Thursday, December 3, 2009

History: Adventures Afloat Part 2

As we saw yesterday, Captain Thomas Lord Cochrane was nothing if not ready for action. He was surprisingly ready to complain about any given situation as well and that would get him into plenty of trouble as his career in the Royal Navy went on. But let us look into the rest of his Adventures Afloat as Captain of the sloop of war, Speedy.

His French prize from the port of Tunis handily taken and sent in to Port Mahon, Cochrane is cruising again by March 18, 1801. He spies what he refers to as a "...large frigate in chase of us." Although he does not give her exact size or the number of her guns, she must have been impressive. The chase continues through the day and night and into the next day. Finally, on the second night, Cochrane resorts to a ruse that will be more than familiar to O'Brian readers: "After dark, we lowered a tub overboard with a light on it..." Speedy douses her lights and changes course, slipping away from her pursuer in the dark.

In April another prize is taken before Speedy is forced back to port to "... refit and procure fresh hands, many having been sent away in prizes." It was customary for a "prize crew" to be put aboard a captured ship and sent back to port while their mates continued their cruise so, aboard a small ship like Speedy, hands could become very lean with a lucky Captain like Cochrane.

In early May, Speedy is off Barcelona when she encounters the Spanish xebec frigate Gamo (or El Gamo, shown above with the much smaller English sloop off her lee). The frigate ships over 300 men and 32 cannon but Cochrane and his officers decide to take her. The action is quick and surprisingly efficient. Speedy maneuvers close to Gamo where she can fire upward with her small guns while Gamo's large cannon can only shoot impotently over her. The Spanish Captain is killed in the initial broadside and Cochrane gives the order to board leaving only his surgeon, Mr. Guthrie, at the helm of little Speedy.

Cochrane's 54 men manage to subdue Gamo's 319 and Gamo loses more men than Speedy has in her entire crew. The whole engagement is a tremendous success for the Royal Navy and Cochrane in particular and the papers in the Mediterranean and at home in Britain hail Cochrane and his men as heroes. Midshipman Archibald Cochrane, Thomas' younger brother, is given command of the prize and she is taken in to Port Mahon.

In the pamphlet, Cochrane grumbles about "... the peculations of the Mediterranean Admiralty Courts" with regard to the prize money owed him and his men and it may be that he was vocal at the time as well. Notoriously his own worst enemy, Cochrane is given assignments after the glorious capture of Gamo that he feels are either inappropriate for his little sloop (appealing to the Dey of Algiers for return of a British frigate) or well beneath him (escorting a "... tub of a mail packet to Gibraltar" without being acknowledged for his trouble). Clearly, the powers that be have their teeth on edge about our hero.

When Cochrane discovers that Gamo has been sold to Algeria rather then refit as his new command, he quits playing nice. While escorting the mail packet to Gibraltar he keeps his eye out for the enemy. One night, upon finding a French sloop laden with oil in an estuary, he orders her set afire. The blaze draws attention from not one but three French frigates and the chase is on.

Early the next morning things become dire for Speedy and, though she continues to run to the best of her ability, she is badly cut up by fire from the frigates and must strike to the closest one. This is Dessiax, whose Captain, Christie Palliere, is so impressed that he refuses to take Cochrane's sword and insists on treating him as a guest aboard the frigate. The two men become friends, as so often happens among naval men who admire one another for their skill despite their status as enemies. So much so, in fact, that there seem to be no hard feelings between them when Dessaix is set upon and taken by a squadron of English frigates.

Cochrane and his men are exchanged for French and Spanish prisoners but Speedy is too far gone for repair. In her short career under Cochrane she, as he puts it, "... had taken and retaken upwards of fifty vessels, one hundred and twenty-two guns, and five hundred and thirty-four prisoners." A fine showing for both a green Post Captain and "... one of the smallest and worst-armed vessels in the British service."

Thomas Cochrane is one of the most fascinating naval figures of his age and we will revisit him and his later exploits in the future. For now, though, we can only say well done to Speedy, her crew, and her lucky Captain.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! Three cheers for lucky Tom! Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!
You are right though, you can really see where O'Brian got his inspiration for Jack Aubrey. Good stuff. Thankee, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Oh and it just gets better. I haven't really started David Cordingly's biography of Cochrane - "The Real Master and Commander" - but even the names of the people Cochrane came into contact with (Captain Pulling, for instance) were used by O'Brian. Gotta love The Sea Wolf (as Bernardo O'Higgins refered to Cochrane).

Timmy! said...

So, David Porter vs. Thomas Cochrane would be Sinbad vs. The Sea Wolf? Sounds like an old Ray Harryhuasen stop motion animation special effects extravaganza...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Just imagine the possibilities!