28 January, 2008

Cochrane: Britannia’s Sea Wolf, by Donald Thomas. Book review

First published 1978. Edition reviewed: Cassell 1999, ISBN 0-304-35282-9

This historical biography recounts the colourful career of Thomas Cochrane, later 10th Earl of Dundonald, whose daring naval exploits during and shortly after the Napoleonic Wars were far more outrageous than any novelist would dare to invent.

Cochrane was born in 1775 to an eccentric aristocratic father with a large ancestral estate but very little money, who proceeded to lose what was left of the family fortune by inventing various scientific innovations (such as gas lighting) by accident whilst looking for something else. The young Cochrane entered the Royal Navy as a midshipman in 1793, through the good offices of his uncle Captain Alexander Cochrane. His astonishing military talent was soon displayed when he was given command of a tiny warship, the Speedy. One of his most daring and spectacular actions was the capture of a Spanish frigate, the Gamo, which was far superior to the Speedy in size and armament. He first deceived the Gamo’s officers by flying the US flag, which allowed him to get so close to the frigate that its guns literally fired over his head and could do minimal damage, while his own guns could be angled upwards to rake the Gamo’s gundecks with shot. After about an hour of this, with the Spanish captain dead and the crew demoralised, Cochrane led a boarding party and by a mixture of cunning and ferocity convinced the Spanish to surrender. Further actions saw his tiny ship capture and destroy enemy shore forts, and destroy a squadron of French cavalry on the coast road, as well as taking numerous ships as prizes. Napoleon called him “le loup des mers”, the Sea Wolf, and later his Spanish adversaries in Chile were to call him El Diablo, the Devil.

Remarkably, Cochrane’s military successes were accomplished with very few casualties, often very few on either side. Frederick Marryat, who served under Cochrane as a midshipman (later becoming a captain and a successful novelist), wrote of him, “I never knew any one as careful of the lives of his ship’s company as Lord Cochrane, or any one who calculated so closely the risks attending any expedition”.

However, Cochrane’s military skill was only equalled by his talent for making enemies on his own side. He conducted a long-running feud with the Admiralty’s officials, who refused to buy his prizes and tried to avoid giving him the coveted promotion to post-captain. At one point they resorted to giving him command of a wallowing tub of a collier and stationed him in the Orkneys for a year in an attempt to keep him out of their hair. One can sympathise to some extent, as Cochrane was irascible, uncompromising, unforgiving and supremely confident to the point of arrogance, evidently not an easy man to get along with.

Nevertheless, the official system of naval procurement and some of the men who ran it deserved all the trouble he could possibly cause. The scale of corruption and mismanagement in the Admiralty in the early years of the nineteenth century was astonishing. Ships were built of substandard timber that rotted almost as fast as it was laid, and the metal nails that held a ship together were stolen by corrupt contractors and replaced with false heads and tips, with predictably fatal results. Work, if done at all, was charged for several times over. Cables could be hundreds of feet short of the specified length. Provisions were frequently rancid. Valuable copper compass mounts were stolen and replaced with iron, which deflected the ship’s compass and meant it might misread by 30 degrees or more, quite enough to put a ship hopelessly out of position and aground on rocks or reefs, as Cochrane found out to his cost when his frigate narrowly escaped being wrecked on the Brittany coast. A Commission of Enquiry conducted at the end of the Napoleonic Wars estimated that anything up to a quarter of the annual government expenditure on the navy had simply vanished into the pockets of fraudsters. It seems remarkable that Britain ever got a fleet to sea at all, and still more remarkable that Nelson and his colleagues managed to defeat not only the external enemy but the enemy at home as well.

Instead of putting up with the system, Cochrane stood for Parliament on a ticket of naval reform. In politics, he displayed an extraordinary mix of guile and naivete. On the one hand, he must be one of the very few men ever to have comprehensively outmanoeuvred the grasping voters of a Rotten Borough (in his case, Honiton), who to their chagrin found they had elected him to Parliament without the customary payment for their votes. On the other, he was shouted down in Parliament (which was evidently at least as much of an unedifying bear pit then as Prime Minister’s Questions is now) with little achieved for his cause, and was then embroiled in a Stock Exchange fraud by his crooked uncle.

