Sunday, November 06, 2011


Just before we departed for the trip to Edinburgh my Dad sent me a newspaper clipping reviewing a new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland..  the exhibition features Admiral Cochrane, a British sailor of the Napoleonic Wars that many believe was the model for Jack Aubrey, Hornblower, Bolitho, Ramage and probably any other fictional Napoleonic sailor of the last 100 years!

Not surprisingly, while I was in Edinburgh one day, I took the opportunity to get away for a half day to check it out and was pleased I did...

I'll admit up front I'd never heard of Cochrane before this exhibition, so if anything the Museum has done it's job with at least me - but by a coincidence I was reading  David Crooks blog and by strange serendipity he mentioned him as well when he had a lucky book find...

Either way, time to educate my readers I thought as the exhibition was very good, and the life they portrayed was just fascinating...

Thomas Cochrane, was the 10th Earl of Dundonald, and served as a sailor in various navies between 1778 and 1831, for Britain, Peru, Brazil and Greece. In addition to being a naval commander he was also a radical politician (ringing any Aubrey bells yet? )

During the Napoleonic Wars he was so successful the French nicknamed him Le Loup des Mers ('The Sea Wolf'). On 28 March 1800, Cochrane, having been promoted to commander, was given command of the brig sloop HMS Speedy, and in one of his most spectacular exploits the following May he captured the Spanish frigate "El Gamo" which carried 32 guns and 319 men, compared with Speedy's 14 guns and 54 men (errrrm... 'Cacafuego' in Master and Commander, anyone??  )

The Action and Capture of the Spanish Xebeque Frigate El Gamo, Clarkson Frederick Stanfield
"Cochrane flew an American flag to approach so closely to El Gamo that its guns could not depress to fire on the Speedy's hull. This left the Spanish with no option but to board. However, whenever the Spanish were about to board, Cochrane would pull away briefly, and fire on the concentrated boarding parties with his ship's guns. Eventually, Cochrane boarded the Gamo, despite still being outnumbered about five to one, and captured her".

In 13 months Cochrane captured, burned, or drove ashore 53 ships before three French ships of the line captured him...!

He was soon exchanged, but was dismissed from the Royal Navy in 1814, following a conviction for fraud on the Stock Exchange (more bells?? ), was stripped of his knighthood, and then served in the rebel navies of Chile (see the review of "Blue at the Mizzen" when I can find time to write it for Aubrey service with the Chilean Navy!), Brazil, and Greece during their respective wars of independence.

In 1832, he was pardoned, reinstated in the Royal Navy with the rank of Rear Admiral of the Blue. After several further promotions, he died in 1860 with the rank of Admiral of the Red, and the honorary title of Rear-Admiral of the United Kingdom.

The guy was by all accounts "mercurial" - he was undoubtedly brave, resourceful, clever, a master tactician, but he was no strategist, and by all accounts wound everyone up - he only fought one duel but he knew how to harbour grudges, make enemies, and was particularly bitter about the loss of his knighthood....

The exhibition was well worth an hour of my time, if you can go, I recommend it - if you can't, I would recommend a read of the Wikipedia article below, jaw dropping doesn't even begin to describe his life...  but Aubrey seems the nicer fellow - I know who I'd prefer to have a beer with!


Museum exhibition web site
Wikipedia link


  1. I live in Fife and really must get over soon to see it...
    At Culross there is a super bust of Cochrane and our local naval base here is called H.M.S Cochrane too.

    I have always fancied doing some napoleonic skirmishing based on Patrick O'B's books esp the land battle which starts one of books ( can't recall which) against some island natives/tribesmen. I wonder if Sharpe Practice might be the way forward...

  2. Wish Edinburgh was closer to home. Big cities have so much to offer.

  3. Truth always greater than fiction.

  4. Master and Commander (the book) was a dead rip-off of Cochrane's campaign of commerce raiding up and down the east cost of Spain. Some license was taken in the characterisation, of course, but the essentials are the same.

    Similarly, Mauritius Command is a retelling of the historical event substituting Aubrey in the place of the real commander.

    Still, they're cracking tales nonetheless!

  5. Thanks Steve for taking the trouble to write about this. Coincidentally it answers some quesions that came up about Cochrane at my wargames group only yesterday - so I shall pass it on.

  6. Jack Aubrey's exploits may have mirrored those of Tommy Cochrane, but I agree, Jack is by far the most appealing of the two.

  7. You'd really never heard of Cochrane?

  8. tradgardmastare - you must, and have a beer for me in the Guildford while you're in Edinburgh... :o)

    Moif - I honestly hadn't - no idea why not, but Napoleonic Naval history is not a mainstream for me - I know of the usual suspects, but for some reason he'd escaped me. Cochrane (like Marlborough to a slightly lesser extent) are just not well known public figures in the UK..

    What is clear is that quite often truth is more exciting than fiction, but also that the likes of Cochrane, Marlborough, Cadogan, Nelson, etcetcetc were quite astonishing men - brave, charismatic, genius.... they are few and far between but seem to be brought to the fore in times of war...

  9. If you haven't read it, I recommend "Cochrane The Life and Exploits of a Fighting Captain" by Robert Harvey. I found it an excellent read.

  10. Red-Cardinal - I haven't, but will keep an eye open for it..