1902 Encyclopedia > 10th Earl of Dundonald

Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald
British naval officer

THOMAS COCHRANE, TENTH EARL OF DUNDONALD, (1775-1860), known during his brilliant naval career as Lord Cochrane, was born at Annsfield, in Lanarkshire, on the 14th December 1775. His father, the ninth earl, had great scientific attainments, especially in chemistry, and possessed a genius for invention which ruined his fortune without much benefiting any one. He was so poor that the education of Thomas, his eldest son and heir, was left very much to such volunteer instructors as the parish minister. At the age of seventeen Lord Cochrane joined the navy on board the " Hind," of which his uncle, after-wards Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, was at the time captain. His father had previously procured for him a jommission in the 79th regiment, but his own preference for the other branch of the service was so decided that it was found necessary to gratify it. In 1795 he was trans-ferred with his uncle to the frigate " Thetis," which proceeded to the North American station. Soon afterwards he received his lieutenant's commission; and in 1798 he was sent to the Mediterranean to serve in the fleet under the command of Lord Keith. He had already begun to show that rare combination of daring and prudence which pro-bably no British naval officer, save Nelson, ever possessed to a greater degree. As commander of the sloop " Speedy," to which he was appointed in 1800, he performed a series of exploits in capturing vessels of immensely larger size than his own which are almost without parallel in the annals of naval warfare. The little " Speedy," with its miserably weak armament of four-pounders, became the terror of the Spanish coasts, and more than once she was honoured by a frigate being especially detached to capture her. One of the attacks she ingeniously evaded; another she boldly met (28th February 1801), and actually succeeded in capturing her opponent, the " El Gamo," a Spanish frigate of 32 guns. Her cruise of thirteen months, during which she took upwards of fifty vessels with 122 guns and 534 prisoners, ended in her own capture by three French line of battle ships, after making so gallant a resistance that the French captain, to whom Cochrane delivered up his sword, at once returned it. After a brief imprisonment, Lord Cochrane was exchanged. The promotion to post-rank, to which he was fully entitled, came somewhat tardily in August 1801; and the persistence with which his claims had to be urged laid the foundation of the bad understand-ing with the authorities at the Admiralty that caused him to be lost to the British service a few years later, while he was still in his prime. Its immediate result being that he was refused further employment, he spent the period of enforced leisure (1802) at the university of Edinburgh, where he wisely endeavoured to repair the defects of his early education. The renewal of hostilities in 1803 brought him the opportunity of such distinction as was likely to be gained in the command of the "Arab," an utterly unsea-worthy old collier purchased into the navy, in which he was sent to take part in the blockade of Boulogne. The animus against him in official circles was clearly shown when, on his complaining that his vessel was unfit for service, he was sent to the North Sea to protect non-existent fisheries ! In 1804, on the advent of Lord Melville to the head of the Admiralty, tardy justice was done by his appointment to the command of the new frigate "Pallas" (32), in which, after making several valuable prizes within ten days, he entered Plymouth harbour in charge of them with three golden candlesticks, each five feet high, at the mastheads as a sample of the spoils. Before the "Pallas " was again sent to sea her fortunate captain was returned to Parliament as member for Honiton, partly through the in-fluence of his fame, but still more through the influence of his prize-money. In her second cruise the " Pallas," after convoying a merchant fleet to Quebec, returned to the coast of France, where she cut out and captured several of the enemy's corvettes, and destroyed many of the signals. In August 1806 Lord Cochrane was transfened to the command of the " Imperieuse " (44), in which during the succeeding two years he did immense damage to the enemy's fleet in the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean. One of his most gallant exploits during this period was his defence of Fort Trinidad, near Bosas, which he held for twelve days (November 1808) against overwhelming odds. When he found further resistance impossible he blew up the magazines and returned to his ship.

