John Cooke was baptised on 5 March 1762 at St. Mary, Whitechapel, the second son of Francis Cooke, an Admiralty clerk, and his wife Margaret. John Cooke first went to sea at the age of eleven aboard the cutter HMS Greyhound under Lieutenant John Bazely, before going ashore to spend time at Mr Braken's naval academy at Greenwich. He was entered onto the books of one of the royal yachts by Sir Alexander Hood, who would become an enduring patron of Cooke's. In 1776 he obtained a position as a midshipman on the ship of the line HMS Eagle, aged thirteen. Cooke served aboard Eagle, the flagship of the North American Station, during the next three years, seeing extensive action along the eastern seaboard. Notable among these actions were the naval operations around the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778, when Eagle was closely engaged with American units ashore. He distinguished himself in the assault, causing Admiral Lord Howe to remark "Why, young man, you wish to become a Lieutenant before you are of sufficient age." On 21 January 1779, Cooke was promoted to lieutenant and joined HMS Superb in the East Indies under Sir Edward Hughes, but was forced to take a leave of absence due to ill-health.
Cooke returned to England and then went to France to spend a year studying, before rejoining the navy in 1782 with an appointment to the 90-gun HMS Duke under Captain Alan Gardner. Cooke saw action at the Battle of the Saintes, at which Duke was heavily engaged. He remained with Gardner following the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, bringing an end to the American War of Independence, and served as his first-lieutenant aboard his next command, the 50-gun HMS Europa. Gardner became commodore at Jamaica, flying his broad pennant aboard Europa and retaining Cooke as his first-lieutenant until Cooke was injured in a bad fall and had to be invalided home. He had recovered sufficiently by the time of the Spanish Armament in 1790 to be able to take up an appointment from his old patron, Sir Alexander Hood, to be third-lieutenant of his flagship, the 90-gun HMS London. When the crisis passed without breaking into open war, London was paid off and Cooke went ashore.
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