... He knew her through and through, as beautiful a piece of ship-building as any that had been launched from the French yards, a true thoroughbred, very fast in the right hands, weatherly, dry, a splendid sailor on a bowline, and a ship that almost steered herself once you understood her ways. - H.M.S. Surprise
1805 – 1806: Through the intervention of Stephen Maturin at the Admiralty in H.M.S. Surprise, Jack Aubrey is given the small frigate HMS Surprise of 28 guns, aboard which he had served years before as a midshipman. His assignment is to carry a diplomat to the East Indies, where he uses his ship to support the China Fleet of East India Company merchantmen to successfully fight off Admiral Linois’s squadron. Afterwards, Jack and the Surprise return across the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic and head northwards towards home.
HMS Surprise is another genuine Royal Navy ship, although with a rather different history than that portrayed in O’Brian’s novels. The historical Surprise was originally the French l’Unite, captured in 1796.
Inconstant, at Sea, April 23, 1796.
I Have the Honor to inform you, that on the 19th, cruizing near Tunis, I received an Account that a French Frigate had been seen off Cape Mabera, near Bon; I therefore made sail for that Place, and, on the Evening of the 20th, perceived a Ship under French Colours at Anchor on the Coast, which I came to, by, and directed to Strike ; this was prudently complied with : She is called L’Unité, a Corvette of 34 Guns and 218 Men. The Crew had made an Attempt to set her on Fire, but by the Exertions of Lieutenant Hutchinson it was soon extinguished : Had the Ship been of equal Force with the Inconstant, I have every Reason to believe it would have afforded me a further Proof of the Spirit and Steadiness of every Officer and Person on Board the Ship I command.
I am, &c. &c.
THO. FRA. FREMANTLE.
Sir John Jervis, K. B. Admiral
of the Blue, and Commander in
Chief, &c. &c. &c.
Although this accords well with Jack’s comment that she had been taken from the French “early in the last war” (evidently meaning the French Revolutionary War, beginning in 1793), Jack’s other descriptions of her past do not so well match history. His mention of having served aboard her as a midshipman would require her service in the Royal Navy during the 1780’s, and his frequent references to her great age are not appropriate for a ship launched in 1794. (In a later novel, however, by way of contrast Jack does refer to her capture by the Royal Navy in 1796.)
In one important aspect the fictional description of the Surprise agrees with history: while Captain Edward Hamilton had been in command, he ordered the installation of a mainmast of a size usually specified for a 36-gun Fifth Rate frigate, giving her a unique appearance. The real Surprise was sold out of the service in 1802, three years before Jack Aubrey fictionally takes command. The action of Linois against the China Fleet was genuine, although the real Surprise did not take part, and it actually occurred in 1804 while the fictional Jack Aubrey was still in command of the Polychrest.
A note about armament: Although records are complex, Rif Winfield’s research indicates that when the Surprise was initially taken into the Royal Navy in 1796 in the Mediterranean, she was classified as a Sixth Rate of twenty-eight guns. The following year she was deployed to Jamaica and, while there, was converted into a Fifth Rate (although not re-registered as such) with twenty-four 32-pound carronades and eight 18-pound carronades, and a crew of 240. In 1798, probably during her refit at Plymouth, the Surprise was once again converted to a 28-gun Sixth Rate, armed and crewed as stated in the description of her draught. [Information from a private communication to Bruce Trinque from Rif Winfield]
A note on the deck diagrams: The deckplans and the longitudinal section of the Surprise, showing her as she was while in the Mediterranean during The Ionian Mission in the Long Year of 1813, are courtesy of Bruce Trinque and can be explored in further depth here. These plans are based upon the actual Admiralty drawings of her hull, with details of her inner layout drawn from other Royal Navy frigates of the era and from descriptions within the pages of Patrick O’Brian’s novels.
Text and diagrams courtesy of Bruce Trinque. Paintings by Geoff Hunt unless otherwise noted.