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August 6, 2015

The Admiral, The King, & The Inventor

By Joel R Kolander

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Think of the “action movie cop” stereotype. You know, the one who refuses to play by the rules, but is so good at his job that his defiance of those rules is generally ignored, much to the chagrin of his immediate superiors and the delight of those who revel in his success. Oddly, this stereotype didn’t arise in the later 20th century Hollywood movies or even with the insubordinate heroes in a variety of sports. No, this cliché can be traced all the way back to 1775 (and perhaps earlier) with the birth of a man who would eventually be known as, “The Wolf of the Sea” – Lord Admiral Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald.

Lot 1163: A Magnificent and Superb Royal Cased Pair of Lavishly Gold Inlaid Percussion Pistols by Manceaux of Paris Presented to Captain Thomas, Lord Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, by Louis Philippe, King of France -A) Manceaux Target Pistol.

I know that some of you, hearing this long title and the hint of British Naval history, have already become bored. Rest assured that reading about Cochrane is no ordinary history lesson. Did you not see the man’s nickname? This also happens to be the man who is the basis for the fictional Capt. Jack Aubrey from “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” as well as Horatio Hornblower. Cochrane’s robust and passionate personality have stealthily worked themselves into 19th and 20th century characters that are still popular and relevant to this day. That’s impressive. Almost as impressive as Cochrane’s career.

Born into a large, Scottish family whose military tradition extended back several generations on both sides of his family, it seems almost a foregone conclusion that Cochrane would himself find a career in the military.  However, he was also descended of Scottish aristocracy and could have also used such means to attain wealth, power, and status.  Thankfully for several nations (we’ll cover that later), he chose tradition and to serve his country by joining the Navy.  Technically he was listed on the crew of Navy ships as young as five years old, but this was largely due to his uncle unlawfully listing him on rosters at the young age so that when it would come time for promotion in his career, it would look as if he had more service than he really did – a common practice called “false muster.”  Despite his father’s best efforts to get him to join the Army, even obtaining him a commission, young Thomas would join the Navy in 1793 at the onset of the French Revolutionary Wars.

In no small coincidence, this was also the same year that his father, an inventor, had squandered the family fortune and sold their ancestral home and land to cover his debts.  It is likely the very thing that pushed Cochrane into the Navy in search of the prize money that would often accompany selling captured ships and their cargo.  It obsessed him, and he is quoted as once telling his brother, “I have every prospect of making the largest fortune which has been made in our days, save that of the Duke of Wellington.”  He desperately wished to buy back his family’s land as well as secure his own fame and fortune.  Often such ambition often sows the seeds of destruction for the one who bears it, but Cochran’s sins lied elsewhere.  All heroes have flaws and Cochrane’s was the inability to keep his mouth shut, though often with good cause.  Though this wouldn’t happen largely until he was more involved with politics than sailing.

While his military service may have begun in 1793, it would take until his service aboard the flagship Barfleurbefore his confrontational personality began to be officially documented.  It was then he was court-martialled for the first time for “flippancy” to a superior officer.  However, by early 1800 he already had key roles in capturing prized French ships, which in turn earned him a promotion to commander within a month and he took control of the HMS Speedy.  Initially less than impressed with the ship, calling it “little more than a burlesque of a vessel of war,” it was aboard the Speedy that his exploits began to earn him his fame that is still the stuff of movies and books over two centuries later.  There is no way to give a detailed account of all his actions in this small weekly column.  However, if you read them, you will likely smile.  They involve cunning, skill, talent, tactic, intelligence, and an astounding amount of courage.  Here are a few of the highlights:

  • A Spanish warship posing as a merchant vessel almost captured the Speedy, but Cochrane quickly raised a Dutch (neutral) flag and stayed the boarding party by claiming the crew had the plague.  He would later use this “false flag” technique many times and with great success.
  • Being pursued by an enemy frigate and knowing they would follow the Speedy by any reflection of light, Cochrane fixed a lantern to a barrel and set it adrift.  The ship chased the barrel and the Speedy lived to sail another day.
  • After accidentally coming to a ball in the uniform of a common sailor, Cochrane was mistaken for one, which led to an argument and a duel.  He wounded the offending Frenchman and was himself unharmed.
  • His most famous feat was the capture of the Spanish ship El Gamo, which held 32 guns and 319 men.  There were 8, 12, & 24 pound cannons which could launch a broadside totaling 190 pounds, dwarfing the Speedy‘s 14 guns and 54 men.  On May 6, 1801  The Speedy hoisted an American flag, causing critical Spanish hesitation, and rushed El Gamo.  In fact, the smaller Speedy sailed so closely that he tangled his yard arms in El Gamo‘s rigging.  Being this close the larger Spanish ship could not point its cannons down far enough to fire upon the Speedy‘s hull, but this did not prevent the Speedy from firing her cannons upward with great effect.  While El Gamo‘s shots passed through nothing but sail and rigging, the Speedy‘s shots (often loaded with two or even three cannonballs for even more devastation) struck true.  The cannon fire penetrated both hull and deck, killing the captain and the boatswain on the very first broadside.  The Spanish, not too keen on their current strategy, prepared to board the smaller ship, but the Speedy pulled away quickly and raked the boarding parties gathered on the deck with a barrage of shot and small arms fire.  The boarders would be repulsed three separate times before the Spanish attempted to return to their superior firepower.  At that point Cochrane ordered El Gamo boarded, some of his crew with blackened faces to imitate pirates.  He left no crew aboard the Speedy except the ship doctor, but in the middle of a fierce battle he called to the doctor to send another 50 men aboard El Gamo.  This, in combination with his crew’s removal of the Spanish flag, led many of the Spaniards to believe their ship captured and they ceased fighting.  The British had lost 3 and had 9 wounded, while El Gamo‘s crew lost 14 and saw 41 wounded – more than the Speedy‘s entire crew!  The Spanish officer who has assumed command of the ship, ashamed at his defeat, requested a letter from Cochrane stating that he had indeed done everything in his power to defend his superior ship.  He obliged the Spanish officer, using the phrase that he had “conducted himself like a true Spaniard,” and the letter was later used by said officer to obtain promotion.  This pleased Cochrane greatly upon hearing it.
  • In an 1809 attack not involving the Speedy, Cochrane personally led an attack of an explosion vessel (a.k.a. “fireship”).  After strategically piloting the ship against a French fleet, he set it afire and escaped via a small boat.  His actions forced the entire French fleet aground, save for two ships, and earned him the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, officially securing his hero status.
  • In the Speedy‘s 13 month rein of terror, Cochrane used it successfully to capture, burn, or drive ashore over 50 different ships before being captured by three French ships, including the vastly superior Desaix and her 74 guns.
In the painting, “The Action and Capture of the Spanish Xebeque Frigate El Gamo” by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, the HMS Speedy can bee seen in the foreground, British colors hoisted, while the fighting on the decks of El Gamo can be seen behind her. This painting currently resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

While these incredible battles and feats secured his fame, most of Cochrane’s success came from his raids along the Mediterranean coast, destroying and sacking numerous enemy ports and capturing ships still in the harbor. He did not have the opportunity to take part in major battles like the famed Lord Nelson, so he continued his lifelong pursuit of riches. On his next two ships he would command, the Pallas and the Imperieuse, he would positively wreck the French coast, earning over £75,000 in prize money from his captured goods and ships. Napoleon himself dubbed him, ‘le loup des mers‘ – the wolf of the sea – and his reputation grew ever larger.

By 1806 he was pursuing a life in politics, while not quite finished with his Naval command. It was at this time his mouth began to get him into trouble and his anti-social behaviors truly began to shine. He would speak up for the “common sailor,” parliamentary reform, and other ideas popular with the masses, but that did not win him any friends in politics. This was exacerbated by Cochrane himself, who proved to be his own worst enemy. He would imagine slights against him, write fiery letters, had little patience for inaction, was blunt to a fault, and often used language more befitting a sailor than a sitting member of parliament. It is best said in the book, “Cochrane The Real master & Commander” by David Cordingly,

He imagined enemies where there were none and made enemies of people who should have been his friends. He was frequently out of step with his times and lacked the insight and the humility to understand why this should be and to adapt to it.

Oddly, this image of a ill-tempered, coarse, firebrand is quite the opposite of how people saw him in private. In private settings he is several times described as “a gentle, mild man… wholly unassuming,” calm, quiet, self-assured, clear, charming, well-rounded, and even a genius. Even the great poet Lord Byron said, “There is no man I envy as much as Lord Cochrane.” Unfortunately, it was the “Mr. Hyde” that was seen by his contemporaries in politics and proved to be his undoing. His 1809 attack using fireships, a large part of his fame, was also a great disappointment to him. Cochrane always felt that Admiral Gambier missed the chance to swoop in and destroy the grounded French fleet. In fact, Cochrane’s criticisms were so damning, that Gambier requested a court-martial to clear his own name, the Navy closed ranks around Gambier, and Cochrane was fighting alone. Apparently fireships can be used to burn bridges as well.

This dissonance with his colleagues would culminate in 1814 when Cochrane was charged with stock fraud, found guilty, and expelled from Parliament. Historians are mixed on whether or not he actually was guilty, but the result is the same: a tarnished name, loss of Knighthood, booted from politics, thrown out of the Navy, and sentenced to the pillory for one hour. However, his absence from politics was short-lived. In the resulting election to fill his empty seat, his constituents re-elected him (unopposed), and created such an outcry over his pending pillory punishment, that it was withdrawn lest the people riot. Unable to take a hint, Cochrane based his subsequent political platform on parliamentary reform.