The fraud could have come straight from the pages of The Count of Monte Cristo. The crooked uncle made a fortune in speculative share dealings and skipped before the subsequent trial delivered its verdict; Cochrane stayed to plead his innocence and was jailed after a biased trial. He promptly escaped from prison by means of some heroics with a smuggled rope, took his seat in Parliament, was arrested again, incarcerated in an unventilated dungeon which threatened to break his health, and was finally persuaded by his friends to pay a fine as a condition of his liberty, which he did with the defiant words, “I submit to robbery that I may protect myself from murder”.

Cochrane was now permanently out of a job with the Royal Navy, but other governments were eager to employ his talents. In 1818, Cochrane accepted the post of commanding admiral of the Chilean navy in Chile’s war of independence against Spain.

His career as a mercenary admiral in Chile followed the by now familiar pattern, defeating the Spanish military with daring and panache by land and sea, and then being done out of most of the rewards by more politically adept governments and rivals. After Chile, he fought equally successfully for Brazil in their war of independence against Portugal, and then with rather more mixed results for the Greeks in their attempt to throw off Turkish rule. At the age of 54, having gained massive fame and rather more modest financial rewards, Cochrane came home for good. For the rest of his life he applied himself with undaunted energy to campaigning to clear his name of the Stock Exchange fraud and inventing various ingenious military devices such as saturation bombardment and gas warfare, few of which were taken up. He died aged 85, having outlived most of his enemies, and was lauded by the Victorian public as a hero to rival Nelson. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Nor was the romance in Cochrane’s life only of the military variety. At the age of 39, he fell in love with Kitty Barnes, an eighteen-year-old beauty with no money or prospects, whereupon another uncle, the only one of the family with any money, threatened to disinherit him. Undeterred, Cochrane and Kitty eloped together to Scotland, got married no less than three times, had four sons and a daughter, at least one of whom accompanied them on campaign in South America, and lived happily ever after.

This is a clear, engaging and very readable biography of a man whose extraordinary life needs no embellishment whatsoever. As you will have gathered, the author succeeded in gaining my admiration for Cochrane. Yet the biography doesn’t idolise him. For all his military brilliance, Cochrane was his own worst enemy and much of his misfortune came from his political ineptitude and the ease – one could almost say the determination – with which he made and retained enemies in high places. Once Cochrane decided he hated someone, there was no possibility of compromise or of letting bygones be bygones. Nothing short of total victory would satisfy him, and this capacity to stoke the flames of a feud alienated men who might otherwise have been his allies. The author points out that Cochrane’s all-too-frequent response to officials who crossed his will was to flounce out and threaten to resign. While he was undoubtedly a star he was also something of a prima donna.

Think of every fictional action hero you have ever admired – Zorro, Hornblower, Aubrey, Sharpe – roll them all into one and move up a gear, and you get some idea of Cochrane’s extraordinary career. A remarkable man who lived a remarkable life, far outshining his fictional counterparts.

Has anyone else read it?


Susan Higginbotham said...

Sounds fascinating! Will look for this one.

William H. White said...

As a writer of maritime historical fiction, I have read this fine treatise on Cochrane as secondary source research. Well done and mostly accurate. Mr. Thomas has done others as well which are equally interesting. I would recommend any of them to anyone interested in learning about figures on history.
William H. White www.seafiction.net

Carla said...

Susan - it's well worth reading.

William - Hello and welcome. Which of his other books would you particularly recommend?

Hazel-rah said...

Haven't read this and don't know much about Cochrane but the Jack Aubrey stories are based heavily on his exploits.

The comments about sub-standard construction and provisioning is interesting. I think French ships were highly prized precisely because they were better built.

The American frigates of the war of 1812 in particular were superior vessels. They were larger than normal frigates and were a sort of proto-cruiser if we think in modern terms of what they were intended to be: faster than anything more heavily armed, more heavily armed than anything faster. One of them is still in service I seem to recall.

In the film Master and Commander the adversary was a French ship, but in the source material, which was more than one novel, it was American. The film makes a coy reference to American ship design though.

Bernita said...

Seems many of the truly competent were at odds with the Admiralty.
Sentimental of me, I suppose, but I'm glad he found love.

