Cochrane: The Life and Exploits of a Fighting Captain


by Robert Harvey (London: Constable, 2000)


Lord Cochrane: Seaman, Radical, Liberator


by Christopher Lloyd (Henry Holt and Company, 1947)


Cochrane: Britannia's Last Sea-King


by Donald Thomas (The Viking Press, 1978)


(This commentary was first published in the September 26, 2002 issue of ArtVoice of Buffalo)


I expect that almost all readers of O'Brian, Forester, Marryat, Pope, Parkinson and Maynard who have written novels about the exploits of British sea captains battling Napoleon's French Fleet consider those fictional accounts as just that -- pure fabrications. The heroes -- O'Brian's Aubrey, Forester's Hornblower and Marryat's Savage, the list seems endless -- carry off superhuman deeds in the face of impossible odds. Surely nothing like that could happen in real life.


Remarkably, it could and did! Many of the fictional accounts of those authors were based on the real exploits of just one man, Thomas Cochrane. And Marryat was able to draw on his own experiences; he served with Cochrane.


In particular, if you -- like I -- miss O'Brian's series of Aubrey/Maturin novels now that their author is dead, you can turn to the readily identifiable original of Aubrey in Corcoran. Just like Aubrey, Corcoran is a creative problem solver at sea but an abused politician at home.


Each of these three books tells his story and they differ only in detail.


And what a likeable man Corcoran was. How can you not like someone who would post this recruitment notice: "WANTED. Stout, able-bodied men who can run a mile without stop­ping with a sackful of Spanish dollars on their backs."


Here is Marryat himself describing his experience with Corcoran: "The cruises of the Imperieuse were periods of continual ex­citement, from the hour in which she hove up her anchor till she dropped it again in port; the day that passed without a shot being fired in anger was with us a blank day; the boats were hardly secured on the booms than they were cast loose and out again; the yard and stay tackles were for ever hoisting up and lowering down. The expedition with which parties were formed for service; the rapidity of the frigate's move­ments day and night; the hasty sleep, snatched at all hours; the waking up at the report of the guns, which seemed the only key note to the hearts of those on board; the beautiful preci­sion of our fire, obtained by constant practice; the coolness and courage of our captain, inoculating the whole of the ship's company;... when memory sweeps along those years of

excitement, even now my pulse beats more quickly with the reminiscence."


So do ours as we read about those experiences. Here is just one from Harvey's book: "It was inevitable, however, that, sooner or later, the daring twenty-five-year-old would be caught. On 5 May 1801, the reckoning came. Almost insolently close to Barcelona, the center of Spanish naval power in the Mediterranean, Cochrane set off in pursuit of a group of small Spanish gunboats, capturing one and then returning for another among the fishing ships clustered near the harbor the following morning.


"From behind those ships there suddenly emerged one of the most powerful Spanish frigates: the gunboats had been deliberately sent out as a decoy to lure Cochrane in. It was the Gamy, four times the size of the Speedy, carrying 319 men with 32 guns -- twenty-two 12-pounders, eight 8-pounders and two 24-pound carronades (among the nastiest of all guns, capable of firing a huge amount of grapeshot). The Speedy, by contrast, had only fifty-four men, half of its complement, because so many had been sent off to crew prizes. Its firepower of fourteen 4-pounders could inflict only minimal damage at 50 yards, and none at all at 100 yards.


"Cochrane had three possible courses of action. He could surrender; he could make a break for it and run, but the Gamo, by far the bigger and faster ship, would overtake him and was already nearly within range; it seemed inevitable that he would be caught. Or he could commit apparent suicide and engage this monster. In what was to become one of the classics of naval engagement between a small ship and a bigger, a David and Goliath, he chose the latter course -- perhaps because he realized there was no hope at all in the former, except of surrender.


"He sailed straight towards the Gamo, placing himself within range of the guns of the latter, although his own puny ones were still out of range. The Gamo, astonished, fired a warning shot. Cochrane ran up the American flag to gain time. The Spanish captain, Francisco de Torres, already amazed by the approach of the Speedy, was thrown momentarily into confusion: perhaps, after all, this was not the nuisance that had been preying on Spanish coastal shipping for so long, but a neutral. The decision was made not to open fire, partly because the Spaniards now knew that the little ship could not escape.


