A quick perusal of this blog will show that I’ve shied away from writing much on major figures of the Age of Sail. While I have biographical entries on lesser known figures, like Sir Henry Duncan and Midshipman Flinders, there is no story on Horatio Nelson or, perhaps the most swashbuckling figure of the Napoleonic Wars, Lord Thomas Cochrane.
My reasoning is grounded equally in two sensibilities, practicality and snobbishness. Practicality because these two men have been the subject of an immense amount of study and literature and there is little I could add to anyone’s understanding of either. Snobbishness because these two men, etc. etc.
I’ll be deviating from this a bit as I delve more deeply into Dudley Pope’s Nicholas Ramage novels because Pope, probably because of his background as a chronicler of the Royal Navy, pulls in a significant number of incidents from the lives of these two men as plot elements.
Now to the story.
Lord Cochrane was a brilliant but troublesome officer. Early in his career he exhibited a talent for alienating superiors, peers, and subordinates, be they potential friends and allies or enemies and adversaries. It was a talent he relentlessly developed over the remainder of his life. His command of HMS Speedy, a 14-gun, 4-pounder was a direct snub on the part of Lord Keith. Cochrane had originally been slated to take command of a larger sloop of war but Keith gave that ship to the brother of his secretary and sent Cochrane to what he thought was anonymity on the diminutive Speedy.
Cochrane immediately set about harrying the coast of Italy with a vengeance. Over the next five months, he took numerous prizes and established a reputation for bravery, daring, and exceptional luck. Keith then ordered Speedy to the Western Mediterranean to harass the Spanish. There he proceeded to run wild, typically laying over the horizon during the day then coming close inshore during night to snap up an alarming number of merchantmen. Finally, the Spanish decided enough was enough. Men of war were assigned specifically to the task of stopping Cochrane.
Perhaps perceiving the increased interest by the Spanish in his activities, Cochrane had Speedy repainted as a Danish merchant brig called Clomer. He used a seaman of Danish nationality, dressed as captain to enhance the illusion. On December 21, 1800, off Barcelona, he found himself trapped between several Spanish gunboats and a Spanish frigate. A lesser man might have thrown in the towel but not Cochrane. He hoisted the Danish flag and had the Danish “captain” hail the Spanish boarding party to ask them to not come on board. When this failed, he hoisted the yellow flag, the international symbol for quarantine, and had the “captain” tell the boarding party that there was plague aboard ship acquired during their last port call in Algeria. The Spanish returned to their ship and Speedy escaped.
Cochrane was surely feeling the pressure. In mid-March he was returning to Port Mahon with a prize and was pursued by a Spanish frigate. He set all sail and fled. The chase lasted all day, all that night, and by dusk the following day the Spanish frigate was nearly within range. When darkness fell, Cochrane ordered the ship’s carpenter to fix a lantern to a barrel. He changed course the moment the barrel went into the water and the Spanish frigate followed the decoy.
Again Cochrane escaped.
The game reached a climax on May 5, 1801. Cochrane was loitering off Barcelona, this time in broad daylight and at the mouth of the harbor. Cochrane was probably in high spirits as he had chased six gunboats, taking one, through the throng of fishing boats at work outside the harbor. Then he saw the frigate. El Gamo was a xebec rigged frigate carrying 32 guns, mostly 12-pounders along with two 24-pound carronades, and some 319 officers and men. Speedy was down to 54 men through the loss of prize crews.
The alternatives facing Lieutenant Cochrane were not all that pleasant. Flight was impracticable against a larger and faster ship. Fighting seemed a suboptimal solution. So he elected to do what he did best. Attack. At this point Speedy had the weather gage. The wind was brisk and El Gamo was hove to, the roll of the ship forced El Gamo’s main battery on the weather side, the side facing Speedy, to point a bit too high to target the much smaller ship while the battery on the lee side was pointing into the ocean.
Cochrane aimed Speedy directly at El Gamo. The Spanish captain was nonplussed. He fired a warning shot. Cochrane ran up the American flag and continued his charge. He passed under the stern of El Gamo and raised the British ensign. El Gamo answered with a broadside, but as it was rolling in the swell the rounds passed overhead. Cochrane then laid Speedy alongside El Gamo, her yards locking in El Gamo’s rigging. With his 4-pounders double and triple shotted and the quoins removed, Cochrane took El Gamo under fire. He timed his firing as Speedy rolled to leeward sending his shot up through the Spanish main gun deck. El Gamo continued to fire but could not depress her guns enough to hit Speedy.
Three times during the course of the next hour Spanish marines mustered to board Speedy. Each time, Cochrane fended El Gamo off creating enough distance that the marines could not board but still close enough that El Gamo’s guns could not bear, and then closed back alongside when the danger had passed.
Speedy was now in the position of the dog that has finally caught the car. He couldn’t retreat. He didn’t have the firepower to sink El Gamo. Boarding her, being outnumbered some 6:1 seemed out of the question. As always, when faced with a series of impossible alternatives, Cochrane attacked.
He ordered his men to blacken their faces, presuming it would have an effect on “the superstitious wonder which forms an element of the Spanish character,” and had Speedy move forward towards the bow of El Gamo. Twenty men, under Cochrane’s brother Archibald Cochrane, were detailed to board El Gamo by way of the head. When they did, the Spanish, who were expected to be boarded at the waist rushed forward. Cochrane then took the rest of the men, leaving only the ship’s surgeon to steer the ship, from the stern of Speedy straight up the side of El Gamo amidships.
The captain of El Gamo had fallen to Speedy’s cannonade and the the crew was confused and probably demoralized. They had no sooner responded to one attack from an unexpected direction than they were attacked from the rear. Cochrane then yelled to the surgeon/helmsman to send the remainder of the boarders over. Some Spanish officers heard this command and believed that they were actually outnumbered. Cochrane then ordered one of his men to lower the Spanish flag. He did and resistance abruptly crumbled. At the cost on three dead and 18 wounded, Cochrane had killed 15 Spanish, wounded 41 and carried a much superior warship.
Bureaucratic pettiness has no bounds. El Gamo was not bought into the British navy resulting in a very small amount of prize money for Speedy. Cochrane was not promoted to post captain despite, or maybe because of, the patriotic frenzy it generated in England. It was only in August, after Speedy had been taken by a French squadron and Cochrane exchanged as a prisoner of war, that he was elevated to post rank. Cochrane, ever the diplomat, probably did little to help his own case by pointing out that fewer men had been killed or injured on the Victory under Admiral Sir John Jervis, soon to be Lord St. Vincent, at the Battle of St. Vincent than had been killed or wounded on Speedy and yet both Jervis and the captain of Victory had been promoted.
Cochrane had many more adventures which we’ll chronicle in time. It would be both impractical and déclassé to continue at this point.