True that Great Britain has a long and illustrious naval heritage, and they were hailed as the masters of the open sea from the 16th to the 19th centuries. But what this Scottish man had done was nothing quite like anyone.
Destined To Become A Sailor
Thomas Cochrane was born with a golden spoon to Scottish noble parents, Lord Archibald Cochrane (who later became The 9th Earl of Dundonald) and Anna Gilchrist, at Annsfield, in South Lanarkshire, on December 14, 1775. Both sides of his family were descended from generations of Scottish aristocracy and military service. So, it wasn’t a surprise when Thomas also ended up enlisting. However, his uncle, Alexander Cochrane, influenced him to join the Navy. At the tender age of five, Alexander would tag along with the young Thomas aboard four Royal Navy ships and listed him as part of the crew, making Thomas accumulate years of naval experience beginning at age five. Except these records appeared to be fudged a bit in terms of how much time he actually spent aboard ship.
Nevertheless, his father has other plans for the young Thomas, securing a spot for him in the British Army. Thomas begrudgingly joined the 104th Regiment of the King’s Army, but he hated it, particularly the rigid dress code for a self-conscious adolescent Thomas.
“My hair, cherished with boyish pride, was plastered back with a vile composition of candle-grease and flour… My neck, from childhood open to the lowland breeze, was cased in an inflexible leathern collar,” Thomas wrote in his autobiography.
He returned to his father, pleading with him to be sent to the Navy, where he believes his true calling lies, then spent another day in the Army—the first time Thomas would show defiance in the face of authority, which would become a reoccurring theme in the majority of his life.
The Infancy of his Naval Career
Finally, at age 17, Thomas joined the British Navy as a midshipman at the outbreak of the Revolutionary Wars in France in 1793. He exuded vigor and enthusiasm in learning all the ropes despite starting late, “impressing his superiors with his natural leadership abilities and ferocious curiosity.” Working alongside his uncle, Captain Alexander, Thomas spent the first six months of his naval career on board the 28-gun sixth-rate frigate HMS Hind before transferring to the 28-gun fifth-rate HMS Thetis, which was also under his uncle’s command. Aboard the Thetis, Thomas was appointed acting lieutenant in 1795; a year later, he was officially promoted to the rank after passing the examination. His formative years in the Navy occurred amid the raging war against the French under Napoleon, and those years helped develop a solid foundation for his career that would benefit him in future adventures.
After a couple more transfers to ships operating in Northern American waters, Thomas returned home in 1798, where he received the assignment as 8th Lieutenant on Acting Admiral Lord Keith’s flagship HMS Barfleur in the Mediterranean. Climbing the ranks seems easy-breezy for the young lad, thanks to the influential connections his family’s noble status had established. However, during his service in Barfleur, most of his peers began harboring resentment for his relative promotion speed. Tensions on board eventually reached boiling point when the young Scot clashed with the Barfleur’s first lieutenant, Philip Beaver, resulting in a court-martial. This would become the first of the many more conflicts Thomas would have between his superiors, subordinates, and colleagues in the Navy and later in the Parliament.
His stubborn nature aside, there was no denying that the young Scot had a knack for running a warship with “unconventional, reckless, and fearless” tactics. Yes, Thomas was undeniably a pain-in-the-arse, but his Royal Navy couldn’t ignore his outstanding abilities even if he didn’t quite fit in. Of course, this doesn’t mean they couldn’t slow down his promotions. However, since they couldn’t find a reason to kick him out entirely, superiors opt to not to promote Thomas and placed him on small ships like the 14-gun Brig, HSM Speedy. The Brigs, Sloops, and Frigates of the Royal Navy represented a different culture from that of the stately Ships of the Line laden with more cannons than some entire armies took into the field. Where the ships of the main line of battle tended to travel as whole squadrons in rigidly enforced formations, the smaller Brigs, Frigates, and Sloops of War were freelancers operating mostly alone or in pairs and were known as a place to put young aggressive captains like Thomas who just didn’t fit in around the stodgy staff of the Admiralty.
The Sea Wolf’s Legacy
As captain of the Speedy, Cochrane proved himself to be cunning and resourceful. He routinely flew a false flag and disguised his ship as a merchant vessel to lure French and Spanish merchant vessels close to his, where he would then unmask his guns and seize them and their cargo. The Speedy was really built for scouting waters close to shore, her 14 guns fired cannon balls that weighed just 4 pounds when cannons on Ships of the Line would consider a 4-pounder a mere signal gun, So if Cochrane were to get into a fight it would likely be with an adversary better armed and with a larger crew.
Pursued by a French Frigate, Cochrane kept a lantern lit on the stern until nightfall. He then fixed the lantern on a barrel and set it adrift from the ship while extinguishing all light aboard the Speedy and turning away in the darkness. The enemy frigate fell for the trick and ended up chasing the lit barrel off into the night.
On another occasion when confronted by a larger and better-armed enemy while disguised as a merchant ship, Cochrane was able to avoid being boarded and scared away his pursuer by flying a flag that indicated the ship had suffered an outbreak of black plague.
