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'Lord' Thomas Cochrane the Real Horatio Hornblower?

Updated on May 14, 2012

The Sea Wolf...

I fell in love with the Hornblower novels almost a decade ago now and it led me to a 10 year long love affair with the Naval novel and Napoleonic history. A time when men where gentlemen and duty was the watchword. For many the true defining hero's of the era were leaders like the Duke of Wellington or the heroic Lord Nelson. The great victories of Trafalgar and Waterloo secured their legacy and their fame.

For me however there is another hero, whose victories stand out far beyond the English speaking world. Most of you will not know the man who contributed more to the freedom of the South American Colonies from the Spanish and the Mediterranean from the Ottomans than any other. Nicknamed 'Le Loup des Mers' by the French (The Sea Wolf), for me and others in the know, it is Thomas Cochrane 10th Earl of Dundonald who defines the Napoleonic hero.

Extract from 'The Autobiography of a Seaman'

[An unpleasant altercation ending in a court martial]

"One day when at Tetuan, having obtained leave to go ashore and amuse myself with shooting wildfowl my dress became so covered with mud... Thinking it disrespectful to report myself on the quarterdeck in so dirty a condition I hastened to put on a clean uniform... Leuitenant Beaver came into the wardroom and in a very harsh tone demanded the reason of my not having reported myself... Leuitenant Beaver replied to [my] explanation in a manner so offensive, that it was clear that he wanted to surprise me into some act of insubordination..."

Cochrane, Hornblower and Aubrey...

When you look at the career of the fictional Hornblower, then compare it to Cochrane you will see many many similarities. Patrick O'Briens Captain Jack Aubrey character is almost a carbon copy of Thomas Cochrane during his earlier career. In 'Master and Commander' (The first book in the Aubrey-Maturin timeline) Jack Aubrey tells of a time when he insulted a First Lieutenant whilst serving as a Junior Officer and the reprimand he had from Lord Keith for doing so. In fact this incident happened to Cochrane in the exact fashion described by O'Brien!

Capturing ships far larger than his own, using flags to confuse and out whit enemies (such as the quarantine flags used by Jack Aubrey and Hornblower) and using dangerous and innovative sailing methods to escape and catch enemy ships... all in a days work for fictional characters, but how realistic was this portrait of the age of sail?

When you read about just a few of the exploits below you will see that it was literally in a days work for many RN Captains at the time. Outgunned, outnumbered, and out manned against the whole of Europe and at one point the US as well the Royal Navy managed to grind down and eventually obliterate all opposition over a period of over 20 years of continuous war, Victory was consistent, the British press and public when they heard that a large combined international fleet was over the horizon and there were just a few frigates to stop it they expected Victory, and they got it in almost every engagement throughout the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1792 - 1815).

HMS Speedy vs El Gamo

On the 6th May 1801, when a large enemy Frigate was sighted from the deck of HMS Speedy, it was an opportunity for the French Allies (Spain) to finally capture their most despised enemy. A man who had ravaged their shorelines in his tiny brig for months, taking over 500 prisoners, burning and capturing countless ships and foiling the traps they laid specifically for him.

Months before they had beached a large array of tempting merchant ships and waited for Cochrane to approach. Waiting, and concealed in a river bank were gunboats and sloops, all to try to take one ship. Cochrane had known the trap had been laid (as he regularly bribed French fishermen for information) and the clash had resulted in Cochrane taking several of the very ships that had laid in wait for him as prizes. This humiliation would seemingly now be avenged...

"[Suspecting another trap] we ran again for Barcelona when the trap manifested itself in the form of a large ship... made out to be a Spanish Xebec Frigate... As some of my officers had expressed dissatisfaction at not having been permitted to attack the frigate earlier fallen in with I told them they now should have a fair fight... not withstanding our numbers had been reduced to fifty four, officers and boys included... Orders were then given to pipe all hands and prepare for action." (Autobiography of a Seaman)

How did they measure up?

