True that Great Britain has a long and illustrious naval heritage, and they were hailed as the masters of the open sea from the 16th to the 19th centuries. But what this Scottish man had done was nothing quite like anyone.

Destined To Become A Sailor

Thomas Cochrane was born with a golden spoon to Scottish noble parents, Lord Archibald Cochrane (who later became The 9th Earl of Dundonald) and Anna Gilchrist, at Annsfield, in South Lanarkshire, on December 14, 1775. Both sides of his family were descended from generations of Scottish aristocracy and military service. So, it wasn’t a surprise when Thomas also ended up enlisting. However, his uncle, Alexander Cochrane, influenced him to join the Navy. At the tender age of five, Alexander would tag along with the young Thomas aboard four Royal Navy ships and listed him as part of the crew, making Thomas accumulate years of naval experience beginning at age five. Except these records appeared to be fudged a bit in terms of how much time he actually spent aboard ship.

Nevertheless, his father has other plans for the young Thomas, securing a spot for him in the British Army. Thomas begrudgingly joined the 104th Regiment of the King’s Army, but he hated it, particularly the rigid dress code for a self-conscious adolescent Thomas.

“My hair, cherished with boyish pride, was plastered back with a vile composition of candle-grease and flour… My neck, from childhood open to the lowland breeze, was cased in an inflexible leathern collar,” Thomas wrote in his autobiography.

He returned to his father, pleading with him to be sent to the Navy, where he believes his true calling lies, then spent another day in the Army—the first time Thomas would show defiance in the face of authority, which would become a reoccurring theme in the majority of his life.

illustration of the life of the craziest sea captain of all time
Illustration of Thomas (right) pleading with his father (left) to transfer him from the King’s Army to the Navy. (Screenshot from Kings and Generals/YouTube)

The Infancy of his Naval Career

Finally, at age 17, Thomas joined the British Navy as a midshipman at the outbreak of the Revolutionary Wars in France in 1793. He exuded vigor and enthusiasm in learning all the ropes despite starting late, “impressing his superiors with his natural leadership abilities and ferocious curiosity.” Working alongside his uncle, Captain Alexander, Thomas spent the first six months of his naval career on board the 28-gun sixth-rate frigate HMS Hind before transferring to the 28-gun fifth-rate HMS Thetis, which was also under his uncle’s command. Aboard the Thetis, Thomas was appointed acting lieutenant in 1795; a year later, he was officially promoted to the rank after passing the examination. His formative years in the Navy occurred amid the raging war against the French under Napoleon, and those years helped develop a solid foundation for his career that would benefit him in future adventures.

Portrait of Lord Cochrane in 1807 by Peter Edward Stroehling. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

After a couple more transfers to ships operating in Northern American waters, Thomas returned home in 1798, where he received the assignment as 8th Lieutenant on Acting Admiral Lord Keith’s flagship HMS Barfleur in the Mediterranean. Climbing the ranks seems easy-breezy for the young lad, thanks to the influential connections his family’s noble status had established. However, during his service in Barfleur, most of his peers began harboring resentment for his relative promotion speed. Tensions on board eventually reached boiling point when the young Scot clashed with the Barfleur’s first lieutenant, Philip Beaver, resulting in a court-martial. This would become the first of the many more conflicts Thomas would have between his superiors, subordinates, and colleagues in the Navy and later in the Parliament.

His stubborn nature aside, there was no denying that the young Scot had a knack for running a warship with “unconventional, reckless, and fearless” tactics. Yes, Thomas was undeniably a pain-in-the-arse, but his Royal Navy couldn’t ignore his outstanding abilities even if he didn’t quite fit in. Of course, this doesn’t mean they couldn’t slow down his promotions. However, since they couldn’t find a reason to kick him out entirely, superiors opt to not to promote Thomas and placed him on small ships like the 14-gun Brig, HSM Speedy. The Brigs, Sloops, and Frigates of the Royal Navy represented a different culture from that of the stately Ships of the Line laden with more cannons than some entire armies took into the field. Where the ships of the main line of battle tended to travel as whole squadrons in rigidly enforced formations, the smaller Brigs, Frigates, and Sloops of War were freelancers operating mostly alone or in pairs and were known as a place to put young aggressive captains like Thomas who just didn’t fit in around the stodgy staff of the Admiralty.