Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Who's Who in Scottish Military History - Thomas Cochrane, "The Sea Wolf"

Anyone who has seen the films or read the books of C.S. Forrester’s character Hornblower or Patrick O’Brien’s character Jack Aubrey may not have realised that their exploits were actually based on the life of a real life Scottish sailor. In fact the fictional adventures didn’t even come close to the fantastic life of Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, or as his enemies called him – The Sea Wolf.

Born on this day 235 years ago in Annsfield, near Hamilton he grew up in Culross in Fife and joined the Royal Navy in 1793. For the next twenty years he rose through the ranks and served in many parts of the world capturing French and Spanish ships and raiding enemy coasts.

I can’t go into much detail here since his exploits would fill a book but on one occasion he took on and captured the Spanish ship ‘El Gamo’ which had at least six times as many crewmen as his little sloop. On another he captured a fort on the Spanish coast and held it for a month against the French army.

Unfortunately for his career he was a radical and fought against corruption in all walks of life. That put quite a few noses out of joint in the Admiralty and Westminster, before and after he became an MP (in 1807), so when he was caught up in a financial scandal in 1814 he found himself jailed, stripped of his titles and expelled from Parliament and the Navy.

He knew he was innocent and once re-elected as an MP he fought to clear his name. He was unsuccessful. When in 1818 he was invited by Bernardo O’Higgins to go to Chile to lead their navy in their war of independence from Spain he left England for South America. He rebuilt the navy and did what he did best - captured Spanish ships and raided coasts. In 1820 he helped Peru’s independence by capturing the port of Valdivia in an act of courageous daring that is real boys own stuff.

Cochrane wouldn’t have been Cochrane if that had been the end of it. With victory over the Spanish secure he then fell out with his superiors and in 1823 moved on the Brazilian Navy. This time it was the Portuguese who felt his wrath and with them beaten he promptly fell out with Brazil’s new leaders.

South America was now too hot for him so he sailed east to Greece in 1827 to help in their war against the Ottoman Empire. For once Cochrane wasn’t able to recreate his exploits. Some have put it down to idle Greek sailors but it could have been down to Cochrane getting old. By this time he was over fifty and had been sailing and fighting for the best part of thirty years.

He returned to Britain in 1828 and resumed the fight to clear his name. He was finally pardoned in May 1832 and restored to the Navy List with a promotion to rear admiral; although he refused to accept a command until his knighthood was reinstated. He had to wait another fifteen years for that. However when it happened in 1847 he did take up another command as commander in chief of the North American and West Indies station until 1851. That was his last active command but he was still railing against the Admiralty and pushing for more modern fighting ships until he died during an operation on kidney stones on 31st October 1860 at the age of 85.

By then the Royal Navy and the world had changed beyond recognition from the time Cochrane was at his peak, and Scotland had lost one of its greatest adventurers.

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