Carla said...

Hazel-rah - that's an interesting comment about French ships being prized because they were better built. It's not mentioned in the biography, but unless the French procurement system was as bad as the British one it seems quite likely. I remember in the film Master and Commander someone had worked in the shipyards at Boston (was it Boston?) and knew about the design of the opposing ship, and seem to remember that information was somehow important in helping Aubrey figure out how to fight it, though I can't remember the details. Presumably in the film the French had bought the ship from the Americans, or something?

Bernita - his marriage seems to fit with the rest of his life, doesn't it?

Georgie Lee said...

Sounds like a great read.

Gabriele C. said...

Looks like the Admiralty can be glad Cochrane didn't build and independent Kingdom of Orkney while he was stationed there. :)

Will put that one on my To Buy list.

Rick said...

What a perfect time and place to escape from the US political primary wars!

Not only Jack Aubrey but Horatio Hornblower swipes elements of Cochrane's career - at least, at one point he attacks cavalry on a coast road, though with a ship of the line.

A quibble: I don't know that French ships were better built - they were regarded as faster, but British ones generally stood up better under fire. A difference in doctrine and design philosophy. A British frigate captain, however, might well prefer to take his chances with a more lightly built but faster ship!

Naval corruption can be spectacular, because it is easy to pull the wool over the eyes of auditors who lack nautical expertise. Even practices not quite corrupt can be strange, such as building entirely new ships under the guise of "rebuilding" old ones. (Because Parliament/Congress was more willing to pay for repairs to existing ships than to build new ones.)

Hazel-rah said...

I can't remember the exact particulars without watching Master and Commander again, but two of the crew built a model of the hull of the ship, which gave Aubrey a better idea of how she would handle.

By the way Rick,
I'm Australian, and we have no equivalent to the primaries in our system and I'm finding yours quite interesting.
But then... we aren't getting wall-to-wall coverage of every little thing the candidates do.

Carla said...

Rick - Hi! I wasn't expecting to see you again until November :-) I recognised several of Cochrane's exploits from the Hornblower novels, including the troops on the coast road - though Cochrane's action was actually even more spectacular than Hornblower's in that he positioned his ship exactly where he could hit the cavalry as they crossed the only short stretch on the road where it was open to the sea. If I remember rightly, Hornblower in the Sutherland had a mile or more of open road to play with. I haven't spotted as many incidents that were used in the Aubrey novels because I'm not as familiar with them - Hazel-rah is the expert on Jack Aubrey's career.

I wonder if there are any statistics available about the standard of French and British ships? There might be, given that both countries had bureaucracies by then :-) It might be a good PhD subject. I do remember Sharpe's men are always looking for French packs because they are more comfortable to carry than the British ones, and as Cornwell's knowledge of the Peninsular War is encyclopaedic that might well be a real snippet from something like a surviving diary. Given that Napoleon was foremost a land commander, if anything I'd expect the French Navy to have got short-changed when it came to resources, but that's pure guesswork on my part.

That's an exact parallel with the modern practice in some corporate IT departments, who have learned to disguise new computers as replacement parts when the bean-counters put a blanket ban on all new capital purchases. New laptop? No, Mr Accountant, it's a replacement screen with integral motherboard.

Hazel-rah - I remember the model of the ship now you mention it, though I still can't remember how it helped Aubrey win the sea fight. I shall have to watch the film again and pay attention to that bit!

Carla said...

Georgie Lee and Gabriele - Sorry I missed your comments earlier! Georgie, it's a great read if you like action and adventure.
Gabriele, I think even Cochrane would have had a hard time establishing an independent maritime power with one wallowing collier that could only sail before the wind and that not very fast! Now if they'd given him a frigate....

Rick said...

I try to escape from politics now and then! I vote Tuesday, "Super Tuesday" - and on my side it is looking razor close. Whether it's My Girl or The Other Guy, I'm hoping the outcome is decisive enough that I can breathe again. :)

There are a lot of factors in ship construction. For example, wartime construction is liable to use green timber, leading to swift rot. No real way to avoid it, either. Ideally, timber was seasoned in brine for several years, and the half built ship left to weather in frame for a year or two before planking up. But big construction programs and time pressure rule out both.

