Wednesday, December 2, 2009

History: Adventures Afloat Part 1

People ask me Pauline, what are you doing talking about the Royal Navy so much, not to mention that pesky American version? Isn't your focus pirates? My answer is simple. Jack, the third P in Triple P stands for Privateers and all standing navies - especially the "blue water" varieties - are privateers not just in the general but specific sense. So, by way of illustration, today and tomorrow we will discuss the writings of one of the most successful and controversial figures in Nelson's navy.

Captain Thomas Lord Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dondonald (pictured above in heroic stance and tiny slippers that make my feet hurt) was not only a person envied by naval officers on both sides of the Atlantic but also a man with the second best name in Royal Navy history. The first, of course, belonging to his contemporary Admiral Sir Richard Cockburn.

Cochrane, who despite his title came from a down-at-heel family, went to sea young and spent a year "before the mast" in punishment for an infraction that may or may not have involved hiding a girl aboard ship when he was a Mid. He overcame this obstacle to promotion and by 1800 was given the command of a sloop of war named Speedy. If any of this is already sounding familiar to readers of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels, it should. O'Brian's inspiration for Jack "Master and Commander" Aubrey was undoubtedly Thomas Cochrane.

Cochrane later wrote of his experiences aboard Speedy in a pamphlet entitled Adventures Afloat. He not only included excerpts from his log but spiced up his narrative with a liberal seasoning of personal anecdote and opinion. If Cochrane really did write this thing (some historians are skeptical), he must have been a kick in person. He starts out with complaints about his first command, calling her "a burlesque on a vessel of war" and referring to her fourteen 4 pound cannons as a "species of gun little larger than a blunderbuss". Despite his disdain, Cochrane manages to sail the hell out of little Speedy.

The first cruise sets out from Port Mahon, a British Naval base in Spain, in May of 1800 and immediately sets to the work of taking French and Spanish prizes. He has been charged by Admiral Lord Keith, in charge of the Mediterranean at the time, to do so and Cochrane takes his work seriously. By August 3rd, according to the log documentation, Speedy had five prizes under her belt and the numbers continued to escalate.

Other officers, including Admiral Keith, took notice and Cochrane - never one to shy away from the limelight - enjoyed the rising of his star. He makes a point of saying that, during a stay at Leghorn port, Keith "... frequently invited me ashore to participate in the gaities of the place." Doubtless the ladies in particular appreciated this. Officers in the Mediterranean service frequently stationed their wives and daughters at ports like Gibraltar, Mahon and Leghorn in the hope of attracting a good catch among the unmarried Lieutenants and Post Captains. Cochrane, though, was not ready to swallow that hook.

Back at sea in October, Cochrane amasses more prizes, even taking a Spanish privateer full of wine off Carthagena, Spain, on Christmas Eve. By now, Cochrane writes that Speedy has become a target of Spanish men-of-war and he makes clear that a certain meeting with a very large frigate ended in a lucky escape rather than a cowardly avoidance - as some of his officers would say.

Continued success gets Cochrane an invite to a fancy dress ball held by French Royalists at Malta while Speedy is in port in January, 1801. Cochrane chooses to dress as a common British tar. As he puts it "... not even the marlinspike and the lump of grease in the hat being omitted." This brings him a brusque rebuke from the snotty French and a request that he leave the party, leading to fisty-cuffs and a challenge to a duel. Cochrane is unapologetic about the situation, and makes sure we understand that his gun did more damage to the Frenchman then the Frenchman's did to him. He does end the anecdote, though, a bit humbly: "It was a lesson to me in future never to do anything in frolic which might give even unintentional offense."

Cochrane is back at sea by February and this time he takes a prize in the port of Tunis under some questionable conditions. The ship is a Frenchman, at anchor in the neutral port and full of arms and munitions bound for Napoleon's army in Egypt. Cochrane decides to board her by night, takes the ship without much trouble and then works out a plan to avoid the officers and crew complaining to the Tunisian authorities. He effectively lets his prisoners escape by making boats available and turning a blind eye one evening. The Frenchmen, not wanting to be recaptured on shore, sail off into the dark and Cochrane has yet another impressive prize to take into Port Mahon.

Things get better - and worse - for our hero as spring turns into summer. But that part we'll save for tomorrow.


dwightjacobs said...

"It was a lesson to me in future never to do anything in frolic which might give even unintentional offense."--- Good advice for us all as the holiday party season approaches!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Dwight! Ah yes, temperance in all things. Except maybe prize taking.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Personally, I prefer moderation to temperance, but then, what do I know?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! If his life speaks for him, Lord Cochrane shunned both.