The Action of 6 May 1801 - "El Diablo" Cochrane's Finest Hour

6 May 1801, "el Diablo" Commander Thomas Cochrane's commerce raiding cruise in the Western Mediterranean reached its climax off Barcelona when his brig sloop HMS “Speedy” met with the Spanish xebec frigate “El Gamo”, dispatched to put a stop to Cochrane’s game.
“.. we ran again for Barcelona when the trap manifested itself in the form of a large ship... made out to be a Spanish Xebec Frigate... As some of my officers had expressed dissatisfaction at not having been permitted to attack the frigate earlier fallen in with I told them they now should have a fair fight... not withstanding our numbers had been reduced to fifty four, officers and boys included... Orders were then given to pipe all hands and prepare for action." (Sir Thomas Cochrane, Earl of Dundonald)

Clarkson Frederick Stanfield (1793 - 1863): "The Action and Capture of the Spanish Xebeque Frigate El Gamo" (1845)

didn’t call him “El Diablo” for nothing. But then, many of his brother officers and especially his superiors would have heartily agreed. The proud, outspoken, brilliant, daring, capricious and quite quixotic Scottish lord simply would not fit in. Even so, after war broke out in 1793 and Cochrane, aged 17, had joined the Royal Navy, it took the maverick mariner five years anyhow to get court-martialled for insubordination and “flippancy” and earn the lasting enmity of, among others, Admiral Lord Keith, on whose flagship Cochrane served as a lieutenant, and that of Sir John Jervis, then the commander of the Mediterranean fleet and later the First Lord of Admiralty. Being blue-blooded certainly helped him to get promoted to the rank of Master and Commander anyway, however, a rank he deserved for his merits and skills but would probably never had advanced to without at least some patronage from higher up. Cochrane even got his own ship while others sat around at 26 Whitehall every day on meagre half pay and begged to get assigned to active service and at least given command of a floating barrel labelled “HM vessel”. Cochrane’s ship actually was hardly anything more than that, though, a 78’ long two-masted brig of 200 tons, armed with 14 4-pounder guns and crewed by 90 jolly tars. But HMS “Speedy”, as the cockleshell was called, had quite a distinguished service history and with the orders to harass shipping in the Western Med, Cochrane really made the best of what he got, even though he remembered her as “little more than a burlesque of a vessel of war". It was then that the French nicknamed him “Les Loup des Mers” and the Spanish “El Diablo”,  just a few weeks after “Speedy” sailed from Gibraltar. He played nearly every trick from the book of commerce raiding and in fact wrote a few new chapters. Excellent seamanship and daring, goes without saying, but ideas like camouflaging his “Speedy” as a neutral Danish merchantman sailing in these waters to get close to his prey and generally sailing under false colours more often than not until a shot was fired across the bows of the prize and the Union Jack went up, cutting out operations and evading pursuit by ingenious tricks such as putting a lantern on a floating barrel set adrift at night while “Speedy” disappeared into the darkness on an opposite course with her lights doused were quite ingenious. But in the spring of 1801, it seemed that the Spanish finally had “El Diablo” in the bag off Barcelona.

Peter Edward Stroehling (1768 - 1826): "Portrait of Lord Cochrane" (1807)

"El Gamo”, the fallow deer, might not have born are very martial name and she might have been a bit of an oddity as well. But a formidable one. She carried a complete square rig for Atlantic waters and was xebec-rigged with lateen sails for the Med, highly manoeuvrable, three times heavier than “Speedy” and able to put far more canvas aloft than necessary to outsail the British brig-sloop. Crewed with 319 men opposed to the 54 Cochrane had left after manning several prizes and armed with 32 guns, mostly 12-pounders, able to throw 376 pounds of weight in shot compared to “Speedy’s” feeble 54, “El Gamo” was more than a match for “El Diablo”. Cochrane decided to fight it out regardless. When the xebec-frigate hove in sight, “Speedy” approached her under American colours. “El Gamo’s” commander, not keen to provoke an international incident with a US Navy squadron in Mediterranean waters sailing for the shores of Tripoli on the eve of the First Barbary War, allowed the disguised British raider to come closer, even at an angle that made it quite impossible for the Spanish man-of-war to bring her broadside to bear. Cochrane had the one chance to get close enough to fire his pop-guns that would probably do no serious damage to “El Gamo” herself but to her crew and board her. And then she hoisted her British colours, “El Gamo” immediately opened fire, “Speedy” evaded her first and then her second broadside until she was close enough so that the Spanish guns could no longer hit her. Now it was “Speedy’s” turn, firing her 4-pounders into her enemy’s battery deck like oversized shotguns, veering away, charging again, firing, killing without receiving any damage, for the next three hours. And then Cochrane boarded, fought with all of his men against still overwhelming odds, until he managed to cut down the Spanish colours and tricked “Gamo’s” remaining crew into believing her officer had already surrendered, making them throw away their arms and give up. Cochrane had captured a Spanish frigate against odds of 6:1. A case unheard of in naval history before, never to be repeated again.

A 19th century image of HMS "Speedy" by an unknown artist, giving quite a good idea of her size and Cochrane's idea of her being "little more than a burlesque of a vessel of war"

sailed his quite formidable prize back to Port Mahon, the British base on Minorca and when “El Gamo’s” highest ranking surviving officer realized to what he had surrendered, he begged El Diablo to certify that he had done his utmost to defend his ship. Cochrane complied, naturally, but while he hoped the Royal Navy might buy “El Gamo” into service and assign command of her to himself, he was quite mistaken. Admiral Lord Keith operated out of Mahon, the very man Cochrane had crossed back in ’98 and who had insisted in a court martial. And that worthy brought all his influence to bear against Cochrane, “Speedy’s” crew was cheated of their prize money and “Gamo” was sold to the Barbary States, the profit probably went right into the pockets of the admiral and his cronies. Four weeks later, after driving a Spanish convoy ashore off Alicante and burning their wrecks, the smoke rising from that action did it then for Cochrane and his “Speedy”. Actually bound for Cadiz, a French squadron of three ships of the line sheered off their course to investigate and promptly caught the “Speedy” after a spirited chase. Cochrane surrendered, was treated with all honours by his captors and was exchanged after the rather disastrous Battle of Algeciras a fortnight later. “Les Loup des Mers” continued his tumultuous career that finally saw him commanding as admiral in the Chilean, Brazilian and Greek navies until he returned to the folds of the Royal Navy in 1832 after the death of his father and inheritance of the title of 10th Earl of Dundonald. And if some or all of Cochrane’s exploits sound at least vaguely familiar, that is because he was the template for the heroes of the novels of C.S. Forester, Richard Woodman and, naturally, Patrick O’Brian who re-enacted Cochrane’s exploits practically one to one. Poor “Speedy” got at least a honourable mention as Jack Aubrey’s HMS “Sophie” in O’Brian’s novel “Master and Commander”, but was, in real life, transferred as a gift to the Papal States by Napoleon, re-christened “St Paulo”, served in the Papal Navy until struck in 1806.

And more about Cochrane, “Speedy” and the Action of 6 May 1801 on: