Finding David Cordingly's exhaustive biography of Thomas Cochrane was entirely serendipitous for me. I was wandering the stacks on a hunt for a completely different type of research material and there it was. With my penchant for all things Patrick O'Brian and the fact that my own historical novels include more than a brief brush with the Royal Navy of the era, I couldn't resist the purchase. Frankly, that's where irresistible stops on just about all levels.
Cordingly is nothing if not a consummate historian. As discussed previously, his book Under A Black Flag is considered the preeminent work on pirates of the Golden Age. Nothing is missed in that one and I would be lying through my teeth if I didn't tell you that my tattered and dog-eared copy of that book is referred to at least weekly to verify my own research.
Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander is an entirely different kind of animal however. Full of every possible detail about the man who many firmly believe was Patrick O'Brian's inspiration for his hero Jack Aubrey, it reads more like a doctoral thesis than a lively biography. Given the vast scope of the life in question that is both understandable and disappointing. There are a lot of names, dates and places in this book but not a lot of heart or soul. You will learn everything about Cochrane - or just about. By the time you come out of the rabbit hole, however, you won't like him very much. And you'll probably need a nap.
Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald was the first son of Archibald Cochrane, a down-at-hand Scottish Lard whose penchant for dabbling in scientific experiments didn't help the family fortune along. As the eldest son, young Tom was sent to sea where he could make his own fortune and bring it home to Culross Abbey House. Cochrane joined the ranks of the British Navy as a midshipman and had the good fortune to be assisted not only by his shipmates (he was old for a mid at 17 and knew virtually nothing about sailing when he showed up in his shiny uniform) but family "connexions" as well. Though Archibald angered the Admiralty with letters about promotions his son wasn't getting, Thomas made Master and Commander fairly quickly.
The now famous taking of the Spanish frigate El Gamo by Cochrane's sloop Speedy in 1801 was the turning point for his career. Though it took a few months, Cochrane was made Post and quickly got on with the business of serious heroic exploits in and around the Mediterranean. Sailors considered Cochrane lucky and fights broke out for a berth on any ship he commanded. He was well liked and capable, but his own personality, which lead him to balk at discipline from "lubbers" at the Admiralty, didn't win him any points. He got involved in politics and made enemies in Parliament. Things came to a head when he was struck from the roles of Post Captains after being convicted (though many historians, including Cordingly, say unjustly) of "jobbing" the stock exchange in 1814.
By this time, 32 year old Cochrane had married the sixteen year old orphan Katherine Corbett Barnes and as Lady Dundonald she became a regular fixture in her husband's exploits. Unlike Sophie Aubrey in the O'Brian books, Kate was not one to stay at home and wait for her man. Cochrane starts a new life at sea commanding the Chilean navy for the revolutionary leader Bernardo O'Higgins. Kate and their very young children are along for the ride. Indeed, it is in this portion of the book that Cordingly really shines, giving us some more intimate information about the Cochranes that makes even Thomas seem far more human than he has before.
But while he shows us Lady Dundonald on the gun deck - unfortunately fainting away and having to be carried below - and tells us of the death of her eleven month old from fever, Cordingly leaves a lot out. What did Kate think of one Maria Graham, for instance, who exults about the heroic Thomas in poetry and seems to follow him all over South America? Cordingly never tells us what the two's relationship really was and given the level of his abilities as a researcher, one has to wonder.
Cochrane returns to England and, something like Byron, gives his all for Greek independence later in life. The failure of the Greek revolution seems to be the last straw and, though he buys a fine home outside London and tries to make a go of parties and balls, his world is crumbling. He and Kate eventually split permanently and Cochrane is left with a small townhouse in the city where he takes the air with his housekeeper. Cordingly, in his usual crisp fashion, assures us that though Kate and the children imagined Thomas and the housekeeper were lovers, they were not. Cochrane dies in the townhouse in 1860, a well traveled if broken man and quite elderly at 85.
Given the huge mountain of information presented in this well written and impeccably researched book, I was disappointed in the end by what was left out. Maybe it's because I'm a woman but I don't think so. The private lives of our heroes are just as valid as - and sometimes more telling than - their public exploits. Unlike Stephan Talty with his salty, grumpy and all-for-success vision of Henry Morgan in Empire Of Blue Water, Cordingly offers us very little that is human in Cochrane. Lord Dundonald comes across, at least to me, not as heroic but as selfish, grasping and too ready to lay blame. And I'm not sure that was the intent.
Whatever Cochrane was, he was surely no Jack Aubrey. But then how many of us are?