Meanwhile, though his services were so distinguished, his relations with the Admiralty had not become more friendly. At the general election in May 1807 he had been returned triumphantly for Westminster in the Radical interest, along with Sir Francis Burdett : and during a brief interval spent at home, while he was in command of the "Impérieuse," he had rendered himself still further obnoxious as a critic in Parliament of naval abuses. In 1809, however, the authorities had occasion for a daring service which he alone was found competent and willing to undertake. It had been suggested to them that the French fleet blockaded in Basque Roads might be destroyed by means of fire ships, and the hazardous duty was intrusted to Cochrane. On the night of the 11th April he personally piloted the vessels loaded with explosives to the entrance of the harbour, where they spread such terror that seven French frigates slipped their cables and ran on shore, five of them being afterwards destroyed. Unfortunately this first success was not followed up as it ought to have been. Lord Gambier, the commander of the blockading fleet, ignoring the repeated and urgent requests of Cochrane, refused to order a general attack, and thus the opportunity of destroying the whole of the enemy's ships was lost. Lord Cochrane was bitterly disappointed, and made no attempt to conceal his opinion of the incompetency of his superior, who found himself compelled to demand a court martial. The trial was worse than a mockery ; the court was packed, witnesses were manipulated, and charts fabricated,—with the scandalous result that Gambier was acquitted and Cochrane by implication disgraced. There was, of course, no further professional employment for one who had been stigmatized as a false accuser. For four critical years Lord Cochrane held no command, and his country lost the services of one of the few naval heroes she has had worthy to be named along with Nelson. In his place in Parliament he did what he could to secure a reform of the many abuses connected with the administration of the navy, and his unsparing criticisms greatly embittered his already un-friendly relations with the Admiralty and the Government. In 1814 an unfortunate concurrence of circumstances, suspicious in themselves though capable of a satisfactory explanation, led to his being accused, along with several others, of a conspiracy to defraud the Stock Exchange, by circulating a false report of the success of the Allies and the death of Napoleon. He had only a week or two before so far overcome the disfavour with which he was regarded by the Admiralty as to secure his appointment to the com-mand of the " Tonnant," the flag-ship of his uncle Sir Alexander Cochrane, but he had to resign the position in order to meet the prosecution which the Government were not slow to institute. The trial was conducted before Lord Ellenborough, a noted partisan, who, if he did not, as Cochrane's friends have insinuated, exceed the limits of his office in order to secure a conviction, certainly showed no favour to the accused, who were all found guilty. Lord Cochrane was sentenced to a fine of £1000, twelve months' imprisonment, and an hour in the pillory. His ruin and disgrace were completed by his being expelled from the House of Commons, and deprived with the usual humiliating ceremony of the knighthood of the Bath, which had been bestowed on him after his heroic service at Basque Roads. Popular sympathy, however, was strongly with him. An influential minority of forty-four voted against his expulsion from the House of Commons, and when a new writ was issued for Westminster he was unanimously returned, no one having ventured to stand against him. A public sub-scription was raised by his constituents for the payment of his fine. His colleague, Sir Francis Burdett, pledged himself to stand along with him in the pillory if that part of the sentence was carried out, and the Government judged it prudent to remit it. Lord Cochrane's conduct was throughout that of an innocent, if somewhat imprudent, man. At his trial he voluntered a full explanation of the suspicious circumstances that were urged against him, and after his conviction he took every opportunity of protesting against the injustice that had been done him, and was urgent in his demand for a new inquiry. During the currency of his sentence he contrived to make his escape from prison, and took his seat in the House of Commons, from which he was forcibly removed by the warden and officers of the King's Bench.

