Anecdotes of Lord Thomas Cochrane

Between the eleventh and twenty-fifth of April 1809, the Battle of Basque Roads saw the British Navy come incredibly close to the destruction of the French fleet in the Bay of Biscay. While the 207th anniversary of the battle isn’t the most rounded to memorialize the event, it is perhaps a good opportunity to outline the life and deeds of one of the most daring, and underrated, admirals in British naval history. Using Cochrane’s diary, The Autobiography of a Seaman, I will describe some of the most intrepid events of his life along with the personal thoughts of the man nicknamed by Napoleon, “Le Loup des Mers”, the Sea Wolf.   

As heir apparent to the Earldom of Dundonald Cochrane was styled Lord Cochrane using his father’s second courtesy highest title. Cochrane was always a bit of a maverick. Often unable to get on with superiors and colleagues; as a midshipman in 1798, Cochrane was court martialled for disrespecting Phillip Beaver, the first lieutenant, aboard HMS Barfleur:

“It was during these trips in the Barfleur that an absurd affair involved me in serious disaster. Our first lieutenant, Beaver, was an officer who carried etiquette in the wardroom and on deck almost to despotism … On our frequent visits to Tetuan, we purchased and killed bullocks on board the Barfleur, for the use of the whole squadron. The reason was, that raw hides, bein valuable, could be stowed away in her hold … a natural result being, that, as the fleshy parts of the hides decomposed, putrid liquor oozed out … and rendered the hold of the vessel so intolerable that she acquired the name of “The Stinking Scotch Ship”.

As a junior lieutenant, much of the unpleasantness of this fell to my share, and as I always had a habit of speaking my mind without much reserve, it followed that those interested in the raw hide speculation were not very friendly disposed towards me. 

One day, when at Tetuan, having obtained leave to go ashore and amuse myself with shooting wild-fowl, my dress became so covered with mud, as to induce me not to come off with other officers in the pinnance which took me on shore, preferring to wait for the launch, in which the filthy state of my apparel would be less apparent. The launch being delayed longer than had been anticipated, my leave of absence expired shortly before my arrival on board – no with attracting the attention of Lieutenant Beaver, who was looking over the gangway.

Thinking it disrespectful to report myself on the quarterdeck in so dirty a condition, I hastened to put on clean uniform, an operation scarcely completed when Lieutenant Beaver came into the wardroom, and in a very harsh tone demanded the reason of my not having reported myself … My reply was that he must be ware that my dress was not in a fit condition to appear on the quarterdeck, and that it had been necessary to change my clothes before formally reporting myself.

Lieutenant Beaver replied to this explanation in a manner so offensive that it was clear he wanted to surprise me in some act of insubordination … I respectfully reminded him that by attacking me in the wardroom he was breaking a rule which he had himself laid down; viz. that “Matters connected with the service were not there to be spoken of”. The remark increased his violence.”

Cochrane would continually find himself in troublesome situations while on dry land. An altercation at a fancy dress ball with a French royalist in Malta, February 1801, led to Cochrane’s first and, reportedly, only duel:

“An absurd affair too place during our short stay at Malta, which would not have been worthy of notice, had it not been made the subject of comment.

The officers of a French royalist regiment, then at Malta, patronised a fancy ball, for which I amongst others purchased a ticket. The dress chosen was that of a sailor … My costume was, however, too much to the life to please French royalist taste, not even the marlinspike and the lump of grease in the hat being omitted.

On entering the ballroom, further passage was immediately barred, with intimation that my presence could not be permitted in such a dress …

Upon this a French officer, who appeared to act as master of the ceremonies, came up, and without waiting for further explanation, rudely seized me by the collar with the intention of putting me out; in return for which insult he received a substantial mark of British indignation, and at the same time an uncomplimentary remark in his own language. In an instant all was uproar; a French picket was called, which in a short time overpowered and carried me off to the guard-house of the regiment.

… a challenge was the consequence; and on the following morning we met behind the ramparts and exchanged shots, my ball passing through the poor fellow’s thigh, and dropping him. My escape, too, was a narrow one – his ball perforating my coat, waistcoat, and shirt, and bruising my side.”

Having been given command of HMS Speedy in 1800, Cochrane began to carve out a notable reputation as a privateer, capturing, burning or driving ashore 53 ships while cruising the Mediterranean for 13 months. The most notable capture was of the Spanish frigate El Gamo on May 6 1801; the Spanish vessel carried 32 guns and 319 men compared to Speedy’s 14 guns and 54 men. Flying American colours to get close to the frigate, Cochrane had positioned Speedy close enough to the Spanish vessel for his opponents high mounted guns to be rendered ineffective. Raising British colours and opening fire, Speedy’s shots passed through the deck of the Spanish ship killing the captain. Drawing off to evade the Spanish boarding party three times, Cochrane boared the frigate, leaving only the ship’s doctor to man Speedy:

“My reason for locking our small craft in the enemy’s rigging was the one upon which I mainly relief for victory, viz. that from the height of the frigate out of the water, the whole of her shot must necessarily go over our heads, whilst our guns, being elevated, would blow up her main deck.

For a moment the Spaniards seemed taken by surprise, as though unwilling to believe that so small a crew would have the audacity to board them; but soon recovering themselves, they made a rush to the waist of the frigate, where the fight was for some minutes gallantly carried on. Observing the enemy’s colours still flying, I directed our men immediately to haul them down, when the Spanish crew, without pushing to consider by whose orders the colours had been struck, and naturally believing it the act of their own officers, gave in, and we were in possession of the Gamo frigate, of thirty-two heavy guns and 319 men, who a hour and a half before had looked upon us as a certain if not an easy prey.

