Sir Thomas Alexander Cochrane, the 10th Earl of Dundonald, Knight Grand Cross of the Bath, sailor, politician, Member of Parliament, Admiral, inventor and industrialist, died on the 31st of October, 1860.
Sir Thomas Cochrane was one of Britain's greatest ever naval officers and certainly one of its most extraordinary naval heroes. In his first ten years in the Navy, he earned a reputation for brilliant and audacious daring and seamanship during the Napoleonic Wars. His exploits read like something out of a seafaring novel and indeed, they have been depicted in fact and fiction in many guises since he ‘buckled his swash’. Cochrane was the inspiration for Captain Marryat, C. S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian, whose fictional naval hero, Captain Jack Aubrey, was depicted in the film ‘Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World’. It’s funny how Australians get to play Scots in the movies. An early adventure of Lieutenant Cochrane’s saw his command, H. M. S. ‘Speedy’ capture fifty ships within the space of a year. His most famous engagement earned him promotion to Post-Captain and the wrath of Napoleon, who named him ‘Le Loup de Mer’ (‘Sea Wolf’). That capture of the Spanish frigate ‘El Gamo’ on the 6th of May, 1801, amply illustrates Cochrane’s cunning and daring. He hoisted the American flag, confused the Spanish, avoided their broadside and stormed aboard wielding a cutlass at the head of a boarding party. The Spaniards quickly surrendered.
Another legendary escapade occurred at the Battle of Basque Roads, off Rochefort, in 1809. On that occasion, Cochrane used fireships to cause confusion amongst the French and all but two of their ships were run aground. However, Cochrane’s Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Lord Gambier, failed to grasp the opportunity to annihilate the enemy fleet. Cochrane, who by that time was also an MP, was furious and opposed a Commons motion of “thanks matelot” for Gambier, but when the dithering Admiral insisted on a court martial to clear his name, the ‘establishment’ ensured he was acquitted. Funnily enough, Cochrane had been court marshalled himself in 1798, for challenging a fellow-officer to a duel. For his part, Cochrane was made a Knight of the Order of the Bath, but the writing was on the wall as he had shown a rare ability to make enemies in the wrong places. In addition to superb seamanship and inspirational leadership, Cochrane was a wee bit argumentative, but ultimately he had the last laugh.
Thomas Alexander Cochrane, later the 10th Earl of Dundonald, was born on the 14th of December, 1775, in Annisfield, Lanarkshire. He was educated at home and spent much of his early life at the family’s estate in Culross, Fife. Thomas was listed as a crew member on Navy ships from the age of five, which was a common, if illegal, practice, which meant that, when he did step aboard ship, there was at least a paper record of the length of service necessary to become an officer. Cochrane spent a brief spell in the Army, at the Chauvet Military Academy in London, before he joined the Royal Navy proper as a seventeen years old midshipman in 1793. He served on four ships between then and 1798, and briefly commanded a captured French battleship, before being speedily promoted to Lieutenant and (appropriately!) given command of H. M. S. ‘Speedy’.
Cochrane had been elected as the Member of Parliament for Honiton in Devon, in 1806, at the second time of asking, and in 1807, he won a seat as a Radical for Westminster. He kept that seat for ten years, but the reason he was often back at sea and demoted was because Parliament was heartily sick of his attacks on the Government. He won no friends with his headstrong and outspoken stance against corruption in the Navy, and campaigns for parliamentary reform. A bad time for Cochrane occurred when he was falsely accused and found guilty during the ‘1814 Stock Exchange Fraud’. He was effectively ‘stitched up’, with the ‘establshment’ having an excuse to ‘get even’ and destroy his career. He was expelled from the Commons, sentenced to two hours in the pillory and a year in jail, given a fine of £1,000, and stripped of his rank and knighthood. Cochrane avoided the pillory and as a measure of his popularity, when he sensationally escaped from prison in 1815, and was rearrested and fined another £1,000, the fine was paid by public subscription. Our hero was also quickly re-elected to Parliament. Then in 1818, Cochrane, who had become a kind of ‘persona non grata’, resigned in disgust from the House of Commons and went off to new adventures in Chile, Peru, Brazil and Greece. He became a legendary figure, first as victorious Commander of the Chilean Navy in its battle for independence against the Spanish in 1819-20, then by doing the same for the embryonic Brazilian state in 1823. The Brazilians made him ‘First Admiral of the National and Imperial Navy’ and, each year in May, representatives of the Chilean Navy hold a wreath laying ceremony at his grave.
On the road to redemption in 1831, Cochrane succeeded to his father's title, becoming the 10th Earl of Dundonald and, after having returned to Britain under a sympathetic Whig government, he succeeded in clearing his name. He got a Royal Pardon from the new King, Wullie IV, and in 1832, he was reinstated into the Royal Navy as an Admiral. His remarkable comeback continued in 1847, when good ol’ Queen ‘Vic’ restored his knighthood and in 1848, he became Commander-in-Chief of the North American and West Indies Station. The final turnaround came in 1854, when he was appointed to the honorary rank of Rear-Admiral of the United Kingdom. He probably got that to keep him out of the way during the Crimean War. He was disappointed not to be involved with the Baltic fleet, but the Russians were ecstatic. The Government actually thought that his “adventurous spirit” might have led him to try “some desperate enterprise” that would have upset delicate negotiations. As a legacy, Cochrane’s list of achievements is immense. Domestically, he abolished all underground labour for women and girls in his mines and pioneered the use of caissons, compressed air and air locks to allow coal mining under the River Forth. In a naval context, he invented or introduced several improvements such as: gas lighting and convoy lanterns; tubular boilers; steam propulsion; fire ships; and the use of the smoke-screen. And as early as 1812, he had proposed the world’s first weapon of mass destruction – poison gas. The idea seems nothing to be proud of and was rightly rejected as terrible and inhuman, however, years later, but for the breakthrough at Sevastapol, Palmerston would have authorised the use of ‘stink ships’ to break the stalemate during the Crimean War.
Scotland's flamboyant and daring naval hero, Sir Thomas Cochrane, died on the 31st of October, 1860, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, where he is commemorated by a magnificent monument, which records that the was “'illustrious throughout the world for courage, patriotism and chivalry.” He is also remembered in the name of the naval base at Rosyth; H. M. S. Cochrane.