Remembering the Real “Master and Commander”: Lord Thomas Cochrane


2016-02-21 By Kenneth Maxwell

Lord Thomas Cochrane after founding the Chilean navy, and guaranteeing the independence of Chile by audacious naval action along the Pacific coast, was invited in 1823 by D. Pedro, the son of the Portuguese monarch, who had declared the independence of Brazil from Portugal, to command the new Brazilian navy with the rank of “First Admiral of Brazil” and for a sum considerably higher than he had received in Chile.

With his trademark use of subterfuge and deception and audacity he provided essential naval support for the victory of Brazilian armed forces in Bahia, Pernambuco, Belem, as well as Maranhao.

His actions did much to assure Brazilian successes in the Northeast and North of the country.

In a little under four months he had liberated over 2000 miles of territory from the Portuguese.

Pedro made him Marques of Maranhao as a reward.


But Lord Cochrane ran into endless problems over the payment of his prize money and back pay, not only for himself, but for his naval officers and crews.

And as in Chile he ran into endless political and factional backstabbing. When he arrived back in Portsmouth in 1825 aboard a Brazilian frigate it was the first time the flag of the Brazil was formally saluted by a European state.

Yet he is not well thought of in Brazil, and particularly in Maranhao.

Former Senator Jose Sarney (PMDB, AP), head of one of the most powerful Maranhao political dynasties, on an official visit to London, when he was President of  Brazil, went to Westminster  Abbey, where Lord Cochrane is buried.

He is reported to have exclaimed: “Corsario. Piso e piso com gosto! E um sujeito pelo qual merece so o despreco e o meu asso.” ( “Pirate. I stamp on him with pleasure. He was a character that only warrants my disrespect and condemnation” ).

Sarney was partly right.

Lord Cochrane was an impecunious Scottish nobleman avid for pecuniary rewards.

He had told his brother on his arrival in Chile that: “I have every prospect of making the largest fortune which can be made in our days, save that of the Duke of Wellington.” Prize money was an accepted part of British naval practice at the time.

But Lord Cochrane’s pursuit of monetary rewards was to tarnish his reputation.

Cochrane was a famous Royal Navy frigate captain during the Napoleonic wars. He was called the “sea wolf” by the French.

His father had been an unsuccessful Scottish inventor and investor who had left his families fortunes in a parlous state. He had discovered that coal gas could be used for illumination, but others were to make their fortunes from gas lighting.

He had lost his great estate of Culross Abbey, which overlooked the Firth of Forth up river from Edinburgh, and which held vast and potentially profitable mineral deposits and pine forests. Cochrane was largely self educated at home and then attended a military academy in London.

But Cochrane’s uncle, a frigate captain, aided the young Lord Cochrane’s entrance into the Royal Navy in 1793. He subsequently found fame with his daring naval exploits.

Destruction of the French Fleet in Basque Roads by Thomas Sutherland after a painting by Thomas Whitcombe, 1817/On the night of 11 April 1809 Captain Lord Cochrane led a British fireship attack against a powerful French force anchored in the Basque Roads. In the attack all but two of the French ships were driven ashore.
Destruction of the French Fleet in Basque Roads by Thomas Sutherland after a painting by Thomas Whitcombe, 1817/On the night of 11 April 1809 Captain Lord Cochrane led a British fireship attack against a powerful French force anchored in the Basque Roads. In the attack all but two of the French ships were driven ashore.

But he made enemies and his triumphs were often followed by disappointments and recriminations. Elected a member of Parliament for Westminster, then one of the most open electorates in the country, he espoused radical cases and vociferously criticized corruption and incompetence in the navy thoroughly alienating senior members of the naval and the political establishments.

Cochrane totally lacked tact and diplomacy.

Most notorious was his alleged involvement in a major stock exchange scandal in 1814. One of his uncles had been involved in a plot to manipulate the value of shares by spreading the false information that Napoleon had died.

He had not. The plotters had hoped to make quick gains. A famous trail ensued. Cochrane always maintained his innocence.

But he was convicted, ordered to pay £1,000, and to stand in the pillory opposite the Royal Exchange (which he did not do.)

The Prince Regent, however, stripped Lord Cochrane of the Order of the Bath, awarded for his naval heroism, and he was expelled from the Royal Navy. His invitation to command naval forces in Chile and Brazil, and later to Greece, promised a rehabilitation of sorts.

