As for Thomas Kydd – in the circumscribed world of eighteenth- century society, there were those fortunate enough to be well-born, and there were the lower orders who knew
their place and in the main accepted it. Yet in the twenty-two years of warfare at the end of the century, a total of 120 or so men crossed from the fo’c’sle to the
quarterdeck through their own exceptional merit, passing thereby from common seaman to gentleman. They include Lieutenant Pasco, who was signal officer at Trafalgar and who
famously amended Nelson’s immortal signal “England expects every man to do his duty,” and also Nelson’s own first lieutenant of Victory, a
pressed man like Kydd. And of these, twenty-two went on to become captain of their own ship, and three, possibly five, ended as admiral!
These men must have been titans – hard minded, iron willed and utterly resolute – but little is known of them, for none left an autobiography, with the single
exception of Bligh, who for all his faults went on to fight like a tiger as captain of a ship-of-the-line at Camperdown and for Nelson at the bloody battle of Copenhagen.
Today it is hard to get a focus on such men. The distorting lens of Victorian sentimentality gradually changed public perceptions of the sailor to one of ]olly ]ack Tar, an
object of patronized quaintness. The eighteenth-century seamen were hard men who lived a hard life, and it is equally nonsense to think they were the dregs of humanity, as some
more modem writers would have it. The mighty ship-of-the-line was as complex in its day as a moon rocket today. Most seamen were proud, self-sufficient and resourceful men
sharing a remarkable culture, but they were not articulate. This book is my tribute to those who became masters of the sea in the greatest age of fighting sail.