Admiral Cochrane: the Real Master and Commander at the National Museum of Scotland

By Jenni Davidson | 11 January 2012
A picture of a naval jacket with gold buttons and a sword
Lord Cochrane's uniform and sword as a Rear Admiral of the Royal Navy© National Museums Scotland
Exhibition: Admiral Cochrane - the Real Master and Commander, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, until February 19 2012

The fictional heroes based on Lord Cochrane, such as CS Forester's Hornblower and Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey, are better known than the historical figure behind them, but only in his home country, as the opening video of this exhibition highlights.

The video shows a remembrance service that is held each May in Westminster Abbey to celebrate the life of Thomas Cochrane, which is attended by the highest ranking officers of the navies of Chile, Peru and Brazil.

This serves as a potent reminder that history is not viewed the same the world over and an introduction to the worldwide significance of the man. Almost forgotten here, Cochrane is a national hero in Chile.

An oil painting of Admiral Cochrane in naval uniform holding his telescope.
James Ramsay, Lord Cochrane (1866)© National Museums Scotland
In fact Admiral Edmundo Gonzaléz, Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean navy, has visited this exhibition in person.

Thomas Cochrane was a 19th century Scottish naval commander. After joining the Navy in 1793 aged 17, he rose to fame in the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon himself was an unlikely admirer of Cochrane, recognising him as a formidable foe.

Cochrane became an outspoken MP in 1806, but was controversially convicted of fraud in the Great Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814, where Government stock was sent flying over a false rumour that Napoleon had been killed.

Cochrane always maintained his innocence, but was found guilty and eventually left Britain in disgrace in 1818, having lost his seat in Parliament, being stripped of his knighthood and thrown out of the Navy.

He attained heroic recognition abroad by becoming commander of the fledgling Chilean navy and helping Chile and Peru in their fight for independence from Spain. After arguments with his superiors in Chile, he took the same role in the Brazilian navy against Portugal and then the Greek navy against the Ottomans.

On returning to Britain, he eventually received a pardon for his conviction, had his knighthood restored and was made an admiral in the Royal Navy, but he never managed to clear his name.

The exhibition itself traces Cochrane's life through a variety of items: outfits, maps, sea logs, quotations and medals, but far from being just for fans of naval memorabilia or maritime history, the marriage of artefacts and documents gives an insight into the man himself, an audacious leader with a habit of clashing with authority.

There is also a very human story running through the exhibition of a man gradually eaten up by bitterness over the injustice done to him.

Open 10am-5pm. Admission free.

A photo of Lord Cochrane's star of a Knight of the Bath and a handwritten note by him
Lord Cochrane's Star of a Knight of the Bath and a note in his handwriting© National Museums Scotland
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