But it took years before his reputation was reestablished.

Cochrane was not reinstated in the Royal Navy until 1832, when he was promoted to be a Rear-Admiral. He was given the command of the North American and West Indian fleet in 1848. Based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Bermuda, and Kingston, Jamaica, admiral Lord Cochrane took bitumen from the pitch lake in Trinidade to experiment with mixing it with coal as fuel a stream vessel, part of his squadron. His admiral’s flag was lowered at Portsmouth in 1851 when he was 75 years of age.

Lord Cochrane, now earl of Dundonald, continued with his innovations and experiments, including the application of steam engines to fighting vessels (he had brought the first steam powered vessel to the Pacific).

During the Crimean War he sought to have the Royal Navy experiment with the use of smoke screens and poison gas against Russian ships at Sebastapol.  Poison gas was considered by a secret committee of the Admiralty which consulted the scientist Michael Faraday, who agreed that the burning of sulpur would produce deadly fumes.

But the plans were shelved. Cochrane also experimented with a stream-powered rotary engine of his design for the use on the new railways.  An unsuccessful prototype was installed on George Stephenson’s famous locomotive “The Rocket.”

It was not, however, until 1857, that Brazil sent bills of exchange in the value of £34.000 to cover his claims of Brazilian back pay. Only the day before his funeral in 1860, by the command of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, was his banner and regalia of the Order of the Bath (discovered apparently in a junk shop) restored in the King Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey.

The present Governor of Maranhao, Flavio Dino (PCdoB), no friend of the Sarney clan which has long dominated Maranhao state, published a decree in the “Diario Official do Estado” on January 14, 2016, which removed the names of all “living politicians” from the state’s educational institutions, seven of which were named in honor of former Brazilian President and former Maranhao governor Jose Sarney.

Lord Cochrane is best remembered today more for his literary than for his historical legacy.

C.S. Forester based his Horatio Hornblower novels on the exploits of Lord Cochrane.

Patrick O’Brian did the same in his Captain Aubrey novels.

The 2003 film “Master and Commander” with Russell Crowe as captain Jack Aubrey, and Basil Bettany as Dr Stephen Maturin, was based on Lord Cochrane and his long term friend, the naval surgeon, James Guthrie.

Former President and former Maranhao governor, Jose Sarney, a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters and of Maranhao Academy of Letters, as well as a novelist, will understand the irony.

Editor’s Note: This article posted on History.Net provides some additional details on Cochrane’s role in naval innovation.

In March 1812, Britain’s prince regent, the future George IV, received from an officer in the Royal Navy a secret proposal aimed at undermining the power of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s military might in a manner guaranteed to revolutionize the rigid customs of warfare.

At that time, General Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, was struggling through Spain. The strength of the Royal Navy was being sapped by the need to maintain a tedious blockade of the key French ports where Bonaparte’s warships waited for an opportunity to escape into the Atlantic.

The naval officer’s proposal, which the prince turned over to his advisers, offered a radical scheme by which a beachhead on the coast of France could be gained quickly and decisively.

The author of the plan was Captain Sir Thomas, Lord Cochrane, a man whose exploits exceeded in fact what most of his progeny in naval fiction have been able to accomplish.

His career began quite inconspicuously at age 17 in June 1793, when he joined his uncle, Captain Alexander Cochrane, aboard the 28-gun frigate Hind as a midshipman. His father, Archibald, the ninth Earl of Dundonald, was an unsuccessful inventor with disastrous pecuniary habits who provided his 6-foot-2-inch, redheaded heir with little beyond the necessities of life.

Nevertheless, the young man was destined to set the naval world on its ear.

Within three years of his enlistment, Thomas Cochrane gained a lieutenancy, and in 1800 he was given command of His Majesty’s Ship Speedy, a brig-sloop armed with 14 puny 4-pounder cannons, with which he nevertheless managed to capture the Spanish frigate Gamo in May 1801. Such an impressive feat, combined with a string of other captures, should have won Cochrane an immediate and splendid advancement to one of the sleekest greyhounds in the British fleet.

