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Under Four Flags

Lord Thomas Cochrane (1775-1860)

Lord Thomas Cochrane (1775-1860)

He must have been an amazing sight to his enemies, towering over six feet with red hair. Lord Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, was an impoverished Scot of noble birth who was a brilliant attacking sea captain. Because of various circumstances, mostly relating to his problems with authority, he was perhaps the most brilliant naval strategist who did not actually command a fleet. Had the Admiralty not been so venal and corrupt, he could have shortened the Napoleonic Wars by incursions against the mainland of France, forcing Napoleon back from Russia ahead of schedule. But that was not to be.

Some people are not meant to get along well with politicians. (I am one such myself, though not with one thousandth the talent of the Scotsman.) Cochrane developed a whole slew of enemies, hobnobbing as he did with Radicals as William Cobbett and Sir Francis Burdett. He even spent time at King’s Bench Prison for stock fraud—a mostly bogus charge cobbled together by his enemies with a complaisant and corrupt judge on the bench.

Stripped of his Order of the Bath and drummed out of the Navy, Cochrane accepted an offer the command the navy of the emerging Republic of Chile. He fought a number of sharp naval actions until the Spanish Pacific Fleet was driven off. Then he assisted Dom Pedro I of Brazil fight for that country’s independence from Brazil.

Memorial to Cochrane in Valparaiso, Chile

Memorial to Cochrane in Valparaiso, Chile

Finally, he ended up commanding the fleet of the Greeks who were then fighting to free themselves from the Ottomans. Here he was least effective, largely because of the rampant factionalism of the Greeks. According to Donald Thomas in his excellent biography Cochrane, “he wrote to the Chevalier Eynard of the Philhellenic Committee in Paris, describing the government of Greece as depending on ‘bands of undisciplined, ignorant, and lawless savages.’” This was a far cry from the well-trained British and Chilean sailors he had commanded.

Eventually, Greece won her independence, but only after the British, Russians, and French combined to dictate terms against the Turks.

Cochrane reminds me of General George Patton, another brilliant military leader who paid a heavy price for refusing to kiss the butts of military administrators.

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