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Biography: Thomas Cochrane

THOMAS COCHRANE

Born 14 December 1775, Annisfield, Lanarkshire. Commissioned in the navy by his uncle, while still a child, Cochrane officially joined the navy in 1793 at 17 years of age, on HMS Hind. He was appointed Acting Lieutenant on HMS Thetis in 1795 and confirmed at this rank in 1796 by grace of his nominal service.

In 1798 he was appointed to HMS Foudroyant under Lord Keith and transferred to HMS Barfleur with him. During this period began his controversial career, when he was court-martialled for being disrespectful to a senior officer. Keith let him off with an admonishment. He was involved in the blockade of Cadiz during this time and again moved with Lord Keith to HMS Queen Charlotte, and the pursuit of the French fleet out of the Mediterranean. In February 1800, after the capture of Le Genereux, he was appointed Prizemaster and his task was to take her to Port Mahon, thus escaping the burning of the Queen Charlotte off Leghorn. He was promoted to command HMS Speedy in which he attacked, boarded and captured a Spanish frigate El Gramo her in May 1800. He was promoted to Post-Captain in August 1800 but fell out with the Admiralty over the promotion of his Lieutenant, Mr. Parker. This was the beginning of a long standing bitterness between him and the Admiralty.

In July 1800, he was engaged with a squadron of three French ships and despite ingenious seamanship was forced to surrender. He was exchanged at Gibraltar for the 2nd Captain of the San Antonio. After a period of study in Edinburgh, he returned to sea in HMS Arab, a converted collier that was not really a suitable vessel as a ship of the line. After strong representations on this matter to the Admiralty, he was ordered to the Orkneys as fishery protection - a mark of displeasure by their Lordships, since there was no such protection needed. After fifteen months, he was appointed to HMS Pallas, 32 gun frigate, and stationed in the Azores where he captured several valuable prizes. In May 1805, he was stationed in North America after which he returned to England, appointed to HMS Imperieuse and elected MP for Honiton in October 1806. The Imperieuse was sent to help in the blockade of the Basque roads in November 1806.

In February 1807, he was elected MP for Westminster and later that year brought a motion against naval abuses, which although defeated without a vote, incurred further displeasure from the Admiralty. He was dispatched to the Mediterranean under Lord Collingwood at Toulon. In 1808, he was given a roving commission to harass the French and Spanish coasts which he undertook with a great deal of success. When his health began to suffer, he returned to England and given the task of leading a fireship raid on the French fleet in the Aix roads. Despite lack of co-operation, support and deliberate inaction from senior officers, including the Commander in Chief Lord Gambier, the attack went ahead on 11 April 1809. Despite the fireships exploding before reaching the target, the French fleet’s bid to escape failed when all but two ran aground. Cochrane attempted to follow up with broadsides with half hearted support from Gambier. On his return to England, Cochrane was awarded the Order of the Bath, but was furious at the proposed vote of thanks from the House of Commons to Lord Gambier for this action. Lord Gambier applied for a court-martial in the face of Cochrane’s accusations and was acquitted, leaving Cochrane’s reputation in the Admiralty in tatters for falsely libeling his superior officer. He declined to return to his ship and was put on half pay until in 1813, his uncle, Alexander Cochrane was appointed Commander in Chief North American station and his nephew was asked to be his Flag Captain in HMS Tonnant.

It was during the fitting out of his uncle’s flagship that he became acquainted with a French rifle instructor whose services he required. However, De Berenger was an unscrupulous swindler and set off a false rumour in high places, about Napoleon being killed and imminent peace; this impacted on the stock exchange, resulting in a high rise and then a heavy fall. During this fluctuation, another of Cochrane’s uncle’s made a profit under a false name and Cochrane was unwittingly involved in De Berenger’s escape. All three were convicted and Cochrane sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, expelled from Parliament , the Navy and the Order of the Bath. However, his constituents believed he was innocent and returned him to his seat - although he was in prison. He attempted to escape but was recaptured. On his eventual release, he continued to oppose the government until he was re-arrested and charged with escape during imprisonment - although this had been seventeen months previous. His fine was paid by public subscription.

In order to escape further attention, in 1817 he was employed by the Chilean government to organise their navy against the Spanish. After some successes, government factions made him resign his commission. He continued with spells organising the Brazilian and Greek navies before returning to England to clear his name in 1828. It took until 1832 to get a free pardon and restored to the naval list as a Rear Admiral. By this time, he had succeeded his father as 10th Earl Dundonald. He devoted his time to inventing improvements to the steam marine engine, whose importance he had recognised during his spell with the Greek navy. He was appointed Vice Admiral in November 1841, Commander in Chief West Indies and North American station 1848 and full Admiral 1851. He was also reinstated to the Order of the Bath in 1847. He died on October 31 1860 at his son’s home in Kensington.

A reading list for further information is available

© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2004
The information contained in this information sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available.

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