HMS Speedy
El Gamo
Men aboard
Total Broadside
56 Pounds
376 Pounds
Tonnage (good measurement of ship size)
The battle between HMS Speedy and El Gamo
The battle between HMS Speedy and El Gamo | Source

In the words of Jack Aubrey (citing Nelson), Cochrane went "straight at 'em'", flying the American flag to confuse them for as long as possible. He noticed that the tide and wind would make it difficult for the Spanish Frigate to fire at them accurately so eventually facing three enemy broadsides of 376 pounds HMS Speedy was somehow not hit once. When they got close enough they treble shotted their own guns (which had little more firepower than the hand held blunderbusses of the day) they fired at point blank range, killing the ships Captain and other senior officers.

The Spaniards fired again but the Frigate was so much larger than Speedy that they only hit the rigging. The Spaniards attempted to board and overwhelm the tiny ship but every time the order was given it was heard by Cochrane and Speedy sheered off leaving the enemy to fall into the sea, this happened several times throughout the engagement and each time they were given a volley of musketry and a broadside before they could recollect themselves.

Eventually Cochrane decided that they would be overwhelmed unless they themselves boarded El Gamo. He told a group of his men to 'blacken their faces' so to appear more ferocious and with just 53 men (the ships doctor taking the helm) boarded El Gamo.

"For a moment the Spaniards seemed taken by surprise, as though unwilling to believe that so small a crew would have the audacity to board them" (Auto Biography of a Seaman).

The Spaniards quickly recovered themselves and the fight carried on throughout the waist and main deck of the ship. Eventually seeing an opportunity Cochrane stormed the enemy Quarterdeck and lowered the enemies colours. Believing their own officers to have surrendered, and after suffering heavy casulalites the entire crew threw down their weapons.

Fifteen Spaniards lost their lives, and more wounded, the British had lost one man. It was a victory unrivaled before or since. Imagine a small patrol boat taking a destroyer today!

Other exploits...

There are many more exploits that are worthy of mention, but at the risk of making this a very long hub we will leave it there. Cochrane is a hero to other nations and cultures today, he is particularly honoured in Chile.

He was for all of his good points a man who was at odds with authority and he was never properly recognised by the British Admiralty. Eventually he left the Navy to help free South America from Spanish rule and later Greece from the Ottomans.

There is so much more to learn about this man who also suprisingly invented a number of naval and other innovations which we carry with us today. I will leave you with another quote from his own autobigraphy, written in his 60's which I hope will give you an idea of his character:

"...after the surrender of the El Gamo... the officer who had succeeded the deceased Captain in rank applied to me for a certificate that he had done his duty during the action! Whereupon he received from me a certificate that he had conducted himself 'like a true Spaniard', with which document he appeared highly gratified..."


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    • Matthew Kirk profile imageAUTHOR

      Matthew Kirk 

      5 years ago from Liverpool


      Alexander was Thomas's uncle :) I believe Thomas was taken on to his ship as captains servant at the age of about 13?

      We should have a chat soon, I'm doing something similar. I will take a look at the book, thanks.

    • tonymead60 profile image

      Tony Mead 

      5 years ago from Yorkshire


      Interesting hub and nicely presented. This Cochrane sounds to be straight out of Boy's Own, a gentleman hero a true Englishman.

      I too am a Hornblower fan since an early age. Check out my hub on writing my first book, which is very much on the Hornblower trail.

      In the follow up book which I am still writing I use a real life character called Sir Alexander Cochrane who amongst other things led an attack to capture Martinique from the French in 1809 along with my hero.

      I've studied this period extensively and learnt an awful lot of stuff about life in the RN during this period. If you like Hornblower I'm confident you will like my book which is called Guilty of Honour.

      voted up and the other buttons too



    • Matthew Kirk profile imageAUTHOR

      Matthew Kirk 

      5 years ago from Liverpool

      I have a less famous WW1 VC winner in the family and that makes me proud! Very interesting to see you here Harry

    • profile image

      Harry Cochrane 

      5 years ago

      This is the only part of my family history I've ever bothered researching. It's strange that an ancestor can be so significant worldwide...

