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Obituary of Lord Cochrane (1861)


Thomas Cochrane R.N.

[1861] LORD DUNDONALD. One of the great characters of a past generation has just departed. After attaining to an age beyond man’s ordinary lot : after outliving envy, obloquy, and malice ; after suffering much, doing more, and triumphant at last, Lord Dundonald has closed in peace and honour the days of his eventful life. History can produce few examples either of such a man or such achievements. There have been greater heroes, because there have been heroes with greater opportunities; but no soldier or sailor of modern times ever displayed a more extraordinary capacity than the man who now lies dead.

He not only never knew fear, but he never knew perplexity, and was invariably found master of the circumstances in which he was placed. Nothing can exceed the audacity of his designs or the singularity of his successes, although, owing to the jealousy or spite of his superiors, his exploits were usually confined to spheres comparatively unimportant or remote. In some respects his character resembles that of the Napiers; more closely, perhaps, than that of the famous Earl of Peterborough; but it would be difficult to represent him except by a narrative of his deeds. He was a man who lived in action, and who surprised the world by successive strokes of genius or daring. Defoe might have written his adventures, but Clarendon could never have drawn his portrait.

The fourth quarter of the last century was but just commencing when Thomas Cochrane was born. At that time the Europe of old times still survived, and had shown, indeed, no obvious symptoms of decay. There was a King of Poland, an Empire of Germany, a Monarchy of France. Neither the United States of North America nor Empire of Brazil had become known to the world ; indeed, the latter state was founded, as an episode of service, by Cochrane himself. Every thing was in the old fashion, and so continued during the 17 years which the young Scot devoted to the work of preliminary education. Then he made a start, and then, as it happened, the world made a start also. 

Young Cochrane joined his first ship exactly at the time that the revolution was triumphant in France, and its principles were proclaimed in tones of thunder to a terrified world. It was an age of adventure and he turned the opening to good account. In five or six years’ time he was the idol of seamen and the wonder of the British navy. The authorities, whose anger he had already provoked, took good care to restrict his opportunities, but any chance was fair enough for Cochrane. The Admiralty gave him a ship of 158 tons burden— that is to say, about half as big as the smallest steam tug now borne on the effective list of the navy. It carried 14 guns of so moderate a calibre that Captain Cochrane used to store away a broadside of shot in his coat pockets. Its chief cabin was so small that his most convenient way of shaving was by putting his head through the skylight, and turning the deck into a dressing table. However, with this craft he put to sea, and in the course of thirteen months accomplished greater feats of arms than the most pompous inscription ever ascribed to Louis XIV. He actually captured no fewer than 50 vessels of the enemy, mounting between them 122 guns, and one of these prizes was a powerful frigate of 32 guns and 319 men.

But the little cruiser’s own turn came at last, and she was seized by three French line-of-battle ships. Lord Cochrane thus became a prisoner of war, but, by way of improving his time, he set to studying the cut and set of the sails used in the French navy, and investigating the sources of that superiority which the French vessels undoubtedly possessed. He seems also to have ruminated to good purpose on the circumstances of his capture, for when on another occasion, he was again chased by three ships of the line, he tried a new manoeuvre with complete success. Finding that he could not escape by speed, he hauled down every sail at the same minute, and brought his ship abruptly to a standstill. His pursuers, surprised by so unexpected a trick, shot past him by the impulse of their own speed, and before they could turn upon their anticipated prize, he was off and away. His resources, indeed, in such straits were inexhaustible. Once he deceived an enemy of superior strength by hoisting false colors. The pretence passed muster, but the enemy prepared to send a boat off, which would have exposed the trick. Lord Cochrane upon this ran up the yellow flag, to denote that there was infection on board, and his prudent adversary stood aloof accordingly.

We need be at no pains to recapitulate the incidents of this wonderful career. Lord Dundonald has told the story of his own life so recently and so well, and we have since repeated it so fully in our columns, that it will be more, perhaps, to our purpose if we glance for a moment at those points of the hero’s character which proved so injurious to his professional prospects. When we read of his proceedings, we certainly are not surprised at their results. He was everything which a man in office would dislike, and 60 years ago men in office could give more effect to their dislikes than they can at present. He was a Radical, whereas those were the palmy days of Toryism. He was outspoken, whereas officials admire reticence and discretion. He was resolute in exposing abuses, and therefore constantly creating trouble. He was impracticable —a term still in favor for describing inconvenient excellence; and he had a strong spirit of independence — a quality which as very recent controversies have shown, is singularly obnoxious to the official mind.

Nevertheless, we are of opinion that Lord Cochrane’s faults in these respects were not such as would have damaged his career at the present day, and that he suffered more from the politics of his time than from his own indiscretion. Fifty years later he would have fared very differently. The ‘official mind’ is probably much the same as ever, but it is now kept in check by public opinion. Lord Cochrane’s superiors did not misjudge his abilities or disparage his power. They merely held that, though power and ability were very good things, obsequiousness and pliability were better. They considered that there were plenty of brave men in the navy who would take ships and win battles as well as Cochrane, without raising as he did, unpleasant questions or making inconvenient complaints. He presumed upon his services so far as to demand fair play and justice not only for himself, but for those who served under him, and he met the Ministers’ refusal with so bold a tongue that every Government Officer stood aghast at his audacity. Of course this would never do in the days of Lord St Vincent. It might do now, because real merit would find support out of doors, and a man who had established his claims to command would receive preferment, whether he was in fayor at head quarters or otherwise, just as Sir Charles Napier was sent to India. But in Lord Cochrane’s time, popular opinion was but imperfectly developed.

There was but one spot, in fact, where it was wont to receive any formidable expression, and that was in the borough of Westminster. To Westminster, accordingly, Lord Cochrane repaired, and from Westminster he was sent, at the head of the poll, into the House of Commons, where his denunciations of naval abuses were so vigorous, that it was thought best to give him employment, in order to get him out of the way.

It is of little avail now to speculate on the results which might have been attained if a spirit so ardent as that which has just departed had been allowed full play in the convulsions and chances of the last great war ; but, when we look at the exploits which Lord Cochrane accomplished with insignificant means, it seems impossible to doubt that in rejecting his services we threw away one of our best hopes. Napoleon himself said of one of his designs that, if it had been executed as Cochrane desired, it would have destroyed a whole French squadron ; and the Spaniards of South America regarded him exactly as the Beloochees regarded Sir Charles Napier, and dubbed him with the title of ” the Devil.”

Such was the man who, for the satisfaction of official prejudice, was in a great measure lost to his country at her hour of need. Valuable as were his services, they were probably unimportant in comparison with those which he was competent to render. Let us hope, then, that we have seen the end of such doings as these, and that in any future emergencies our future Dundonalds may find both their places and their rewards without obstruction from official conceits, or political malice.

Source: “The Cornwall Chronicle” (Launceston, Tas.), Saturday 2 February 1861, Page 3; originally published in “The Times”, 1 November 1860
Retrieved: “Trove”, National Library of Australia
Portrait: Westminster Abbey website http://static.westminster-abbey.org/assets/thumbnail/0017/42380/Cochrane-engraving-72-1.jpg