Posted by: Rob Viens | October 30, 2012

Darwin and the Sea Wolf

Darwin seemed to love tales of adventure – from the scientific explorations of Humboldt (see Darwin on Humboldt) to the voyages of George Anson (see George Anson’s Voyage Round the World).  The Beagle library is stocked with such tales and Darwin likes to make reference to them in his diary.  By that account he is “living the dream” – sailing the world on his own adventure on the Beagle.

Although there is only a brief reference in the October 28th diary entry, the fact that Lord Cochrane comes up at all, is an indication of this fascination with adventure. For Lord Cochrane (named the Sea Wolf by the French in the Napoleonic Wars) was one of the great naval heroes of his day, and is believed to be one of the main inspirations for the fictional characters of Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey.

Lord (Thomas) Cochrane (Engraving by John Cook based on a painting by James Ramsay, 1866)

Thomas Cochrane

But before mentioning Cochrane, Darwin describes a trip through Montevideo with his friend Robert Hamond – as he traveled to meet another friend for dinner:

“Rode with Mr Hammond to dine with a friend of his who has an Estancia in the country.— The town is built on a promontory & for two or three miles behind it an irregular suburb extends.— It is in this neighbourhead alone, that the ground is enclosed.— On each side of us the hedges were composed of enormous Agaves & in the vacant places were large Cacti.— I have seldom seen anything more strange to an Europæan eye than the appearance which, from this cause, the fields presented.— The house of the gentleman (Mr Grenville) with whom we were going to dine, was situated in the open camp; but from the large orchards surrounding it, the place had an unusually cheerful air.— In the garden Peaches, Quinces, Apples, Vines, Figs, Lemons & Oranges flourished with great luxuriance: the two latter formed most delightfully shady walks. Numerous Olive trees were in flower, these very much resemble the Ilex, their leaves are however narrower & longer.— After a very pleasant dinner we returned to the ship.” (Oct 28)

It is in his description of his host that we first hear Darwin mention the Sea Wolf:

“Mr Grenville is one of the few Englishmen who has served under the Brazilian flag & who is a gentleman.— He is of a poor but good family & was, as a very young man (amongst many others) enticed out by Lord Cochrane when he served the Chilians. Subsequently to this, Mr Grenville had the command of a large Brazilian frigate, & in it fought some gallant actions.— He is now married to a very pleasant, & what is very rare, domestic Spanish lady.— With her he got the Estancia, where he is now living.”(Oct 28)

Lord Cochrane was Thomas Cochrane, the 10th Earl of Dundonald. He joined the Royal navy as a midshipman in 1793 and served on several ships (including an earlier incarnation of the HMS Thetis). He made a name for himself by defeating numerous French and Spanish ships and coastal fortifications using bold and creative tactics.  One of the most famous of his early victories was when he took the Spanish frigate El Gamo (a 32 gun, 319 man ship) with 54 men on a 14 gun brig sloop. Wikipedia describes him as, “arguably the most effective practitioner of coastal warfare during the period”.

The Action and Capture of the Spanish Xebeque Frigate El Gamo by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield (1845)

Painting of the capture of the El Gamo

During a political career that followed his time at sea, Cochrane got caught up in the “Great Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814” (essentially accused of insider trading) and lost his naval position and knighthood. He was later exonerated, however, at the time he left the Britain and headed off to South America where his naval prowess carried him a long way. Shortly afterward (1818) he was recruited by the Chilean government and given command of the Chilean Navy.  His ability to reorganize the navy and expert naval tactical skills helped Chile win independence from Spain.

A few years later (1823) Cochrane ended up in Brazil commanding the Brazilian Navy as it fought for independence against Portugal. He again played a major role in driving the Portuguese out of Brazil and was granted the title of Marquess of Maranhão. (It would appear that Darwin’s host, “Mr Grenville”, served with the Sea Wolf in Chile and later followed him to Brazil.)

Coat of Arms of the Marquess of Maranhão (from Wikipedia Commons)

Coat of Arms of the Marquess of Maranhao

Cochrane seemed to have a hard time getting along with others (especially superiors), and soon moved back to Europe where his spent some time in the war for Greek Independence.  Eventually he returned to England and was reinstated in the Royal Navy where he spent the rest of his career. Interesting this return happened in the spring of 1832.  It is very likely that Darwin’s reference corresponds to his reading about the Sea Wolf’s return in the “papers”.

Just a year after the publication of Origin of Species, in 1860, the man who appeared to be better than anyone in the world in coastal naval combat was defeated by kidney stones and died during surgery. He was 84.


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