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Making History
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Listen to this editionTuesday 3.00-3.30 p.m
Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
Thomas Cochrane - the sea-captain and inspiration for Horatio Hornblower

Listener's query
"Am I right that history hasn't done justice to Sir Thomas Cochrane who, in my view, was one of the greatest sailors the nation ever produced?"

Brief summary
Thomas Cochrane (1775-1860), 10th Earl of Dundonald, was one of the most remarkable of all naval sea captains. He was the inspiration for both C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey novels. (The recent film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is based on O'Brian's novels.)

Cochrane made his mark as sea-captain, politician, admiral and naval innovator. Born at Annisfield in Lanarkshire, he joined the Royal Navy as a 17-year-old midshipman, serving first under his uncle, Captain (later Admiral) Alexander Cochrane. Soon promoted Lieutenant, he took command of the brig HMS Speedy and quickly won a reputation as one of the most ingenious and audacious of British naval officers - the Speedy captured more than 50 ships, 120 guns and 500 prisoners within a year. Most famously, in 1801 Cochrane captured the Spanish frigate El Gamo. He wielded a cutlass himself as his men stormed aboard El Gamo, forcing the Spaniards to surrender within minutes. Speedy lost only one man killed and three wounded, and Cochrane was immediately promoted to Captain. Napoleon called him Le Loup de Mer (the Sea Wolf) and ordered his capture.

The headstrong and outspoken qualities which made Cochrane a brilliant captain worked against him when he campaigned for naval and parliamentary reform as a politician. In 1806 he entered Parliament as the MP for Honiton, Devon, and then in 1807 for Westminster. He railed against inefficiency and corruption at the Admiralty and among MPs and was falsely accused during the 1814 Stock Exchange fraud (which was based on false rumours about the abdication of Napoleon). At his trial Cochrane was fined £1,000, sentenced to the pillory, expelled from the Commons (to which he was immediately re-elected), stripped of his rank, deprived of his knighthood (which was not restored until the 1840s) and put in prison. Cochrane escaped from jail, was rearrested in the House of Commons and fined another £1,000, which was paid by his Westminster electors who gave a penny each.

Persona non grata in his own country, Cochrane went on to command the Chilean, Brazilian and Greek navies, helping them fight for independence. In 1831 he succeeded to his father's title, becoming 10th Earl of Dundonald. There was a compete change round - he received a Royal pardon from William IV, was fully reinstated and was made an Admiral. For three years from 1848, Cochrane commanded the Royal Navy's American and West Indies station. Only his age (he was 79) prevented him from being put in command of the British fleet during the Crimean War. Even so, he had for long worked on the idea of the use of gas in naval warfare, and his explosion and stink ships were seriously considered for use in the Crimea. His plans influenced the use of gas in the First World War.

Cochrane died in 1860 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. He is Scotland's greatest naval hero.

Expert consulted
Robert Harvey

Further reading
Robert Harvey, Cochrane: The Life and Exploits of a Fighting Captain (Constable and Robinson, 2002)
Andrew Lambert, War at Sea in the Age of Sail (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2000)
Eric Grove, editor, Great Battles of the Royal Navy (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1994)
Donald Thomas Cochrane, The Story of Britannia's Sea Wolf (Cassell, 2001)
Admiral Lord Cochrane, The Autobiography of a Seaman (Chatham Publishing, 2003)


Thomas Cochrane - political life

Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald 1775-1860

Royal Naval Museum information sheet on Thomas Cochrane

Places to visit

National Maritime Museum
Greenwich, London SE10 9NF
Tel: 020 8858 4422

Royal Naval Museum
HM Naval Base, Portsmouth PO1 3NH
Tel: 023 9272 7562

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    Making History

    Vanessa Collingridge
    Vanessa CollingridgeVanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald. 

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    Making History is a Pier Production for BBC Radio 4 and is produced by Nick Patrick.

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