Cochrane’s 13-month cruise would soon come to an end on 3rd July 1801 as 3 French ships of the line commanded by Charles-Alexander Linois captured him. The French captains often asked Cochrane for strategic advice; the Scot later recounting how courteous and polite the French had been before he was exchange for a French second-captain in August:

“At the time of their first appearance I was conversing with Captain Palliere in his cabin, when a lieutenant reported a British flag over Cabritta point, and soon afterwards the top-gallant masts and pendants of a British squadron became visible. We at once adjourned to the poop, when the surprised of the French, at the sight of a more numerous squadron, became not unreasonably apparent; Captain Palliere asked me “If I thought an attack would be made, or whether the British force would anchor off Gibraltar?” My reply was “that an attack would certainly be made, and that before night both British and French ships would be at Gibraltar,” at the same time adding that when there, it would give me great pleasure to make him and his officers return for the kindness I had experienced on board the Dessaix!”

Perhaps the most daring of Cochrane’s exploits was the Battle of the Basque Roads in 1809. The French fleet had positioned itself in a bay of Île-d’Aix, behind a mile-long boom line of chains designed to protect against British attack. On the night of the 11thof April, Cochrane drifted towards the fleet on the floodtide, leading the attack at the foremost explosive ship. Lighting the fuse and having to re-board in order to rescue his crew’s pet dog, Cochrane escaped the explosive vessels just in time. The ships succeeded in breaking the boom line causing a heavy layer of smoke to fill the bay. Unable to see clearly through the smoke and having removed their sails to reduce on flammable materials, all but two of the French ships were driven ashore and the subsequent attack almost destroyed the entire fleet:

“On the 11th of April, it blew hard, with a high sea. As all preparations were complete, I did not consider the state of the weather a justifiable impediment to the attack; so that, after nightfall, the officers who volunteered to command the fireships were assembled on board the Caledonia, and supplied with instructions according to the plan previously laid down by myself. The Imperieuse had proceeded to the edge of the Boyart Shoald, close to which she anchored with an explosion-vessel made fast to her stern, it being my intention, after firing the one of which I was about to take charge, to return to her for the other, to be employed as circumstances might require. At a short distance from the Imperieuse were anchored the frigates Aigle, Unicorn, and Pallas, for the purpose of receiving the crews of the fireships on their return, as well as to support the boats of the fleet assembled alongside the Caesar, to assist the fireships. The boats of the fleet were not, however, for some reason or other made use of at all.

“Having myself embarked on board the largest explosion-vessel, accompanied by Lieut. Bissel and a volunteer crew of four men only, we led the way to the attack. The night was dark, and, as the wind was fair, though blowing hard, we soon neared the estimated position of the advanced French ships, for it was too dark to discern them. Judging our distance, therefore, as well as we could, with regard to the time the fuse was calculated to burn, the crew of four men entered the gig, under the direction of Lieut. Bissel, whilst I kindled the portfires, and then, descending into the boat, urged the men to pull for their lives, which they did with a will, though, as wind and sea were strong against us, without making the expected progress.

“To our consternation, the fuses, which had been constructed to burn fifteen minutes, lasted little more than half that time, when the vessel blew up, filling the air with shells, grenades, and rockets; whilst the downward and lateral force of the explosion raised a solitary mountain of water, from the breaking of which in all directions our little boat narrowly escaped being swamped. The explosion-vessel did her work well, the effect constituting one of the grandest artificial spectacles imaginable. For a moment, the sky was red with the lurid glare arising from the simultaneous ignition of fifteen hundred barrels of powder. On this gigantic flash subsiding, the air seemed alive with shells, grenades, rockets, and masses of timber, the wreck of the shattered vessel. The sea was convulsed as by an earthquake, rising, as has been said, in a huge wave, on whose crest our boat was lifted like a cork, and as suddenly dropped into a vast trough, out of which as it closed upon us with the rush of a whirlpool, none expected to emerge. In a few minutes nothing but a heavy rolling sea had to be encountered, all having again become silence and darkness.”

Cochrane’s diary ends on July 3rd, 1815 at King’s Beach Prison as the Scot was imprisoned for 12 months for stock exchange fraud. Stripped of his knighthood, Cochrane sailed to Valparaiso, Chile in 1818 in order to take command of the First Chilean Navy in their struggle for independence from Spain. Cochrane would do the same in 1822 and 1827 during the Greek and Brazilian Wars of Independence respectively. To this day, the Chilean Navy maintains an active ship named Almirante Cochrane; the first commissioned in 1879 and the most recent in 2006. Returning to Britain Cochrane returned to parliament until 1831 as he inherited his father’s title as was unable to sit in the Commons. In 1847, at the personal intervention of Queen Victoria, Cochrane’s knighthood was restored. In 1876, Cochrane’s grandchildren were compensated £40,000 by Parliament who had admitted his 12-month prison sentence was ‘unjust’.

Cochrane’s maverick nature and intrepid adventures inspired many writers throughout his life and even now in the 21st Century; Cochrane, or likenesses of, has featured in many naval memoirs and fictional novels including Frederick Marryat’s memoirs, Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe’s Devil, Showell Style’s The Sea Lord and was the inspiration for C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey.

Written by Harry Cochrane, Second-year History student

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