Profile: Thomas Cochrane - the Lost Action Hero ; He Was Possibly the Greatest Naval Genius Britain Has Ever Produced: A James Bond of the Seas Whose Daredevil Escapades Helped Topple at Least Three Empires. He Was Also an Outspoken Radical Politician, the Inspiration for Much Bestselling Fiction, and at the Centre of Two of History's Most Controversial Court Cases. So Why, Asks Robert Harvey, Have So Few of Us Even Heard of Thomas Cochrane?

By Harvey, Robert | The Independent (London, England), October 1, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Profile: Thomas Cochrane - the Lost Action Hero ; He Was Possibly the Greatest Naval Genius Britain Has Ever Produced: A James Bond of the Seas Whose Daredevil Escapades Helped Topple at Least Three Empires. He Was Also an Outspoken Radical Politician, the Inspiration for Much Bestselling Fiction, and at the Centre of Two of History's Most Controversial Court Cases. So Why, Asks Robert Harvey, Have So Few of Us Even Heard of Thomas Cochrane?


Harvey, Robert, The Independent (London, England)


On 20 June 1814, while the world went about its business on a summer's day in London, a man was taken from the court-house of King's Bench, Westminster, and escorted to the nearby prison to begin a 12-month sentence. He had also been fined pounds 1,000 and sentenced to the indignity of an hour in the pillory opposite the Royal Exchange - along with his co-defendants, the last man ever so sentenced. Although humbled, he had the bearing of a public figure. In the words of a contemporary: "He was a tall young man, cordial and unaffected in his manner. He stooped a little, and had somewhat of a sailor's gait in walking; his face was rather oval; fair naturally, but now tanned and sun-freckled. His hair was sandy, his whiskers rather small, and of a deeper colour, and the expression of his countenance was calm and self-possessed."

On this occasion his countenance was lacerated with humiliation. He was shown to the spartan two rooms on the upper floor of the building, for which he had to pay rent. He was given the privilege of being allowed to exercise within a half-mile radius of the prison, but in his misery he declined. His gaolers left him to the turbulence of his thoughts. He wept bitterly.

This was no ordinary prisoner, and his crime was no small misdemeanour. Thomas Cochrane was perhaps the greatest fighting captain that Britain has ever produced, a figure of almost mythical dash, courage and romanticism. He was now utterly disgraced.

Also a prominent radical politician, he had not only taken on the huge, visible Napoleonic foe, but had dared to oppose one far more elusive: Britain's often corrupt naval establishment. As a result, in addition to being Britain's greatest living sea-hero, he had become an enemy of the state - and had been ruthlessly dispatched on a trumped-up charge in a trial staged after one of the most colourful criminal mysteries of the 19th century. His reputation has been indelibly tarnished ever since - to the point that he has been almost erased from the nation's consciousness.

Almost, but not entirely: for he has survived as the model for the naval thrillers of Patrick O'Brian, CS Forester and (in the 19th century) Frederick Marryat. Yet the curious fact remains that, although Thomas Cochrane was a naval hero second only to Nelson, few Britons living today have even heard of him.

THOMAS COCHRANE was born in Scotland in 1776, the son of the ninth Earl of Dundonald, eccentric and inventor. He went to sea at 17, just as the Napoleonic wars were getting underway; became a lieutenant at 20; and was appointed to his first command at 24, in 1800. A little brig of 158 tons, with just 14 small guns, the Speedy was barely worthy of the name "fighting ship". Yet Cochrane rapidly made a name for himself in it, harrying French shipping in the Mediterranean. His tactic was simple: always go on the offensive.

His successes were soon rewarded with a perilous mission to attack enemy ships off the coast of Spain. For nine months he made a spectacular nuisance of himself, using skills of seamanship and deception that more than compensated for the inadequacies of his ship. Then, on 5 May 1801, came the encounter that made him a celebrity.

Cochrane was in pursuit of a group of small Spanish gunboats near Barcelona, when one of the most powerful Spanish frigates, the Gamo, four times the size of the Speedy, emerged from among the fishing boats clustered near the harbour. The Speedy, with only 54 men and 14 four-pounders (with a range of about 50 yards) was hopelessly outgunned by the frigate, which had a crew of 319 and 32 guns, including two giant 24-pounders known as carronades. If he fled, Cochrane would be outrun and sunk. The alternatives were to surrender - or to fight on against hopeless odds.

Running up an American, neutral flag, Cochrane sailed the Speedy straight towards the Gamo. The Spanish captain hesitated.

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Profile: Thomas Cochrane - the Lost Action Hero ; He Was Possibly the Greatest Naval Genius Britain Has Ever Produced: A James Bond of the Seas Whose Daredevil Escapades Helped Topple at Least Three Empires. He Was Also an Outspoken Radical Politician, the Inspiration for Much Bestselling Fiction, and at the Centre of Two of History's Most Controversial Court Cases. So Why, Asks Robert Harvey, Have So Few of Us Even Heard of Thomas Cochrane?
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