Lord Thomas Cochrane was the real life basis of two of the most swashbuckling characters in fiction, both C S Forester’s Horatio Hornblower (12 book series) and Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey (20 book series) take a lot from the actual exploits of this now largely forgotten British naval hero. Amazingly they probably had to tone it down in the fictional versions for some of the actual exploits of Cochrane are so unbelievable that they are beyond what even a fictional hero would attempt. Examples such as the attack of the HMS Speedy against a much larger Spanish vessel where Cochrane reasoned that if he sailed right up alongside the Spanish vessel its guns would fire harmlessly over the top of his own ship whilst he could issue broadside after broadside into its lower decks. As the Spanish sailors abandoned their guns and tried to board the Speedy he sailed away a few yards, then as they went back to their guns he came alongside and started firing again. Eventually the Spanish ship surrendered and was sailed away to a British held port by a portion of the crew of the Speedy. Lord Cochrane was a consummate sailor and during his time on board had learnt a lot of the skills of his men, this ability to muck in if needed alongside leading from the front with boarding parties earned him considerable respect from his crew a lot of whom followed him from ship to ship as he progressed from the tiny Speedy to much larger frigates.
In spite of his seamanship and skill as a coastal raider, both for taking enemy ships and destroying fortifications Cochrane himself never made it higher than Captain in the British navy and this was largely due to his inability to stay silent when faced with any real or perceived affront to his position. He continually annoyed his superior officers, even pressing for the Admiral he was ultimately responsible to during one battle to be court martialed, and also during his years in parliament as MP for Westminster annoyed most of the other parliamentarians with his continual pressing of causes that he had already lost and outspoken speeches condemning his naval commanders. His autobiography, written in his eighties, reopened a lot of the wounds he had dealt in his twenties and thirties and left him even fewer friends amongst the great and the good. Cochrane however always believed he was right and everyone else was wrong.
David Cordingley has produced a splendid book about this complex character using not only Cochrane’s, somewhat biased, autobiography but offsetting this with admiralty reports, letters, ships logs and other evidence such as the diary and correspondence of Captain Marryat who served as a junior officer under Cochrane before becoming famous as a novelist. The book is comprehensive with numerous maps, pictures, cutaway drawings of two of Cochrane’s ships, bibliography, index and most importantly a glossary of naval terms for those of us less familiar with them. At 362 pages, excluding all the extra items detailed previously, Cordingly gave himself space to explore his subject and it is a fascinating read. From rising naval star to disgraced prisoner (after being implicated in a stock market fraud that he probably wasn’t actually involved in but which his superiors used as a convenient way of getting rid of a noisy thorn in their side), to signing up to be admiral of the separatist navy under the Chilean independence leader Bernardo O’Higgins and helping force the Spanish out of South America Cochrane led an exciting life and the book reflects that. Cordingly isn’t shy about documenting Cochrane’s faults as well, worst of which was his impetuous nature which got him into more problems than was necessary.
Amazingly after his success as a South American mercenary captain helping to gain independence for not only Chile but Peru and Brazil as well he arrived back in Britain where his various sins were forgiven and he was promoted to Rear Admiral and eventually died, aged eighty four, as a full Admiral. I heartily recommend this biography of a supreme sailor and complex character who is sadly barely known today despite his influence on writers as diverse as Arthur Conan Doyle and Bernard Cornwell. His adventures are as exciting as any fictional character and Cordingly’s descriptions are very well written.