Thomas Cochrane 1775- 1860

On the 21st May the Chilean Navy pays annual tribute to the grave of Thomas Cochrane in Westminster Abbey.

While Thomas was born at Annsfield, near Hamilton, he spent much of his childhood and is commemorated in Culross, Fife, on the family estate.

His exploits as the Admiral of the Chilean, Peruvian and Brazilian Navies helped rout the Spanish and Portugeuse from South America, making him as famous as Nelson in his day.

His life and exploits served as inspiration for the naval fiction of 20th century novelists C.S. Forester, who created the character of Captain Horatio Hornblower around him, and Robert Brightwell whose Flashman character sails with Cochrane.

Aged 17, Cochrane joined the navy as a midshipman and subsequently rose through the ranks despite a history of disrespect for authority, including a court marshal and a duel.  In 1800 he was promoted to commander and took command of the brig sloop HMS Speedy and in the Napoleonic Wars went on to capture, burn or drive ashore 53 French ships, being given the title of “le loup de mer” (The Sea Wolf) by Napoleon.

He continued coastal battle against French ships round the Mediterranean, his many daring and successful exploits providing the background stories for Hornblower.  However later his interest turned to politics and he was elected to Westminster in 1806.

The next big event in his life was the Great Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814 when false rumours were spread about the defeat of Napoleon, causing stock market prices to surge and stock to be sold at great profit.  Cochrane maintained his innocence but was found guilty of being part of the plan.

He left the UK in official disgrace, but that did not end his naval career. He was invited by the Chileans to help them in their struggle for independence from the Spanish and in 1818, accompanied by Lady Cochrane and their two children, he set sail for Valparaíso.  Once there Cochrane became a Chilean citizen, was appointed Vice Admiral and took command of the Chilean Navy,  reorganising it with British commanders, introducing British naval customs and, formally, English-speaking governance in their warships. Using the tactics he had developed to defeat Napoleon he routed the Spanish Navy and solidified Chilean independence.  Neighbouring Peru recognised his talents and the Chileans were all too willing to lend a hand against the common enemy. Cochrane’s naval prowess helped to deliver Chilean troops to Peru, blockade the major ports from Spanish reinforcements, and outfox the best that the Spanish Navy had to offer.

After a falling out with the leadership of the Chilean independence movement, Cochrane next brought his services to the nascent Brazilian government, which had recently declared its independence from Portugal. Cochrane made an immediate impact upon taking command in March of 1823, needing only a few months to chase the Portuguese fleet back across the Atlantic. He then returned to Brazil where he convinced the Portuguese defenders of Sao Luis that a giant Brazilian army was headed their way overland with vengeance on its mind. The defenders surrendered to Cochrane in hopes that they would receive more favourable terms from the polished British officer. The only problem for the Portuguese defenders of Sao Luis was that the overland force never actually existed.

Cochrane had played a major role in the liberation of not just one but three South American countries.  However he was an awkward character and his popularity was tainted by quarrels over pay and prize money and after a major falling out with the Brazilians he left for home.

In 1832 he was granted a pardon for his involvement in the stock exchange fraud and restored to favour and to the Navy List.  He was buried in Westminster Abbey where his epitaph reads:

Here rests in his 85th year Thomas Cochrane Tenth Earl of Dundonald of Paisley and of Ochiltree in the Peerage of Scotland Marquess of Marenham in the Empire of Brazil GCB and Admiral of the Fleet who by his confidence and genius his science and extraordinary daring inspired by his heroic exertion in the cause of freedom and his splendid services alike to his own country, Greece, Brazil, Chile and Peru achieved a name illustrious throughout the world for courage, patriotism and chivalry. Born Dec 14 1775. Died Oct 31 1860′


Lord Cochrane, Master and Commander

“Sharpe’s Devil” by Bernard Cornwell

“Flashman and the Emperor” by Robert Brightwell