"The guns on all ships at this time were not aimed at specific targets: they were locked into position, and the skill was to open fire when the movement of the sea would place a vessel at the best possible advantage to do damage to its opponent. The Speedy, which was to windward of the Gamo -- the side being struck by the wind, which had the effect of pushing the latter's guns up -- made the perfect target, and was within range. Cochrane's objective was to get around to the other side, where the hull was low and the guns would be aiming into the sea. The Spaniard's hesitation allowed him to do just that, and he felt emboldened to run up the British flag. The result was an immediate broadside from the Spaniard which, as he expected, fell short of the Speedy and into the sea.


"The next British move was more startling still: the Speedy moved straight towards the side of the Gamo as the other ship rolled back with the sea and reloaded its guns frantically, to get so close that the next broadside would fire harmlessly overhead. It was a matter of seamanship, the movement of the sea itself, and split-second timing: a few seconds too late, and the Speedy would have faced a devastating broadside. He succeeded, and the spars of the Speedy actually locked with those of the Gamo, they were so close, while another large Spanish broadside belched deafeningly forth, to pass way over the smaller ship's decks, which were ten feet below those of the Gamo, the shot falling harmlessly into the sea beyond.


"What now? The fly seemed merely to have closed with the spider and was easy prey. But Cochrane had made his preparations: like a boxer grappling with his larger opponent at close quarters, preventing him landing a punch, he had ordered his cannon to be 'treble-shotted' and 'elevated' -- aiming upwards as far as possible. With the swell tilting his ship sideways so that it aimed up into the Gamo (technically he was to leeward), he was able to fire straight up into the other's gun-deck looming overhead.


"He was incredibly lucky: the captain, de Torres, was killed in this first devastating broadside from below, which did remarkable damage for such small guns because it was at point-blank range. The little ship was still too close for the Gamo's broadsides to harm it. As Cochrane put it later: 'From the height of the frigate out of the water the whole of her shot must necessarily go over our heads, while our guns, being elevated, would blow up her main deck.'


"The two ships now engaged in a bizarre pas de deux. Cochrane spotted Spanish marines assembling and preparing to board the little ship just beneath her; he veered away just far enough to prevent this, but not so far as to bring the ship into a position where the Spanish guns could bring their guns to bear. Then he returned to inflict a further upwards broadside. This happened three times during the course of an hour, the precision of sailing involved being extraordinary, because one slip would bring about a collision, or result in boarding, or would have allowed the Spaniards to fire a devastating volley.


"Of course, Cochrane in the smaller ship had the advantage of much greater maneuverability. But he was locked in: if he bolted, he would be picked off easily. Once again, attack seemed the only option available to him, even against a ship with six times as many men. He told his crew that the Spaniards would give them no quarter if they won, and ordered several to blacken their faces in preparation for boarding. The Speedy moved forward to the Gamo's bows and, cutlasses in mouth as though in some old pirate story, some twenty men, including the young Archibald Cochrane, climbed up onto the Spanish ship.


"As his advance party climbed the bows, he and Parker led the rest of his men in scaling, from the stern of the Speedy, the middle section of the Gamo. Only the ship's doctor was left to steer the Speedy. By that time the Spaniards were confused and demoralized, having lost their commander, and were uncertain of what to do about the vicious little ship attacking them in defiance of all naval convention and common sense. Cochrane wrote:


"'Knowing that the final struggle would be a desperate one, and calculating on the superstitious wonder which forms an element in the Spanish character, a portion of our crew were ordered to blacken their faces, and what with this and the excitement of combat, more ferocious-looking objects could scarcely be imagined. The fellows thus disguised were directed to board by the head, and the effect produced was precisely that calculated on. The greater portion of the Spaniard's crew was prepared to repel boarders in that direction, but stood for a few moments as it were transfixed to the deck by the apparition of so many diabolical-looking figures emerging from the white smoke of the bow guns; whilst our other men, who boarded by the waist, rushed on them from behind, before they could recover from their surprise at the unexpected phenomenon."


Those novelists had an extraordinary model on whom to base their stories.-- Gerry Rising