BORN IN FIFE, Thomas Cochrane entered the Royal Navy in 1793 as a 17-year-old midshipman and had a meteoric rise to lieutenant and then commander of the small warship HMS Speedy.
He gained a fearsome reputation amongst his foes as he cruised the Mediterranean looking for the enemy. Keeping a journal of his daring exploits and swashbuckling skirmishes he inspired both CS Forester’s Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O’Brian’s Captain Jack Aubrey, which in turn became a Hollywood blockbuster Master and Commander starring Russell Crowe.
Cochrane won some of the major sea battles of the Napoleonic Wars with just his single ship and captured over 50 vessels at the helm of the Speedy inspiring great loyalty amongst his crew. He preferred ship-to-ship warfare, which was often nasty and brutal, to commanding a large fleet.
With an eye for a daring hoax he used bluff to keep one step ahead of the enemy such as the time he avoided capture by a Spanish ship by flying a Danish flag and claiming his crew were infected by the plague and was the first to use smoke screen to pounce on enemy ships.
Cochrane applied his talent as a master tactician back on dry land. In 1806 he entered Parliament as an independent MP standing against corruption and championing reform. He kept his seat for a decade but was often sent back to sea as a punishment for his continual assaults on the Establishment.
It was in 1809 during one of these stints at sea that his idealistic and argumentative nature became a well known matter of public record when on leading an attack on the French during the Battle of the Basque Roads he was incensed that his superior officer, Lord Gambier refused to follow up the attack and finish of the last two enemy ships. The pair ended up in court to settle the dispute.
Often frustrated and constrained by authority his creativity found an outlet thanks to his passion for invention and during his life he dedicated much of his time and money on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the Navy, inventing naval lighting and developing a viable rotary engine and propeller.
He saw himself as a modern man whether that was political or scientific and was the first to identify South America as the continent of the future later in life.
However in 1814 he was convicted of fraud after selling his government bonds on the London Stock Exchange believing an elaborate hoax that the French had defeated and killed Napoleon and was fined, imprisoned, and expelled from the Navy. He was also stripped of his knighthood.
Four years later he left the UK for South America where he went on to become a hero thanks to his skilful command of the Chilean, Brazilian and Greek Navies in their respective wars of independence. In 1832, King William IV awarded him a free pardon for his crime and he was rewarded with both compensation and command of the West Indies and American station, which he held until the age of 77.
He died penniless in 1860 at the age of 85 with his reputation as one of the greatest seaman of the 19th century intact.
An exhibition to honour Lord Cochrane giving visitors a chance to see first-hand artefacts, documents and portraits of the time is now open at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh where its hoped to bring to public attention this forgotten hero.
Admiral Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander
National Museum of Scotland
Exhibition showing until 19th February 2012
For details contact - 0300 123 6789