    • Matthew Kirk profile imageAUTHOR

      Matthew Kirk 

      5 years ago from Liverpool

      Thanks Graham, glad you did, very kind.

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 

      5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      A brilliant informative and greatly entertaining hub. I enjoyed and then read it again. Well done.



    • aethelthryth profile image


      6 years ago from American Southwest

      Well, that's interesting. I guess I better start following you to see what else I can learn!

    • Matthew Kirk profile imageAUTHOR

      Matthew Kirk 

      6 years ago from Liverpool


      That sounds about right. Archibald was Thomas' father, bit of an oddball inventor who impoverished the family when Thomas was young. That was until Cochranes prizes during the war made them one of the richest families in the UK, just one single prize brought in £40,000 for Cochrane which is equivalent to about £2.5 million today, and he had many many prizes.

    • aethelthryth profile image


      6 years ago from American Southwest

      We dug out our "Connections" DVD, and found in Episode 7 "Long Chain", it was Archibald Cochrane, the 9th Earl of Dundonald who distilled vapors from heated coal to make coal tar.

      He also mentioned to his friend James Watt that the vapors coming off the distilling of coal tar were flammable, and this idea was eventually promoted by an employee of James Watt to make gas lamps.

    • Matthew Kirk profile imageAUTHOR

      Matthew Kirk 

      6 years ago from Liverpool


      The naval fiction based on that time is nearly all based on real exploits. It was the British (and for that matter the rest of Western Europe) Trojan Wars - as Patrick O'Brien said.

    • Matthew Kirk profile imageAUTHOR

      Matthew Kirk 

      6 years ago from Liverpool

      Hi joanveronica

      Thanks for you kind comments. Glad to hear from a chillean national :)

    • Matthew Kirk profile imageAUTHOR

      Matthew Kirk 

      6 years ago from Liverpool

      I have read some sharp, but can't reconcile the writing style (as good as it is) with others who write about the time. I think I got up to sharps trafalgar. I do like cornwell however.

    • Matthew Kirk profile imageAUTHOR

      Matthew Kirk 

      6 years ago from Liverpool

      Hi aethelthryth

      I'm not 100% sure on that one but I have book about him which mentions something about tar I think, he did a lot of experimenting with things like that, he did invent similar things, I know he improved, naval compasses, invented a type of steam powered ship, a type of gas lamp that didn't blow out in storms and which you could place far out on the ships spars in the night etc. Let me know if you do find out :)

    • Angie Jardine profile image

      Angie Jardine 

      6 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Fascinating hub, Matthew - I don't think I really realised that the fiction books and films about naval derring-do could be based on actual facts.

      They must have been some sailors!

      Welcome to HubPages ... looking forward to more of your hubs.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 

      6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi, wonderful Hub! Especially significant to me as a Chilean national. Naturally, Cochrane is a very important figure here, practically every town has a street called "Cochrane". I also like the Sharpe series mentioned by JKenny, but I haven't read Sharpe's Devil. Must look into it. Please keep on writing these interesting articles! Voted up, etc.

    • aethelthryth profile image


      6 years ago from American Southwest

      Just curious - was this the guy mentioned by James Burke in the Connections series who invented coal tar to replace pitch on ships' bottoms?

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 

      6 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Enjoyed reading this, Matthew. I'm a big fan of Hornblower too, and also Sharpe. In fact, in one of the Sharpe books, he ends up assisting Cochrane in the assault at Valdiva in 1821 (in the same book he meets Napoleon on St. Helena). It's called 'Sharpe's Devil'. It's so awesome to know that there was a true, real life Hornblower. Voted up and shared.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 

      6 years ago from UK

      I read my first Hornblower novel when I was in my teens and loved it. More recently I have been reading Julian Stockin's Kydd books and Peter Smalley's novels too.

      Didn't know about Thomas Cochrane, enjoyed reading this.

      Voted up etc.


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