Cochrane, however, was by nature a supreme idealist who did not hesitate for a moment to point out problems to his superiors and to argue tenaciously for justice as he perceived it. As a result, it was not until 1804, when a change in governmental administration brought Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville and a fellow Scot, to Whitehall, that Cochrane finally was given the freshly built frigate Pallas (32 guns) and carte blanche to patrol the North Atlantic convoy route near the Azores.

Within two months, Cochrane had seized such a vast amount of enemy shipping and cargo that he alone earned 75,000 pounds sterling in prize money and returned to Portsmouth with 5-foot-tall candlesticks made of solid gold strapped to the mastheads. Cochrane’s later raids on the Biscay Coast caused Napoleon to label him ‘le loup des mers‘ (the sea wolf), and raised his reputation among the British public to an exalted height.

Cochrane’s star was fated to crash to earth, however. Following the mishandling of a British squadron under Admiral James Gambier in an action against a French squadron at Aix Roads in April 1809, Cochrane, who had attained partial success early in the operation, became embroiled in Gambier’s resultant court-martial.

The admiral was acquitted, but Cochrane lacked the skills in public debate that he demonstrated in combat, and he suffered personal humiliation as a result of the inquiry. That experience, combined with his election to Parliament as an independent but reform-minded member for the village of Honiton, helped to earn him numerous political enemies and to delay his reassignment to another command afloat.

Cochrane did not sit around and stew, however. It was during that period of unemployment that Cochrane proposed to Prince George his unique approach for freeing the Royal Navy squadrons from their arduous blockades and for reducing the fortifications that protected the critical French ports.


Cochrane detailed for the prince regent the use of two innovative weapons systems, the ‘temporary mortar,’ or ‘explosion ship,’ and the’sulphur ship,’ or’stink vessel.’ An early version of the former device already had been used with only partial success during the opening phase of the Aix Roads action in 1809. Cochrane had been ordered by the Admiralty to employ fire ships against the 11 ships of the line and sundry frigates under Vice Adm. Comte Allemand, since Gambier had refused to employ such vile means to dislodge the enemy.

Along with the conventional fire ships, Cochrane also had sent against the French three vessels crammed with 1,500 barrels of gunpowder topped with shells and grenades. The floating powder kegs, set off by fuses, were designed to vent their wrath against the enemy in colossal detonations, but a protective boom set up by the French to stop the fire ships also frustrated Cochrane’s explosion ships.

In his thorough presentation to the prince regent in 1812, Cochrane modified the design of the original explosion ship. For each temporary mortar, a hulk, rather than a rigged vessel, was to be used. The decks would be removed, and an inner shell would be constructed of heavy timbers and braced strongly to the hull. In the bottom of the shell would be laid a layer of clay, into which obsolete ordnance and metal scrap were embedded. The ‘charge,’ in the form of a thick layer of powder, would next be placed, and above that would be laid rows and rows of shells and animal carcasses.

The explosion ship would then be towed into place at an appropriate distance from anchored enemy ships, heeled to a correct angle by means of an adjustment in the ballast loaded in the spaces running along each side of the hulk between the inner and outer hulls, and anchored securely. When detonated, the immense mortar would blast its lethal load in a lofty arc, causing it to spread out over a wide area and to fall on the enemy in a deadly torrent.

Experiments conducted with models in the Mediterranean, during his layoff, convinced Cochrane that three explosion ships, properly handled, could saturate a half-mile-square area with 6,000 missiles–enough destructive force to cripple any French squadron even if it lay within an enclosed anchorage.

The follow-up to the explosion ship, or temporary mortar, would be an attack on land fortifications once again using hulks. As before, clay would be used to line the old hull, but the upper deck would remain intact so that it could be covered first with a layer of charcoal, then with an amount of sulphur equaling about one-fifth the volume of the fuel. It was intended to float such a potential stink vessel up against a shore battery or fortification when the wind blew landward, and then ignite the charcoal.

The resultant clouds of ‘noxious effluvia,’ as Cochrane termed them, were expected to be pungent enough to reduce all opposition as the defenders ran away to escape the choking gas.

A quick landing by British marines could then secure an otherwise unattainable position and clear the way for the establishment of a beachhead. Cochrane had also experimented with that technique, drawing on the propensity he had inherited from his father for dabbling in chemistry, in particular with the properties of coal and its byproducts, coke and coal tar.