At the close of his imprisonment Lord Cochrane soon found that there was little hope of his being again actively engaged in the service of his native country. The peace that followed Waterloo promised to be enduring, and, even had it been otherwise, he could not expect employment, as his name had been struck off the navy list. When, therefore, the command of the fleet of the republic of Chili was offered to him in 1818, he at once accepted it, finding a congenial task in the endeavour to aid a weak state in its struggle for freedom. He arrived at Valparaiso in November 1818; and in a short time afterwards he was ready for action, though the fleet under his command was in every respect miserably weak when compared with that of Spain, to which it was opposed. It seemed almost the characteristic feature of his genius, however, that the greater the odds against him the more brilliant the success he achieved, and this was signally exemplified during his career in South America. It is impossible to detail all his marvellous exploits. Two, however, must be specially mentioned as among the most extraordinary achievements in the annals of naval warfare. On the 2d February 1820 he captured Valdivia, a very strongly forti-fied town and harbour in the possession of the Spaniards, the forces under his command consisting of his own single frigate and 250 land troops in three small vessels. The place yielded to the mere terror of his name, the handful of troops that obtained possession of it being insufficient to man its guns or even to keep its civil population in order. In the autumn of the same year he blockaded the harbour of Callao, one of the strongest in the world. Within it, fixed to chain moorings, protected by twenty-seven gun-boats, and covered by the fire of no less than 300 guns in the batteries, lay the Spanish frigate "Esmeralda." The ambition of Lord Cochrane was fired by the apparent im-possibility of the task to attempt his favourite exploit of cutting out. The attempt was made on the night of the 5th November, and, in spite of the apparent impossibility, it was completely successful after a sharp engagement of a quarter of an hour's duration, in the course of which Lord Cochrane was severely wounded. The moral effect of this achievement upon the Spaniards was all that Cochrane had anticipated; they were completely paralyzed, and left their daring opponent undisputed master of the coast. Unfortu-nately, just at the time when he was rendering her these signal services, the jealousies and intrigues of various members of the Chilian Government were making Lord Cochrane's position uncomfortable, if not untenable. The withholding of prize-money, and even of pay, had nearly caused a mutiny in the fleet, when Lord Cochrane, by tak-ing strong measures to obtain part of what was due to his men, brought on an open rupture between himself and the Government. An invitation from the regent of Brazil to undertake the command of his fleet against the Portuguese was, therefore, accepted as a welcome deliverance. Lord Cochrane entered on his new duties at Rio de Janeiro in March 1822. His services to Brazil were quite as import-ant, though scarcely marked by so many brilliant episodes, as those to Chili, and they were in the end equally ill-requited. His daring capture of Maranham with a single frigate, in July 1823, added a province to the newly-formed empire; and the value of the accession was acknow-ledged by the title of marquis of Maranham being conferred upon the captor, along with an estate, of which, however, Lord Cochrane never obtained possession. In fact, both by Chili and Brazil he was unjustly defrauded of all substantial rewards, and his connection with the new empire which he had done so much to aid in establishing was ignominously terminated by his dismissal from her service in 1825. He had given some provocation to this by his obstinacy in refusing to appear at a court-martial, and account for his con-duct in taking the frigate under his command to England without orders. The Brazilian Government itself, however, practically admitted the gross injustice with which it had treated him by awarding him twenty years afterwards the pension that had been agreed upon in the first engagement made with him.
On his return to England Lord Cochrane found himself the object of a popularity that had grown rather than abated during his absence. His great achievements had been spoken of in the warmest terms in the House of Commons by Sir James Mackintosh, who urged the Government to restore him to his place in the service of his native land. But the time for the redress of his wrongs was not yet; and, finding inaction impossible, he gladly gave his services to the cause of Greek independence. Appointed by the National Assembly admiral of the Greek fleet, he found himself for the first and only time in his career in a position where success was impossible even for him. The want of union and discipline among the Greek troops frustrated all his plans, and an attempt to relieve the Acropolis at Athens in 1827 ended from this cause in a disastrous failure, Lord Cochrane only escaping by jumping into the sea. In 1828, after the Great Powers had secured the recognition of the independence of Greece, he returned to England.

"With the accession of King William and the formation of a Liberal ministry there came at last a tardy and imper-fect reparation to Lord Cochrane for the injustice he had suffered. He was restored to his rank in the navy, but with this he had to remain content. It was with bitter and indignant feelings that he found himself compelled to accept a pardon under the Great Seal instead of the new trial he had long and vehemently demanded. And the restoration to his rank was robbed of much of its grace by the facts that the honour of the knighthood of the Bath, of which he had also been deprived, was not restored at the same time, and that the arrears of his pay were withheld. In 1831 he suc-ceeded his father in the earldom of Dundonald. On the 23d November 1841 he became vice-admiral of the blue. Another instalment of the lingering atonement that was due to him was paid in 1847, when the honour of knighthood of the Bath was restored, though, by that strange fatality which seemed to have decreed that no reparation made to him should be complete, his banner was not replaced in the chapel of the order until the day before his burial. In 1848 he was appointed to the command of the North American and West Indian station, which he filled until 1851. Immediately after his return he published Notes on the Mineralogy, Government, and Condition of the British West India Islands. When unfitted by advancing age for active service, he busied himself with scientific inventions for the navy, such as improved poop and signal lights, improved projectiles, &c. During the Russian war he revived secret plans which he had detailed to the prince regent nearly fifty years before for the total destruction of an enemy's fleet, and he offered to conduct in person an attack upon Sebastopol and to destroy it in a few hours without loss to the attacking force. That his intellect remained clear and vigorous to the close of his life was shown by the publication in his eighty-fourth year of his Narrative of Services in the Liberation of Chili, Peru, and Brazil (1858), and of his Autobiography, in two volumes, the second of which appeared just before his death. The literary style of both works is admirably appropriate to the subject, simple, lucid, and dashing ; and the story they tell is one of heroism and adventure that has scarcely its parallel even in romance. The author's burning sense of his wrongs, and his passionate desire for a thorough vindication, reveal themselves at every turn. If he is not unnaturally blind to the fact that his own imprudence and want of self-command contributed in some small degree to his misfor-tunes, no one will now deny that this " heroic soul branded with felon's doom " suffered more cruel and undeserved wrongs than ever fell to the lot of any warrior of his genius and achievements.

Lord Dundonald died at Kensington on the 30th October 1860, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, (w. B. S.)

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