with his naval things is apart from that fire ship attack, which again, wasn't fully successful because he wasn't backed up by his commander in chief, most of his coastal raids were sort of minor efforts. Unlike Nelson, who was born at the right time to be in a position of high command when the great, sort of, fleet actions took place, Cochrane never really took part in a major big sea battle between fleets.
And so, you know, he didn't have a great reputation in the sort of history books. But his literary legacy is amazing. I mean, Patrick O'Brian acknowledged that "Master and Commander," many of his other books are based on Cochrane's life, and Hornblower some of the episodes as well.
But Captain Marriott, who may not be so well known in America but who wrote a famous book across here called, "Mister Midshipmen Easy," and various other novels that were hugely popular in Dickens' time. Captain Marriott was actually a midshipman on Cochrane's ship and actually took part in many of his amazing raids.
And his books became very popular. And another Edwardian writer, G.A. Henty, actually wrote a book called "With Cochrane the Dauntless," which was all about Cochrane's adventures in South America. So between them, you know, he's left a legacy that's being picked up really by a number of writers. And I think a lot of people reading Patrick O'Brian wouldn't realize that they're actually rereading Lord Cochrane's life.
CONAN: The new book is called "Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander." David Cordingly is the author. Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. CORDINGLY: Thank you very much, Neal.
CONAN: David Cordingly joined us from BBC Studios in Brighton, England.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.