As I’ve noted in the past, an astonishing number of historical characters have roles in Dewey Lambdin’s Alan Lewrie novels. One of those who makes an appearance in A King’s Commander is Captain, later Admiral, George Cockburn.
Cockburn, pronounced “Coe-burn”, is most famous to American readers for burning Washington, DC and on his way through the area confiscating the letter “C” from print shops so his name could not be spelled.
He was a real character, a protégé and favorite of Horatio Nelson, a devoted, resourceful, and audacious naval officer, and First Lord of the Admiralty when steam and the screw propeller ended the era of fighting sail.
Cockburn was born in 1772, the son of wealthy parents descended from minor nobility. By 1784, however, Cockburn’s father had mismanaged and overextended finances to the extent that he was bankrupt. By 1786 his position was so dire that he contrived an appointment as secretary to the Prussian minister in London and thereby acquired diplomatic immunity which kept him out of debtor’s prison.
Cockburn had been destined for the Navy for some time. Following the practice of the period he was entered into the books of the 28-gun frigate HMS Resource commanded by Captain Bartholomew Rowley in 1781 and later into books of the yacht William and Mary.
His first position at sea was in 1786, at age 14, as servant to Captain Rowley Bulteel in HMS Termagant. Despite his father’s misfortune, influence within the Navy helped Midshipman Cockburn substantially. He became an object of Admiral Hood’s patronage which resulted in him being sent on an expedition to map islands in the Indian Ocean in a squadron commanded by Commodore William Cornwallis aboard the 18-gun sloop HMS Ariel as the servant of Captain Robert Moorsom.
In 1791 he passed his examination as lieutenant, despite being under the statutory age of 20. In 1794 he was made post into the 32-gun frigate HMS Meleager and became one of Nelson’s favorites during operations in the Mediterranean after the fall of Toulon.
Despite Lambdin’s rather accurate portrayal of young Cockburn as a priggish type, he was an energetic commander. After his promotion into the 38-gun Minerve in 1796 he won acclaim for taking the 40-gun Spanish frigate Sabina.
On the 19th of December, the 40-giui frigate Minerva. Captain George Cockburn, bearing the broad pendant of Commodore Nelson, on her passage to Gibraltar, fell in with the Spanish frigates Sabina and Ceres. The 32-gun frigate Blanche, Captain D’Arcy Preston, being in company with the Minerve, was ordered to attack the Ceres, while the Minerve stood for the largest of the two ships, which was the 40-gun frigate Sabina. At lOh. 40m. the Minerve brought the Sabina to action, and engaged till Ih. 30m. P.m., when the frigate, having had her mizen-mast shot away, and ten men killed and forty-five wounded, surrendered. The Minerve had one midshipman and six seamen killed, and Lieutenant James Noble, the boatswain, and thirty-two men wounded.
He served with distinction in the West Indies and the patronage of Hood and Nelson assured assignments of progressively greater responsibility.
Cockburn was a Navy traditionalist and as First Lord he was accused by reformers of being the worst type of reactionary though a more dispassionate examination finds him willing to adopt proven technologies. He was a great advocate for the British sailor and did much to improve the conditions of service.
Cockburn was a truly significant figure in the history of the Royal Navy.
This sketch is based on the book Cockburn and the British Navy in Transition.