Thomas Cochrane: Britain’s Most Controversial Naval Hero

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Across the span of his life, Thomas Cochrane bore many titles. He was at times a peer in Parliament, an Admiral, a revolutionary and a fraudster. Showing at once an affinity for progressive ideas, a certain irreverent brashness and a great capacity for deceit, he was advised by Horatio Nelson to: “Never mind manoeuvres, always go at them”, encapsulating his direct and aggressive brand of naval genius. Through his great political and military talents, Cochrane extended the reach of his influence throughout much of the world. Yet, owing to accusations of fraud, hypocrisy, and pure bad luck, Cochrane’s legacy has been marred with controversy, blemishing his image as the naval hero of South America.

The son of Archibald Cochrane, 9th Earl of Dundonald, and nephew of Admiral Alexander Cochrane, the young Thomas enjoyed a comfortable childhood at his father’s estate in Curloss, Fife. The family fortune, however, was soon frittered away on his father’s obsession with innovation: it was fully wiped out by his backing of an unsuccessful scheme to coat the hulls of Navy ships with pitch. Luckily for Cochrane, his father’s financial blunder in 1793 coincided with the outbreak of the Revolutionary Wars in France only a year earlier, hence joining the Navy now promised to be a lucrative and exciting prospect. Coupled with his familial connections within the Navy, Cochrane’s course of action was obvious.

Although he was only 17 years old when he joined the Royal Navy, he immediately became an officer on his uncle’s ship, the HMS Hind, as the admiral had been illegally recording Cochrane as having been part of his crew since he was 5 years old. He thus ensured that Cochrane appeared to have the necessary experience to become an officer. In the five years following his initial enlistment in the Navy, he would go on to serve on four different ships and was promoted to Lieutenant before being court-martialled in 1798 for challenging another officer to a duel. Returning to service in 1799, he briefly commanded the captured French ship Genereux

The vessel for which he would become infamous – the HMS Speedy – fell under his command in 1800. It was a small sloop with only fourteen four-pounder guns and a crew of only ninety-two men. Under Cochrane’s command, however, it soon found resounding success: before the year was up, he had already captured 50 ships, 122 guns and 534 prisoners. 

Cochrane’s quick wits and daring plots enabled him to overcome forces superior than his own in both size and weaponry. His ambitious capture of the Spanish frigate El Gamo involved impersonating an American ship to draw near it enough to render its cannons useless, before pulling away from the ship to prevent boarding, picking off the Spanish sailors who had come on deck to board the Speedy.

As commander of the Speedy, Cochrane also knew exactly when and how to slip away from a powerful foe. He escaped one nighttime encounter with an enemy ship by attaching a candle to a barrel and letting it float away, thus leaving the enemy to chase after the barrel instead of the Speedy, while he evaded another by masquerading as a plague-ridden Danish merchant ship.

Eventually, following the Peace of Amiens in 1802, Cochrane briefly retired from the Navy, studying at the University of Edinburgh. At the resumption of conflict in 1803 with the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, he returned to the seas, commanding first the HMS Arab, a weak and poorly-handling gunship. He caused international upset on the Arab by boarding an American merchant vessel at a time when Britain was not at war with the US. 

In 1804 he took over control of the more formidable 32-gun frigate Pallas, and in 1806 the 38-gun Imperieuse, which he used to great effect, becoming one of the most efficient and feared practitioners of coastal warfare against the French forces. Operating on the French Mediterranean coast, he captured a number of French ships during his command of the Imperieuse, as well as the coastal fortress of Mongat. His prowess earned him the nickname “le loup des mers”, or “the wolf of the seas” from Napoleon.

Despite his overwhelming successes as captain of each of these ships, it was during this period that Cochrane began to withdraw from the Navy in favour of politics. In 1806, he won his second election to become an MP for the borough of Honiton, having failed the first time, and immediately began speaking in the House of Commons to criticise the conduct of the British military in its wars against the French, as well as the corruption within the Navy that he had experienced, and indeed benefitted from.

A particular figure of Cochrane’s disdain was Admiral Lord Gambier, whom he regarded as unfit for his position of power. Owing to his constant criticism of Gambier and other prominent figures in Parliament, Cochrane quickly became unpopular, but allied himself with a few other like-minded politicians, such as Sir Francis Burdett. Both were members of the burgeoning Radical movement in Parliament, pushing for progressive reforms to the political system of the UK. 

