The host for the evening introduced “Cochrane the Dauntless” by David Cordingly (2007) by explaining the reasons for his choice. He had first heard of Admiral Cochrane when visiting the famous M.V. Gardyloo in the company of a Government Minister. The Gardyloo was a sewage boat which sailed from Leith and deposited its cargo in the Firth of Forth. During this trip the Captain of the vessel enthused about the life and adventures of Cochrane, and insisted on giving two books from his extensive library to the Minister, who was himself a fan of Cochrane.
More recently the National Museum of Scotland, in partnership with the National Records of Scotland, featured an exhibition about Cochrane’s life and times. That exhibition, between October 2011 and February 2012, also promoted the book by Cordingly.
The decision to recommend the book was encouraged by the view that Cochrane was a Scot who had led a quite remarkable life. He had fought highly dramatic battles in Napoleonic times, becoming much celebrated, but had also been accused of conspiracy and fraud. He had recovered to have a whole new and highly celebrated naval career in South America. His life as so exciting that he was the inspiration for much naval fiction, including the work of Captain Marryat who served under him, C.S.Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, and more recently Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey. The Government of Chile was still so grateful to Cochrane that they held an annual memorial service to him in Westminster Abbey. Yet Cochrane was little known to most Scots, and little celebrated in Scotland.
The purpose of the recommendation was therefore to promote Cochrane rather than the book per se. However, the book had the merit of being a serious and properly referenced work of history, rather than the sort of sensationalist work that Cochrane often attracted.
With a number of members on holiday and others committed elsewhere, several of those unable to attend helpfully submitted their views on the book and these helped to stimulate the discussion.
The Group agreed that the most impressive features of the book were the quality and thoroughness of the research.
However, for some, this was also a negative feature reducing the book’s fictional feel. The lack of speculation about “the why and wherefores” of the action or the absence of “embroidery” around the interpretation of decisions or events was considered by them to have robbed the reader of a better appreciation of the man. One of our absent colleagues commented that he felt that “the man disappeared behind the detail”, while another by contrast suggested that Cordingly might have sacrificed insight in order to achieve an easy read.
The opposing view was that it was a merit of the book that it did not project the author’s own speculations on to his subject, as more populist biographers like to do, but instead recorded what was actually known, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. This group felt that a very clear picture emerged of Cochrane’s strengths and weaknesses.
The initial discussion centred on the reasons for Cochrane’s successes. We identified as important his positive attitude, his innovative and creative approach to problem solving, and his determination to master all of the practical skills/crafts associated with the maintenance and sailing of ships. In addition, his fearlessness and his desire to lead from the front in naval battles were important. He was greatly respected by those who served under him, both because his ships suffered relatively few casualties and because his crew shared in the prize money won through his lucrative actions. These factors, together with his indefatigable spirit, were considered to be the features that made the greatest contribution to his successes. One described him as an extraordinary polymath, moving from state sanctioned pirate to politician to inventor with varying degrees of success.
The importance of the navy in the war with the French had not been fully appreciated by the group before, but the “piratical” nature of the warfare clearly suited Cochrane’s maverick nature. The Admiralty made the most of this, appreciating his seamanship and his worth to the service, and cleverly deploying Cochrane’s potent mix of assets. It ensured his promotion and marked him out as “one to be watched”. The Admiralty was shrewd, and generally tolerant, in their deployment of Cochrane. They supported him when it suited, but finally closed ranks against him when his challenge to the establishment got out of hand.
We noted that patronage was a major factor affecting progress within the navy, and Cochrane benefited from family - and friends of family - interventions to secure positions at critical points in his career.
Some of our group considered Cochrane a flawed man, impulsive and reckless in both his deeds and in his total disregard for the establishment and authority. He was motivated by money to an excessive degree, no doubt reflecting his financially insecure upbringing. He also displayed a degree of paranoia on many occasions.
But we all marvelled at Cochrane’s resilience, deeply hurt by the stock exchange scandal. His move to South America, where he helped to liberate Chile, Peru and Brazil from their colonial masters, salvaged his pride and cemented his reputation as a great naval commander.
The group debated the reasons for British naval advantage at this time. Factors such as the design of ships and the quality of their build, the standard of equipment, the quality of training and tactics were all suggested as contributing factors. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, superiority came from the organisation and control exercised by the Admiralty itself. A combination of a skilled workforce, documented rules, slick processes and effective communication systems were developed, managed and deployed to great advantage.
Moreover, the financial model, which was built on the proceeds of the capture and disposal of enemy assets, was able to sustain the necessary scale and quality of the shipbuilding and ship repair industries to support the British fleet.
The conversation drifted into a discussion about other notable Scottish persons who, like Cochrane, had not been given credit for their achievements in Scotland. Adam Smith and James Clerk Maxwell were the first to be identified, but a virtual tsunami of names followed and the discussion lost coherence as differences of view emerged.
In order to remain united we returned to Cochrane and confirmed that with only one exception the entire group enjoyed the book. All were impressed by Cordingly’s research, but many wanted to learn more about the man and his relationships.
One member observed that it was a good idea to introduce a book about someone everyone knows a little about but not enough. Having read and discussed the book, I suspect most of our group would agree that they now know a little bit more about Cochrane, but not yet enough.