Avast, Horatio Hornblower! Shove off, Jack Aubrey! Give way to a real life knee-breeched naval hero.
Maritime historian Cordingly (The Billy Ruffian: The Bellerophon and the Downfall of Napoleon, the Biography of a Ship of the Line, 1782–1836, 2003, etc.) presents the life of Thomas Cochrane, tenth Earl of Dundonald (1775–1860), a lanky Scot who was the very model, we are told, for the stalwart characters of C.S. Forster and Patrick O’Brian. As a lad in the Royal Navy, Cochrane quickly became adept at navigation, seamanship and shiphandling. Employing family connections, then a common shortcut, he obtained command of his own ship. Using subterfuges like flying false colors (also accepted practice at the time), he captured many prize French and Spanish vessels. His career advanced as captain of a frigate, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Cochrane was court-martialed for losing a sloop, acquitted, then jailed in 1814 for participating in a stock market fraud. Elected a member of Parliament, he proved as terrible at politics on land as he was audacious at sea. With his remarkable record fighting Bonaparte, Cochrane was recruited to help bring democracy, or at least independence, to Chile, Brazil and Greece. In retirement, he spent time fostering useful inventions and promoting his reputation. When he died, the old hero was buried in Westminster Abbey. Readers can practically smell the salt air as Cordingly recreates the age of sail, of press gangs, of round shot, grape, canister and loud nine pounders, of well-armed ships of the line, jolly boats, bum boats and fire ships. To document the career of his hero, the author draws on memoirs, logbooks, archives, correspondence and ephemera. He chronicles in copious detail Cochrane’s considerable bravery on deck and personal failings ashore.
Landlubbers may find this a lengthy voyage, but devotees of yarns about brave British tars will be delighted to be aboard.