Upon news that the Spanish had sent out a frigate especially tasked with finding and destroying the Speedy, Cochrane had his ship repainted to resemble a Dutch trading vessel, found himself a Dutch-speaking master helmsman, and found himself a Dutch naval officer’s uniform to wear. When the Spanish frigate did find the Speedy in January 1800 Cochrane’s ruse of war worked, and the frigate sailed off from what it believed was an encounter with the ship from a neutral country.
He then doubled down on his disguise by then flying a Danish flag and slipping into a convoy of Danish vessels who mistook him for an escorting vessel. When two of the actual escorts approached his ship to inquire about his unexpected arrival, he hoisted the English flag and captured them both.
In 1801 cruising off Barcelona, the Speedy was overtaken by a Spanish frigate, the xebec-rigged El Gamo. The El Gamo had a crew of more than 300 and carried 32 guns, firing 8, 12, and 32-pound cannon balls. It was suicidal for the 14-gun Speedy to take this ship on. Rather than try to escape, As the El Gamo approached it raised the Spanish flag and fired a gun as a challenge to identify themselves or be fired upon. In reply, Cochrane hoisted an American flag and steered closer to the El Gamo which did not see what appeared to be an American merchant ship as a threat. At a very close range, Cochrane then ran up the English flag and steered clear of the first broadside fired by the El Gamo. It then fired another which Cochrane was also able to evade, he then steered right next to the El Gamo tangling their sails a rigging. The guns of the El Gamo roared again, but Speedy was lower in the water than the El Gamo and the cannon balls passed over her decks. Speedy then discharged her own guns each loaded with 2 and 3 cannon balls which ripped through the lower hull of the frigate, killing her captain. The enraged Spaniards attempted to form a boarding party, which caused Cochrane to disengage the Speedy from El Gamo’s rigging and she drew off. Speedy’s crew took to the rigging and with muskets and cannon fire poured into the mass of men on the deck, wounding a killing several of them. 3 times the Spanish attempted to close with and board the Speedy which outsailed her opponent. In exasperation, the Spanish crew went below decks again to man their cannons once more. With El Gamo’s topside deck mostly clear, the Speedy dashed in again and Cochrane boarded the El Gamo with his entire crew, leaving only his ship’s doctor aboard to man the helm. Cochrane had two boarding parties that climbed aboard the El Gamo at the bow and waist of the ship. He had the bow party paint their faces black to trick the Spanish into thinking they were facing fierce Moorish pirates from the Barbary Coast. The Spanish crew raced up on deck, the sight of these men at the bow caused them to hesitate in fear for a moment just as the other boarding party scrambled up over the waist of the ship. A bloody hand-to-hand battle ensued in which neither side could gain the upper hand. In an inspiring example of his quick thinking under pressure. Cochrane called over the side to his ship’s doctor to send the rest of the crew to join the fight. Except there was no remaining crew aboard the Speedy, they were all aboard the El Gamo fighting with cutlasses and pikes. He also ordered his men to get to the Spanish flag on the stern and cut it down. The Spanish saw their flag lowered and hearing Cochrane call for reinforcements thought their officers had surrendered the ship and put down their arms.
Cochrane’s ship and crew had bested a vessel 6 times their size with a crew 12 times larger than their own.
On that 13 month cruise, HMS Speedy under Cochrane’s command seized, burned, or otherwise destroyed 53 vessels mostly belonging to Spain and France. In France Cochrane became known and dreaded as “le loup de mers,” or the “Sea Wolf” and “El Diablo” or “The Devil” by the Spaniards. Cochrane’s good fortune could not hold out forever.
Off the coast of Barcelona, Cochrane gave chase to a Spanish convoy and three of the vessels ran aground trying to escape in shallow waters. Not having the time to capture the ships on an enemy beach, he ordered them all burned instead. The smoke and fire attracted the attention of a French squadron that approached to investigate the billowing tower of smoke. The squadron was made up of three Ships of the Line mounting more than 70 guns each. Cochran spotted their towering masts and tried to escape doing everything he could to lighten the ship and gain more speed, he even ordered the Speedy’s guns and provisions be thrown over the side. The French squadron caught up to him anyway and after narrowly avoiding the crushing impact of a 30-gun broadside from one of the French ships, he hauled down his colors and surrendered.
The French Commodore treated him with great honor and refused to take his sword in a symbolic gesture of defeat. Just a few days later, Cochrane and his crew were released in an exchange of prisoners.
Thomas would later venture into politics and serve jail time for being an alleged conspirator in the Great Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814. He fought to prove his innocence until 1832 when he earned back his stripped naval rank, his enlistment in the Navy, and his knighthood bestowed by Queen Victoria in 1847. Before this, Thomas helped the Chilean Navy in their fight for independence from Spain, as well as with Peru. Moreover, he also helped free Brazil from Portugal in 1824 and, a year later, liberated the Greeks from the Ottoman Empire, though without much success due to the then-lack of discipline of the Greek Sailors.
In his later years, Thomas became an advocate for steam-powered engines back when it was first introduced until he died in 1860. His legacy will forever be cemented, and his bold and ingenuous naval warfare tactics will go down in history for generations to come.