Once cast out of the Navy, his services were very much in demand in other parts of the world. The Chileans wanted to rid themselves of Spain in 1817, so Cochrane agreed and helped them do it. To this day, there are many streets named after him in Chile and an immense bronze statue stands for the man who drove the Spaniards from their coast and land. Seeing this success, the Brazilians also requested his expertise in naval warfare to earn their independence from the Portuguese, which he obliged in 1823. These incredible victories abroad, and the many stories behind them, stirred the people back home to accuse those against Cochrane of conspiracy and poor treatment of their hero, though those were largely just accusations with no real substance. He even fought with the Greeks from 1827-28 to help secure their independence from the Ottoman Empire, but found relatively little success there. These acts very much tied in with his image in England as a liberator and defender of the people.

His father died in 1831 and by his inherited peerage (10th Earl of Dundonald) he was accepted back into the Royal Navy, though he refused until his knighthood was returned…15 years later by Queen Victoria. In his winter years, he continued his lifelong hobby of inventing. During his life he had invented many things: an improved convoy lamp to better allow ships to follow one another in darkness, tunneling devices, in addition to a strong interest in steamships. More impressive were his innovations in combat, such as using entire ships essentially as large exploding claymores against enemy ports or using ship hulls filled with sulfur and charcoal as “stink vessels” or “smoke bombs” to fumigate and drive out enemy troops to better establish a beachhead. These tactics were with merit, but the panels in charge of adopting them were so worried that the devices could be used against the British, that they rejected Cochrane’s proposal and the inventor promised to never speak of them in deference to the public’s safety. It is one of the first mentions of gas warfare in history.

Ironically, Cochrane’s profit-driven life found itself almost exactly in the way it started. Much of his fortunes were squandered in life, but in his later years remaining funds were also wasted on several inventions, just as his father had done so many years earlier. His passion and interest in developing a steamship threatened to scuttle his strong lifelong marriage to his beloved Kate.

He served as commander in chief of the North America and West Indies from 1848-1851, make admiral in 1851, and then the honorary title of Rear-Admiral. His final years were spent penning his rather exhilarating autobiography, which cemented his reputation even further since he had outlived most of his opponents. He passed away in 1860 during an operation to remove his kidney stones and was subsequently buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey. The Times of London had this to say about his death,

History can produce few examples of such a man or of such achievement. There have been greater heroes because there have been heroes with greater opportunities, but no sailor or soldier of modern times ever displayed a more extraordinary capacity than the man who now lies dead.

To this day, representatives of the Chilean Navy hold an annual wreath laying ceremony at his grave.

A wreath made to look like the Chilean flag rests‌‌on the grave of Lord Cochrane.

The Guns

The following pairs of guns were presented to Cochrane late in his life, far after the apex of his fame, in a sign of respect of a life well lived. The first to be presented of the two available in Rock Island Auction Company’s September 2015 Premiere Firearms Auction was given to Cochrane by Louis Phillippe, the King of France.

These pistols were ordered by the King himself from the Royal workshop in Tulle, headed at that time by Jules Manceaux. The magnificent gift features intricately raised relief carved European walnut stocks and relief chiseled gold that liberally covers every metal surface of the guns. Most high art pistols of the time, such as those made by Devisme, Gastinne Renette, Lepage, et al, are etched and then thinly damascened with gold amalgam. These pistols differ in that they are decorated with true gold inlay. Besides the vines and scroll which extend down the barrel, a pair of dragons are depicted in gold on the lock, crowned lions appear on the forend caps, and crowned demonic faces appear on the trigger guards – all done in pure gold. Even the inscription on the barrel top is in gold, but the words “MANCEAUX” and “A PARIS” appear in a bright platinum.

Samuel Colt being the master marketer of his day, was unlikely to miss a chance to get his pistols into the hands of a beloved military man and national hero. Demand for arms was already high in Europe during the 1850s due to the area’s abundant conflicts, and Colt was undoubtedly happy to make a gift to someone who held military influence and was popular with the people. It is no small coincidence that “the revolver’s presentation coincides with the purchase of 23,500 London Model 1851 Navy revolvers by the British government in 1854… Nearly half of these revolvers were issued to the Royal Navy and… Cochrane was involved in the process that generated those orders.”

The early production, cased, deluxe, factory engraved, London Model 1851 Navy percussion revolver is quite the gift. Punch dots on the various parts indicate that this was a presentation gun from the beginning and it has the parts to prove it. The barrel and cylinder have lavish British scroll engraving atop of a high polish blued finish, while loading lever, frame, and hammer are casehardened. The brass backstrap (seen in early models) and trigger guard are silver plated, and the one piece, highly figured walnut grips have the highly polished “piano finish.” The inscription on the backstrap reads, “From the inventor, To Admiral Sir Thos. Cochrane.”

Looking at Sir Thomas, Lord Cochrane from a larger perspective, he arose in the pinnacle of the Romantic era. A time of education, art, and passionate ideas that would evoke intense emotion proved to be the perfect breeding ground for a man that knew exhilarating victories and crushing defeats. He was the sailor who became a politician, and the man that would pen love letters to his wife one moment and deliver withering profanities to his opponents the next. Cochrane was a man of passions and whose juxtaposed excellence and flaws make him just as relatable today as he was popular in his own time.


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