Carla said...

Even I've heard of Super Tuesday! I hope the outcome goes the way you want :-)

Quite right, the pressures of warfare tend to play havoc with normal standards of construction and maintenance. That might even argue that French ships tended to be better built because Napoleon was more interested in the army and so there was less pressure on the navy. Even with a charitable interpretation, though, it seems evident there were a lot of fingers in the till at the Admiralty.

Hazel-rah said...

Yeah I'm very interested in Super Tuesday. This could be a momentous time in a quiet way. Even a Republican candidate is a declared non-sceptic about the impacts of pollution, for example.
We've just changed governments in Australia. The conservatives got thumped. There were all sorts of reasons for that but one of the winning strategies was to link the economy with the environment. In a drought-affected country with a largely agricultural economy this resonated deep and loud.

But back to ships...
If the timber was allowed to season properly, the ship could be servicable for more than 30 years but, as Rick said, there was often not the time. British shipyards did adapt well to the practice of coppering the bottoms, which was a recent technological development. This fought off ship-worm and kept the hulls cleaner, so they could keep good speed for half a year out of dock which, if you are fighting often far from home, is very advantageous. The wars in North America gutted the economy of France leading up to the revolution, and so the latter couldn't function quite as industriously when it came to their shipyards. Or so a theory goes.. I can't reconcile that with the "French built better ships" notion.

Rick said...

"French built better ships."

I don't think this had much to do with materials or workmanship, but a perception that the French designed better ships. They tried to be more scientific, though 18th c. applied science was pretty useless for designing sailing ships. (You need hydrodynamics and aerodynamics.)

In practical terms, though, French ships tended to be larger for their rate, and lighter in construction - both making them superior performers, at cost of standing up less well in a yardarm to yardarm fight.

Both sides followed sound doctrine. The outnumbered French needed individually superior ships - the same reasoning behind the US super frigates. The Brits needed maximum coverage, meaning lots of ships, even if individually smaller and weaker, relying on Jack Tar to make up the difference. Which he generally did.

By the way, Hazel-Rah, you are right about the ship model in Master and Commander. No ordinary moviegoer would have a clue, but the model is of one of the big US frigates, probably Constitution class.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Thanks for this. I've got my eye on a new Cochrane biography:
Cochrane the Dauntless by David Cordingly,
who also wrote Billy Ruffian, a thrilling biography of a ship of the line, HMS Bellerophon, which fought in the major sea battles of the Napoloeonic Wars, carried Napoleon to England after his surrender and sadly ended her days as a prison hulk. It's a terrific read which is just as good on ship design and timber as it is on seamanship and battles.

Hazel-rah said...

You know your ships, Rick.

'Old Ironsides' and I go way back.
The captain at the time of her battle with HMS Guerriere and I share the same surname, which excited me as a child for childish reasons.
Also when I was a kid someone gave me a jigsaw painting of her in port. Being a thing of great sentimental value, the last time I assembled it, I got it framed.
If I ever get to Boston, she's at the top of the list of things I want to see.

Carla said...

Hazel-rah, Rick - One of the things Cochrane's father invented was apparently a coal-tar covering for ship's hulls to prevent shipworm, but the Admiralty wouldn't take it up (because the shipyard contractors liked the regular income from repairing ships - "the worm is our friend", as one of them told Cochrane's father). I suppose it would have been a sort of forerunner of modern anti-fouling paint if it had come into use.

The revolution itself probably played havoc with the French economy, on top of the wars in America. It is hard to reconcile that with the idea that French ships were better built, isn't it? Rick probably has the rights of it when he says they were better designed. Can you work out some aerodyamics/hydrodynamics empirically, even without the theoretical base? People must have known for ages that certain shapes of ship were faster or more manoeuvrable or higher capacity - aren't Viking knorrs (the long-distance cargo carrier) quite different in shape from the longships?

As an ordinary moviegoer, I can confirm that I didn't recognise the model as Constitituion :-) BTW, I looked her up on Wikipedia just now, having not known anything about her beforehand, and she sounds quite a ship!

Sarah - I'll look out for that, many thanks. I'd like to read someone else's take on Cochrane to get a different viewpoint.