Advent calendar / History

Door 19: A Geological Voyage through History 2 – Ring of Fire


Our geological journey through history, via the first Christmas card, continues. Read part one here






The Tunnelling Shield for the Thames Tunnel (in cross-section) designed by Marc Brunel and Thomas Cochrane

The Tunnelling Shield for the Thames Tunnel (in cross-section) designed by Marc Brunel and Thomas Cochrane

The other name on the patent for the Tunnelling Shield that was used to bore the first tunnel beneath the Thames was Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, Admiral of the Red in the Royal Navy. Cochrane was the prototype for Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brien’s novels, as well as one of the influences behind C.S. Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower – and hence Captain James T. Kirk, erstwhile captain of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701.

To say he had a colourful career would be understating things.  Due to his exploits on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon himself nicknamed him ‘Le Loup des Mers’ (The Sea Wolf).  The Admiral of the British Fleet was not so kind about his family, saying “The Cochranes are not to be trusted out of sight, they are all mad, romantic, money-getting and not truth-telling—and there is not a single exception in any part of the family.”  Not only did Cochrane manage to capture, burn or otherwise put out of action 53 French ships, he was court-martialled for disrespecting a senior officer and managed to cause an international incident with the United States by capturing one of their ships when the United Kingdom was not at war with them.

Lord Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald

Lord Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald

Prior to gaining his title, he was also elected as an MP, in a rotten borough.  He stood on a Radical platform of reform, and although he did not achieve much in his time in Parliament, he did make powerful enemies within the Navy and also came to the aid of one his fellow Radical MPs, Sir Francis Burnett.  A warrant was out for Sir Francis’s arrest from the Speaker of the Commons.  He’d barricaded himself into his Piccadilly home.  Thomas Cochrane came to his aid with a plan to repel boarders.  Luckily Sir Francis refused to go with the plan.  If he had, it would’ve resulted in a great loss of life, destruction of part of his home and the devastation of a large part of Piccadilly…  Sir Francis went meekly with the cavalry who had come for him, Cochrane’s military campaign in London never got started and Piccadilly, along with Burlington House, survived.

It was ultimately the Great Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814 that did for Thomas Cochrane’s navy career.  He was accused and convicted of being behind a plan to manipulate the value of Government bonds by spreading false news of Napoleon’s death.  The veracity of this conviction is still disputed.  Either way, he was stripped of his command, his titles and his standing, sentenced to a year in prison and to stand in the public pillory for an hour.  Such was his popularity that he was spared the pillory, but once his sentence was served, he looked abroad for opportunities.

Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald with eyeglass

Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald with eyeglass

Chile was involved in an ongoing struggle for independence from Spain as well as supporting other South American countries in their own fights for independence.  Thomas Cochrane was recruited as Admiral of the very first Chilean Navy, and once again he took to fighting the Spanish.  Again, he was very successful.  Not only did Chile gain its freedom, but they intervened on Peru’s side in their war.  By 1822 Cochrane was victoriously back in Valparaiso on his estates.

Things we not altogether rosy though.  There were political forces ranged against him within Chile’s Navy.  He claimed he had been denied monies owned from prizes captured.  There were also disturbing rumours about a plot he might be involved in to spring Napoleon from his exile on St. Helena using a steamship of his own design.  Cochrane had maintained his interest in engineering, having invented several new engines and propulsion systems for new steamships.  Unfortunately his first, the Rising Star, was not watertight and did not make it to Chile in time to assist in the war.

He was therefore present in Valparaiso to witness one of the most catastrophic earthquakes to occur in Chile’s history.  On the 19th November 1822 a large quake hit Valparaiso, destroying the town and port and causing a moderate tsunami and coastal uplift of around a metre along a length of coast of several tens of miles.  Chile, of course, sits on the Ring of Fire, and earthquakes are a hazard, but this was one of the first quakes in that area witnessed by European eyes.  The dramatic effects of the quake must have made a deep impression on Cochrane.  10 days later, with Chile’s major port in ruins, he left the Chilean Navy.

PS Rising Star commissioned by Lord Thomas Cochrane

PS Rising Star commissioned by Lord Thomas Cochrane

By the time of the first Christmas card, Thomas Cochrane was once more in London, having received a pardon and been readmitted to the Naval rolls.  He was already a Vice Admiral, but he had not actually taken a commission in the 12 years he’d been back.  He was still waiting for the return of his knighthood.  In the meantime, he was working on steamships.  At his funeral in 1860, a ticketed event in Westminster Abbey, having been fully readmitted to the establishment his eulogy was read by Sir Lyon Playfair, Fellow of the Geological Society.

The Valparaiso Earthquake of 1822 was to go on to play an interesting role in the debate between Neptunists and Plutonists in the meeting rooms of the Geological Society, and at its heart was a vivid account of the events written by another character connected to the first Christmas card.  The tale continues in my next blog…

2 thoughts on “Door 19: A Geological Voyage through History 2 – Ring of Fire

  1. You forget to mention that the scandal of 1814 proved something of a let off for the early United States Cochrane was just about to take up command in HMS Tonnent. The flagship of the North American squadron, given his record you can be fairly sure that he would not have spared the White House and would either not have attacked Fort McHenry or (more likely) there would have been no star spangled banner flying by dawns early light

  2. Pingback: Door 24: Christmas greetings from the geoadvent blog team! | Geological Society of London blog

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