The Radical movement was a reformation campaign initiated by English political thinkers in response to the outbreak of the French Revolution. Radicals set up societies across the country, demanding for the sovereignty of the people, fairer representation in Parliament, universal male suffrage, and regular or annual parliaments. Religious tolerance was also a common proposition. The movement expanded throughout Britain during the 18th century, gaining widespread attention before being stifled by the rise of the Labour Party in the early 1900s.

Cochrane felt particularly aggrieved by how often elections were won solely through bribery of voters. Wealthy (or financially influential) individuals, such as bankers, would demand vast sums of money to distribute among the population of a constituency in exchange for votes for the paying candidate, taking a cut for themselves in the process. Cochrane suspected that it was his lack of participation in this corruption which had lost him his first election, and once in Parliament, he set about trying to abolish these undemocratic constituencies. He maintained that he had won his second election fairly, but admitted ten years later to paying ten guineas per voter to ensure that the election went in his favour. Nevertheless, Cochrane’s hypocrisy did not prevent him from staunchly pushing political reforms; efforts which, along with the actions of other Radical politicians, would help to bring about the first Reform Act of 1832.

However, scandal would follow Cochrane wherever he went. In 1809, the Battle of Basque Roads saw Cochrane lead a successful fireship attack against anchored French ships, driving all but two of them aground. His old rival, Admiral Lord Gambier, demurred to follow up on this initial strike with the full force of the British fleet. Cochrane tried to have Gambier court-martialled for this tactical mistake; Gambier, who outranked Cochrane in the Navy, resented Cochrane for this, and temporarily shut down his naval career. Then, in 1812, at the age of 37, he eloped with a 16-year-old Katherine Barnes, and, as soon as backlash had died down, he was convicted of defrauding the London Stock Exchange. 

In 1814, false reports of Napoleon’s death drove up the prices of government securities sharply. During this period, Cochrane had unloaded his entire holding in these securities, a figure equivalent to a modern £11,850,000. Thus, he was convicted on suspicion of having propagated the hoax of Napoleon’s death to influence the price of his holdings.

This conviction marked a new chapter in Cochrane’s life. Having been sentenced to one year in prison and suffering the loss of his naval rank, he began to turn his attention away from the hostile political climate of his home nation. After escaping prison, he was immediately re-elected by his constituents, but still decided to leave Britain with his wife in 1817. What followed was a string of revolutions spearheaded by Cochrane’s naval operations. 

First, when he was given command of the Chilean navy, Cochrane pulled off incredible feats such as seizing the Spanish fortress of Valdivia with only 300 men and capturing the Esmerelda, a flagship of the Spanish South American fleet. Moreover, he led Chile to independence, liberating the Chileans from the Spanish, then he used the Chilean navy once again, to liberate Peru also. Next, commanding the Brazilian navy, he captured the Portuguese garrison of Bahia and the fortress at Maranhao against overwhelming odds. With Cochrane’s help, Brazil too would soon be independent. Finally, he fought with the Greek navy to liberate Greece from Egyptian control.

It was only once he had been pardoned in 1832 that he returned to the Royal Navy as a Rear-Admiral. His knighthood was restored in 1847 as he took up the post of Commander-in-Chief of the North American and West Indies Station. 

Today, Cochrane is remembered romantically through fiction, having been immortalised as a naval hero. Yet, to an extent, he was a controversial figure, both condemning and utilising political corruption, a liberator who committed several atrocities which would be considered modern war crimes. His great military talent, however, is beyond dispute, and though he is forgotten by many in his home nation, he is thought of in South America today as he was by many during his lifetime: as a revolutionary, a maverick, and a hero.

Cochrane, Thomas.,1860. Autobiography of a Seaman. Albion Press.

Heathcote, Tony., 2002. The British Admirals of the Fleet 1734 – 1995. Pen & Sword.

Wallenfeldt, Jeffrey and Cochrane, Michael., 2015. Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Thomas, Donald., 2001. Cochrane: Britannia’s Sea Wolf. Cassell Military Paperbacks.

Vale, Brian., 2008. Cochrane in the Pacific: Fortune and Freedom in Spanish America. I.B. Tauris.

Grimble, Ian., 2000. The Sea Wolf: The Life of Admiral Cochrane. Birlinn, Edinburgh.