Thomas Cochrane, the real 'Master and Commander'
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Peter Weir's 2003 film Master and Commander is based on the fictional naval hero, Captain Jack Aubrey, created by the writer Patrick O'Brian. O'Brian's books have received literary and historical acclaim and have sold in their thousands all over the world. However, O'Brian based his character on the real life exploits of Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald.
An extraordinary career plagued with controversy
Cochrane had one of the most extraordinary and controversial naval careers of the 19th century. He entered the Royal Navy as a midshipman in 1793 and was quickly promoted on merit to lieutenant two years later. However, it was during his early appointment as Master and Commander of the sloop Speedy that Cochrane came to fame, fortune and notoriety.
A plague to enemy trade
During his time in the Mediterranean, Cochrane captured over 50 vessels including El Gamo, a powerful Spanish frigate with twice the firepower of the Speedy and over six times as many men and marines. In his next two commands, the frigates Pallas and Imperieuse, he caused havoc on the French coast and made over £75,000 in prize money from captured shipping.
A member of the House
In 1805 Cochrane won the seat for Westminster and entered Parliment as an independent, standing against corruption and championing reform. He kept the seat for ten years but was often sent back to sea by request of Parliament because of his radical attacks on the Government.
Battle of Basque Roads
In April 1809, Cochrane led a successful fireship attack on a powerful French squadron anchored in Basque Roads, off Rochefort. In the confusion of the attack, all but two of the French ships were driven hard on shore. However, Cochrane tried to have his superior officer, Lord Gambier, court-martialled for not following up the attack in full.
Furthermore, he opposed a vote of thanks to Gambier in Parliment. Both these incidents ruined his naval career.
With no further naval employment Cochrane returned to the House of Commons but in 1814 he was convicted of an elaborate fraud on the stock exchange. Despite Cochrane's protests of innocence, the conviction saw his expulsion from Parliament and the Royal Navy.
From 1817 to 1827 he fought in the navies of Chile, Brazil and Greece in their wars for independence. Finally, in 1832, Cochrane was reinstated into the Royal Navy in the rank of Admiral. He commanded the West Indies and America station until 1851. In 1854, at the age of 80, he was deeply disappointed not to have been given a command in the Crimean War.
Sailor and innovator
During his career Cochrane always strived to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Navy. He invented improvements to gas lighting, convoy lanterns, tubular boilers, steam propulsion and proposed the use of smoke-screens and gas warfare as early as 1812.
Cochrane died in 1860 at the age of 85. He is one of Britain's most extraordinary naval heroes and his life is summarized in his own Autobiography of a Seaman, published in the year of his death.