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Donald Thomas


Britannia's Sea Wolf

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2002).

The life of Thomas, Lord Cochrane is so full of drama that it would sound implausible if it were written as a novel; and indeed some of his adventures seem to have been adapted by Patrick O'Brian and attributed to his fictional hero Jack Aubrey. Captain Marryat served as a midshipman under Cochrane and included some of his exploits in his naval fiction. Cochrane was a naval commander of genius, who can be compared without hyperbole to Nelson.

Like O'Brian's Aubrey, Cochrane captured a powerful frigate, much larger than his own tiny vessel and carrying over three hundred seamen and marines. Later, now in command of a frigate himself, he kept the French coast in turmoil and single-handedly prevented the French advance into Catalonia for over a fortnight. He invented "explosion vessels" and developed the practice of using fire ships (considered unethical by some at the time). He used these means practically to destroy the French fleet (although the British admiral failed to take full advantage of the situation and to finish the job that Cochrane had begun). Napoleon himself accorded Cochrane the sobriquet of Sea Wolf.

Cochrane was however much more than a naval commander of daring and genius. He became a Member of Parliament and campaigned against official corruption; he was also a Radical reformer, a quarter of a century before the Reform Bill of 1832. Probably because of enmity occasioned by his reforming activities, he was accused, almost certainly unjustly, of complicity in a Stock Exchange fraud and was sentenced to prison. No longer able to continue as a Naval officer after his disgrace, he became a mercenary admiral in South America, helping Chile and Brazil in their struggle against colonial rule. Later he became involved in the Greek Independence movement and he is still renowned as a hero in Greece (a street in Athens is named for him). Returning to Britain, he devoted his abundant energy to proving his innocence and rehabilitating himself; in a story-book ending he succeeded in this campaign and became greatly admired by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

This brief outline by no means includes all of Cochrane's exploits. In true romantic hero fashion, at the age of 37 he eloped with a beautiful but penniless sixteen-year-old girl and married her in Scotland. The marriage was a happy one: Kitty stuck by her husband loyally throughout his imprisonment and accompanied him to South America. Cochrane was also an inventor, designing weapons of war that were considered too terrible to use and so were never adopted by the Admiralty. They included poison gas and saturation bombardment. Cochrane was convinced that by using such means the war against Napoleon could be brought to a speedy conclusion, without the need for the prolonged land campaign being conducted at the time by Wellesley in the Peninsula. It seems possible that he was right in this estimation. And yet, astonishingly, Cochrane's later plans after the war included a scheme for rescuing Napoleon from St Helena and taking him to South America to become Emperor there; but Napoleon died before this enterprise could be put into effect.

Thomas has done Cochrane's story justice in this fine biography, which will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed the sea novels of C.S. Forrester and Patrick O'Brian.

%T Cochrane
%S Britannia's Sea Wolf
%A Thomas, Donald
%I Cassel
%C London
%D 1978, 2001
%G ISBN 0-304-35659-X
%P 383 pp
%K biography, history
%O paperback, illustrated
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