HMS Surprise (ship)

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HMS Surprise, a frigate of the sixth rate, is the ship most closely associated with Jack Aubrey from the third book of the Canon, HMS Surprise, until the very end.



Surprise was 126 feet (38 metres) long on the gun-deck and 31 feet (9.45 metres) in beam; she was rated at just under 579 tons (589.5 tonnes). She is usually described as a 28-gun ship, but this was a somewhat artificial reckoning to distinguish her from an unrated post ship on the one hand (such vessels might carry up to 26 guns) and from a 32-gun frigate on the other. In fact her main deck was pierced for 24 guns, while the quarter deck carried a further eight to twelve and her forecastle between two and six, all these being of smaller calibre. The guns on the main deck were either nine-pounder long guns or 32-pounder carronades. Surprise was noted for being equipped with an abnormally tall mainmast, designed for a 36-gun frigate[1]. She was established for a crew of between 200 and 240.

By the standards of the 1790s Surprise was decidedly on the small side for a frigate; many such ships were over 150 feet long and were reckoned at 1000 tons or more. Nonetheless, she briefly enjoyed the status of a fifth rate ship before reverting to the sixth rate.

Surprise in history

Surprise began her life in 1794 as a French ship, under the name of Unité. Captured by HMS Inconstant in April 1796, she was renamed (since the Royal Navy already possessed a ship called Unité, taken just a week previously) and served for six years. Nothing is known of her fate after she was sold out of the Service in February 1802.

Her most distinguished action dates from 1799, when she was commanded by Captain Edward Hamilton. The crew of the frigate HMS Hermione had mutinied under great provocation, murdered their officers and handed their ship over to the Spanish, who had her moored under very strong guard at Puerto Cabello on the Spanish American coast. Nonetheless, boats from Surprise succeeded in cutting out Hermione and restoring her to the King's service.

Surprise in the Canon

O'Brian's Surprise retains the French origin and name, the specification and the history of the real ship, but he has greatly extended her lifespan in both directions. In HMS Surprise we are told that Jack had served on board her when he was a midshipman - that is to say before 1792, since his commission as lieutenant dates from that year. As the war against the French Republic did not break out until 1793, it follows that the capture of Surprise must have taken place in the last previous period of hostilities between Britain and France, namely the war of American independence, which came to an end in 1783. Thus the fictional Surprise is at least eleven years older than her prototype. At the other extreme, O'Brian's Surprise is still at sea in 1817. O'Brian also raises her principal armament (when she is carrying long guns) from 9-pounders to 12-pounders; he postulates several major refits (the last in Blue at the Mizzen) to account for her ability to cope with the stress of this and of her exceptionally eventful service.

SPOILER WARNING:  Plot or ending details for "series"  follow.

Jack Aubrey first takes command of the ship in 1805, in HMS Surprise. In The Reverse of the Medal she is bought by Stephen Maturin on his friend's behalf; later Jack buys her from Stephen and leases her to the Navy, ostensibly as a survey vessel but in fact to carry Stephen to South America for secret dealings with anti-Spanish forces there, a theme which runs from The Thirteen-Gun Salute to 21. In the latter book Surprise is last heard of as sailing back to England with Jack's despatches.

Specifications in the Canon

Surprise displaced "less than six hundred tons"[2] and her best bower weighed thirty-one hundredweight, or 3,472lbs.[3]

Among her idiosyncratic features, Surprise shipped a spritsail course, "an odd, rather old-fashioned sail, slung under the bowsprit and masking the chasers".[4]

Although she carried numerous different armament in her time, during the latter part of the Aubreyad's extended 1813, Surprise "carried twenty-two twelve-pounders [ long guns ] on her maindeck and two beautiful brass long nines...." one of these called Beelzebub[5] "...She possessed six twenty-four-pounder carronades, but since they tended to oppress her in heavy seas they were often struck down into the hold".[6] Of these guns, the names of the starboard -- even numbered from two through twenty-four -- included Wilful Murder (number 4), Towser (number 6), Jumping Billy (number 22), True Blue (number 24), Viper, Mad Anthony, Bulldog, and Nancy's Fancy[7], as well as Belcher, Sudden Death, Tom Crib[8], Nancy Dawson, Revenge, and Spitfire, the latter shipped adjacent to Sudden Death.[9] The carronades were "only a third the weight of the Surprise's regular twelve-pounder cannon but fir[ed] a ball twice as heavy; furthermore they could be fought by a much smaller crew -- two zealous hands at a pinch, as opposed to the seven or eight gathered round a long twelve. On the other hand, they could not fire their heavy ball very far nor very accurately".[10]

The gunroom was "a long dim corridor-like room, some eighteen feet wide and twenty-eight in length, with an almost equally long table running down the middle and the officers' cabin doors opening on to the narrow space on either side -- opening outwards, since if they opened the other way they must necessarily crush the man within." The mizzen-mast ran through it to the keelson below.[11]


  1. According to the table in Burney, New Universal Dictionary of the Marine (1815: article 'Mast'), the lower mainmast of a 36-gun ship was 89ft tall as against 81ft for a 28. Geoff Hunt (The Marine Art of Geoff Hunt [Conway Maritime, 2004], p.114) adopts this figure; he reckons the overall height of the main-topgallant truck as 146ft.
  2. O'Brian, Patrick. The Letter of Marque. (c)1988 by Patrick O'Brian. First American Edition, 1990. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, NY: p. 49
  3. O'Brian, Patrick. The Far Side of the World. (c)1984 by William Collins Sons & Co., Ltd. Published as a Norton Paperback 1992: pp. 235-6
  4. O'Brian, Patrick. The Reverse of the Medal. (c)1986 by William Collins Sons & Co., Ltd. First published as a Norton Paperback 1992: p. 111
  5. O'Brian, Patrick. The Nutmeg of Consolation. (c) 1991 W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY: pp. 125 & 142
  6. Ibid. p. 81
  7. Ibid. pp. 84-85
  8. O'Brian, Patrick. The Letter of Marque. (c)1988 by Patrick O'Brian. First American Edition, 1990. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, NY: p. 39
  9. O'Brian, Patrick. The Truelove. (c)1992 by Patrick O'Brian. First American Edition, 1992. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, NY: pp. 217, 220
  10. O'Brian, Patrick. The Wine-Dark Sea. (c) 1993 W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110: p. 67
  11. O'Brian, Patrick. The Wine-Dark Sea. (c) 1993 W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110: p. 107

External Links

Bruce Trinque's HMS Surprise web pages, containing a wealth of technical and historical information (partly drawn from Winfield, British Warships in the Age of Sail 1793-1817 (2005)), along with plans and sections.

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