Thomas Alexander Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, GCB, lived from 14 December 1775 to 31 October 1860. He achieved fame as one of the most daring and successful naval captains of the Napoleonic Wars, and later led the navies of Chile, Brazil and Greece in independence struggles. He was also, until pardoned, a convicted fraudster; he was a moderately successful politician; and he even found time to be an inventor and industrialist. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Thomas Cochrane was born at Annsfield, near Hamilton, the son of Archibald Cochrane, 9th Earl of Dundonald and nephew of Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane. Much of Thomas's childhood was spent in and around the family estates at Culross in Fife. His father was a renowned, if commercially unsuccessful, inventor, who by 1793 had lost much of the family fortune backing a scheme to protect the hulls of navy ships with pitch.
The influence of Thomas's uncle meant that Cochrane was listed as a member of the crew of a number of Royal Navy ships from a very young age, though he probably never boarded any of them. This was a common, if illegal, procedure at the time, designed to ensure that if Thomas wanted to join the Navy he would - on paper at least - have the experience he needed to become an officer. In fact Thomas briefly joined the Army before joining the Royal Navy in 1793 at the age of 18.
Cochrane served on four naval ships between 1793 and 1798, and briefly commanded the captured French battleship Genereux in 1799. He was also, in 1798, court marshalled for challenging a fellow-officer to a duel. Cochrane's triple characteristics of superb seamanship, inspirational leadership and a ready ability to make important enemies were already apparent.
In 1800, Cochrane, while still a Lieutenant, was given command of the RN sloop, HMS Speedy. The ship came complete with just fourteen 4-pounder guns and a crew of only ninety-two. Yet within a year Cochrane had captured fifty ships, 122 guns and 534 prisoners. The most famous of these early engagements was the capture of the 32-gun Spanish frigate El Gamo on 6 May 1801.
On 8 August 1801 Cochrane was promoted to the rank of Post-Captain. Given the command of the frigates Pallas and later Imperieuse, Cochrane terrorized shipping along the French and Spanish Mediterranean coasts to such an extent that Napoleon referred to him as "le loup des mers" or the Sea Wolf. In 1808 he attacked Valencia in Spain and captured a number of ships. At the Battle of Basque Roads in 1809, Cochrane used fireships and explosive vessels to cause terror among the French squadron, most of which was run aground. Unfortunately his commander, Admiral Lord Gambier, delayed ordering the main fleet to attack and the opportunity for a truly comprehensive victory was lost.
Meanwhile Cochrane had, at his second attempt, succeeded in being elected to the House of Commons as an MP in 1806. He used this as a platform to attack the government's conduct of the war against France, to attack naval corruption, and to attack Admiral Lord Gambier and other establishment figures. This won him few friends in the government of the day. In 1812 Cochrane courted further controversy by, at the age of 37, eloping with and marrying Katherine "Kitty" Barnes, over 20 years younger than himself.
Great Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814 gave the establishment a chance to get even with Cochrane. He was implicated in the fraud, probably as an unwitting pawn, by his uncle Andrew Cochrane-Johnstone, and convicted after a less-than-fair trial. He was sentenced to the pillory, to a year's imprisonment, and a fine of £1000. He was also stripped of the knighthood he had won, and ejected from the Royal Navy and from Parliament. But Cochrane remained a popular hero. He was immediately re-elected to parliament, and his fine was paid by public subscription. He also escaped from prison.
In 1817 Cochrane left Britain with his wife, and over the following 10 years mounted a series of literally incredible naval operations as commander of, successively, the Chilean, Brazilian and Greek navies. Amongst many other feats he captured the formidable Spanish fortress of Valdivia with just 300 Chilean troops in 1820; and in the same year he captured the flagship of the Spanish South American fleet, the Esmeralda, in the port of Callao. While in charge of the embryonic Brazilian fleet and against overwhelming odds, Cochrane captured the Portuguese garrison of Bahia and accepted the surrender of the fortress at Maranhao after an outstanding campaign of bluff and deception. In Greece he helped fight for liberation from Egyptian control.
Cochrane received a royal pardon for his fraud conviction in 1832 and returned to Royal Naval service as a Rear Admiral. His knighthood was restored by Queen Victoria in 1847 and in the same year he took up post as Commander-in-Chief of the North American and West Indies Station. In 1854 Cochrane was appointed to the honorary rank of Rear-Admiral of the United Kingdom.
Despite a very full life, Cochrane also found time to develop what was left of the family estates around Culross in Fife, where he introduced the idea of caissons to allow mining of coal under the River Forth, using compressed air and air locks. He also abolished all underground labour for women and girls in his mines; and pursued a long-standing interest in developing steam powered ships.
Cochrane died in 1860, and is buried in Westminster Abbey in London. He is remembered in Culross by a bust and inscription near the Townhouse. He is also less directly remembered by his influence on nautical fiction. The first author to use him as a model was Captain Marryat who had served under him as a midshipman. More recently the fictional characters of Horatio Hornblower in the novels by C. S. Forester, and Jack Aubrey in those of Patrick O'Brian, were partly based on Cochrane's exploits.