The prince regent turned Cochrane’s ideas over to a panel of experts that included Sir William Congreve and his son; the king’s second son, Frederick Augustus (the Duke of York); and two admirals, George, Lord Keith and Lord Exmouth (the former Sir Edward Pellew). At length, that expert panel decided that there was merit in Cochrane’s unusual scheme, but fear of the implications that such radical devices would have on conventional warfare stifled their enthusiasm.

What would happen, they mused, if the enemy gained knowledge of this frightful new technology and turned it against Britain’s defenses? The proposal was rejected, and Cochrane pledged never to make the details known to the public.

During the next two decades, numerous opportunities presented Cochrane with reasons to forsake his promise of silence. His cries in Parliament for naval reforms raised the ire of his political enemies, who worked to defame him.

When the London Stock Exchange scandal erupted in 1814, Cochrane unwittingly found himself among the men charged with illegal financial manipulations. The outcome of the case brought Cochrane imprisonment, dismissal from the Royal Navy and the removal of his knighthood.

In 1818, Cochrane left England and spent the next 10 years serving as a fabulously successful mercenary admiral for Chile, Peru, Brazil and Greece. Returning home in 1829, he campaigned for British officials to take another look at his past crimes, which he accomplished three years later when, having inherited the title of Earl of Dundonald, he was pardoned by King William IV and readmitted to the navy list with the rank of rear admiral of the fleet.

As a proponent of steam vessels and reform in the navy, Cochrane stayed active, but he spent only three years (1849­1851) on full pay, as commander in chief of the West Indies station. In 1853, as the possibility of war in the Crimea increased, Cochrane proposed to the Admiralty the use of explosion ships and stink vessels at Sevastopol on the Black Sea, or in the Baltic at Kronstadt, as a means of destroying Russian entrenchments. The idea was quickly dismissed by First Lord of the Admiralty Sir James Graham.

The next year brought the certainty of war, and Cochrane–then 79 years old–was considered for placement as commander in chief of the Baltic fleet. The fact that he was passed over was not due to his advanced age, however. Graham explained in a letter to Queen Victoria that Prime Minister George Aberdeen and his cabinet feared that Cochrane’s ‘adventurous spirit’ would lead him to perform’some desperate enterprise,’ which might complicate the difficult international situation.

In July 1854, Cochrane again urged Graham to employ his patent stink vessels to route the Russian troops away from the fortifications of the harbor at Kronstadt, so that a British landing could be made and the enemy’s guns manned and turned on the Russian ships anchored beneath the batteries. He even offered his services as a consultant to accompany Sir Charles Napier, who had been given charge of the British fleet. Once more, however, the scheme was rejected, and Napier sailed to the Baltic, where he eventually failed to subdue Kronstadt.

Cochrane supported Napier’s efforts publicly, but informed a newspaper correspondent that he had provided the government with a plan that could solve the problem. No journalistic investigation appears to have been undertaken to determine the nature of that plan, even though Cochrane sought command of the fleet in 1855 when the new prime minister, Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston, came to power.

Once again, Cochrane suggested to the press that utilization of his unnamed innovative devices would mean that a little more than a week of fair weather in the Crimea would be enough to settle the conflict. Cochrane took his appeal to Parliament, where he sought support for forcing the government to employ his new weapons against the enemy.

Public support increased for using the weapon, and it was even suggested that private funds be used to equip the admiral with the resources he needed to get the job done independently.

Throughout the debate, the details of the scheme remained secret. In the board room at the Admiralty, the plan showed the stink vessels with layers of coke and sulphur ready to emit their choking fog.

Added to the scheme, however, was the intention to create a smoke screen by burning barrels of tar or pouring naphtha onto the surface of the harbor and igniting it with potassium. Cochrane figured that a few hours would accomplish what months of debilitating conventional warfare had failed to achieve.

Palmerston’s government appeared to be close to sanctioning the strategy when Sevastopol was taken in September 1855, followed soon by the war’s end. All discussion of the revolutionary weapons was dropped, and the plans were sealed away on the shelves reserved for confidential materials at Whitehall.

Sir Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, died on October 31, 1860. His secret war plans remained secure until 1908, when Lord Palmerston’s correspondence was published. Less than a decade later, the sulphuric yellow clouds of mustard gas ravaged thousands in the trenches of France.