Bloomsbury, 2007

Wolf of the Sea

The subtitle of this book is revealing. In 1984 Patrick O’Brian wrote, “Some ten or eleven years ago an American publisher suggested that I should write a book about the Royal Navy of Nelson’s time. I was happy to agree, since both the period and the subject were congenial. I quickly produced the first novel of the Aubrey-Maturin series, a novel based on Lord Cochrane’s early days in command of the SPEEDY which provided me with one of the most spectacular single-ship actions of the war as well as a mass of authentic detail…”

In fact, the exploits of Lord Cochrane have inspired a whole genre of naval fiction that started with Frederick Marryat, who served under Cochrane and wrote a series of novels from 1829 to 1849. In addition to O’Brian, a 20th century list would include C.S. Forester, Dudley Pope, Douglas Reeman (a.k.a. Alexander Kent), Dewey Lambdin and James L. Nelson. And these are just a few of the authors who have written about heroic captains in the age of fighting sail, 1775-1815.

For this reader, Cochrane is a combination of Sir Francis Drake, Ralph Nader and the inventor Robert Fulton. Drake, of course, was the legendary Elizabethan sea dog who made a career of fighting, and usually defeating, the Spanish navy. In this capacity Cochrane was a superb fighting captain. Nicknamed “le loup des mers” (the sea wolf) by Napoleon, Cochrane struck terror in the hearts of enemies, be they French or ships he attacked as a mercenary admiral fighting for the liberations of Chile, Peru, Brazil and Greece.

Cochrane’s tactics were as innovative as they were audacious. The master of the hit-and-run, Cochrane’s crews got used to sailing at night and attacking at dawn. He became adept at employing ruses de guerre, the use of false flags and misleading signals. Above all, Cochrane was a superb sailor whose skills in handling a frigate were unmatched. Once, in the middle of a battle, he ordered the anchor dropped, which swung his ship swiftly around so that he could bring his guns to bear before the enemy could respond.

I cite Ralph Nader because Cochrane was more than just a clever sea captain. In 1806 he became a Member of Parliament, not so much to advance his own career, as to expose corruption and abuses in the British Navy. Indeed, Cochrane seemed to court trouble by alienating members of the military and civilian establishment who did not take kindly to his radical proposals. In 1814 he spent a year in prison on what were most likely trumped-up charges in a stock exchange scandal.

Finally, there is the Robert Fulton side of Cochrane; the inventor/military innovator, always looking for ways to gain an advantage over the enemy. In this capacity he studied and recommended the use of convoy lanterns, steam propulsion, smoke screens and chemical warfare. Not surprisingly, his ideas were rejected by the Admiralty. (I should add that Cochrane’s expenditures on inventions kept his family in a constant state of penury). Cochrane was intrigued by the rockets developed by William Congreve. In the 1809 Battle of Aix Roads, he used Congreve’s rockets, in conjunction with fire ships, to considerable effect in attacking the French fleet.

Cordingly is never blinded by his subject’s exciting life. He emphasizes that Cochrane is no Lord Nelson. “He never commanded a squadron let alone a fleet until he arrived in South America…It was Cochrane’s fate as a naval commander to spend most of his life operating on the margins of naval history….”,

On the other hand the man was a legitimate folk hero. Sir Walter Scott wrote a poem in his honor, and Lord Byron saluted him: “There is no man I envy so much as Lord Cochrane.” In the age in which he lived, the age of Romantic poetry, literature and painting, Cordingly writes, “Cochrane was the very epitome of the Romantic hero.” q