... there is no man I envy so much as Lord Cochrane.
The above quote, written down by none other than George Gordon Lord Byron, sums up the way many a man on both sides of the Atlantic felt about Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, one of the most dynamic leaders ever produced by the Royal Navy. Born on this day in 1775 at the family estate on the Firth of Forth in Scotland, Cochrane is frequently referred to as the inspiration for Patrick O’Brian’s engaging fictional character Captain Jack Aubrey and indeed there are many similarities. Not the least of which are the successful actions undertaken by Cochrane against the French during the Napoleonic Wars. And the frigates both men held dear.
Cochrane’s enormous career, which included not only service in the Royal Navy but a stint as Admiral in the Revolutionary Navies of Chile and Greece, has far too broad a scope to discuss in one simple blog post. Cochrane was a complex man who was both loved and hated by his peers and who was eventually excused the service due to his conviction for “jobbing” the stock market in 1814. Before that, though, it seemed that Captain Cochrane had nowhere to go but up.
After making Post upon the glorious capture of the Spanish ship El Gamo while he was Master and Commander aboard the British sloop-of-war Speedy, Cochrane was given a brand new frigate straight out of the Plymouth dockyards. Her name was Pallas and, though she was of an older design from 1753 and she was by any standards a small frigate, she must have seemed like a ship of the line to Cochrane. Speedy, which he would later write was a “burlesque” of a fighting ship, carried only a few small guns and 80 men. Pallas, on the other hand, crewed 215 and her guns totaled 26 12-pounders and 12 24-pound carronades, particularly favored by Cochrane. She was literally armed to the teeth at her launch in the winter of 1804. Cochrane, a fighting Captain, must have been more than pleased.
Pallas offered a man of Cochrane’s size and height – he was over six feet tall and usually referred to as “sturdy” – much better accommodations than his previous command. His cabin alone afforded headroom equal to his stature, a vast rather than cramped space and six enormous stern windows that could be opened to let in the breeze. His men were better off in their berths as well. Cochrane, who tended to complain, had nothing to grouse about in Pallas.
And so he was off, first cruising the English Channel and then out to the French coast to rendezvous with Vice-Admiral Edward Thornborough’s squadron, which Pallas did in February of 1806. Cochrane was ordered to cruise independently and harass all manner of French shipping. As he had in the past, Cochrane proved a master at such assignments. He and his men made quick raids ashore and captured more than one merchant ship, replenishing Pallas’ stores at French expense.
In March, Cochrane got word of French corvettes readying to leave the estuary of Garonne off the Bay of Biscay near Bordeaux. Despite the treacherous seas in the Gironde delta, Cochrane planned a night raid on the French ships to be led by his First Lieutenant, John Haswell. Haswell took 177 men upstream into the estuary in Pallas’ boats where they encountered Tapageuse at 3:00 AM on April 6th. The French crew were overcome as they had no notion of being boarded at anchor. Haswell managed to sail Tapageuse out of the estuary, managing to beat of a French sloop with Tapageuse’s 14 12-pounders as they went.
Meanwhile, Pallas encountered another three French ships the next morning. Cochrane’s ship was bigger and better armed than any of the French but he had only 40 men aboard him to man the capstan, tend the sails and work the guns. Cochrane, in his usual fashion, came up with a creative solution. He had his men go aloft and make the sails ready before securing them with a length of easily cut yarn. Then most of the men returned to the deck and hauled up Pallas’ anchor as the Frenchmen came closer. When Cochrane gave the order, the yarns were cut and, in his own words, the ruse:
… succeeded to a marvel. No sooner was our cloud of canvas thus suddenly let fall than the approaching vessels hauled the wind and ran off along shore, with Pallas in chase.
By day’s end all three French ships had been run aground and fired upon to ensure they could not return to sea. On April 7th, Pallas rendezvoused with Tapageuse and Cochrane proudly returned to the squadron with his prize. He submitted a report that gave glowing recommendations of all his men, particularly Lieutenant Haswell. These sentiments were in turn echoed by first Thornborough reporting to Lord St. Vincent and then St. Vincent in his report to the Admiralty. In very unusual language, Lord St. Vincent, then in command of the Channel Squadron, informed the Admiralty that Cochrane and his people had recommended themselves by their success which called for his Lordship’s “… warmest approbation.” It would be one of the few times that the future First Lord of the Admiralty would speak so highly of Thomas Cochrane.
Pallas and her people would continue their success under Captain Cochrane, including a stunning engagement with the French 40 gun frigate Minerve later in 1806. But that is another story for another time. For now, let me simply say Huzzah! for Thomas Cochrane and his exploits, and happy Birthday to one of the world’s great sailors.
Header: Contemporary engraving of Cochrane as Admiral of the Chilean Navy c 1822