HMS Surprise (1796)

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Contemporary plans of HMS Surprise
Contemporary plans of HMS Surprise
Career (France) French Navy Ensign (1790-1794) French Navy Ensign (1794-1815)
Name: Unité
Builder: Pierre-Alexandre Forfait,
Le Havre
Laid down: August 1793
Launched: 16 January 1794
Commissioned: April 1794
Captured: 20 April 1796
by HMS Inconstant
Career (UK) Royal Navy Ensign (1707-1800) Royal Navy Ensign (1800 - present)
Name: HMS Surprise
Operator: Royal Navy
Fate: Sold at Deptford in February 1802
General characteristics
Class and type: Unité-class corvette
Tons burthen: 350 bm
Length: 38.2 metres (125 ft)
Beam: 9.5 metres (31 ft)
Draught: 4.2 metres (14 ft)
Sail plan: Full-rigged ship

As Unité

  • 24 × 8-pounder guns
  • 8 × 4-pounder guns

As HMS Surprise

  • 24 × 32-pounder carronades
  • 10 × 32-pounder carronades
  • 2 × 4-pounder guns as chasers

Unité was a corvette of the French Navy built in 1794, the lead ship of her class. She was captured by the Royal Navy in 1796 and renamed HMS Surprise. In 1799 she famously recaptured HMS Hermione and in 1802 was sold out of the service.


She was designed by Pierre-Alexandre Forfait, who was in charge of her construction at Le Havre. She was launched on 16 January 1794, and was armed with 24 eight-pound and 8 four-pound long guns. The French rated her as a corvette.[1]

French Service

Unité took part in the battle of the Glorious First of June by escorting the dismasted Révolutionnaire as she was towed by the Audacieux.

Capture by the Royal Navy

She was captured on 20 April 1796 at Annaba by HMS Inconstant. Her commanding officer, Frigate Captain Le Drézénec, was suffering from an attack of smallpox and was incapable of directing resistance.

Unité was renamed HMS Surprise because another French ship also named Unité had already been taken into the navy. Surprise was re-classed by the British as a 28-gun sixth-rate frigate, though she carried twenty four 32 pound carronades on her main deck, eight 32-pounders on her quarter- and fore- decks and two (or four) long 6-pound cannons as chasers. This led to difficulty in her rating, considered a fifth rate from 1797-98 but a sixth rate the rest of her commission. Also, she bore the main-mast of a 36 gun ship, just as unusual as her large armament. Under Captain Edward Hamilton, the Surprise sailed in the Carribean for several years, capturing several privateers.[1]

Recapture of HMS Hermione

She gained fame for the cutting-out expedition in 1799 of HMS Hermione. Hermione's crew had mutinied, and had sailed her into the Spanish possession of Puerto Cabello. Captain Edward Hamilton of Surprise led a boarding party to retake Hermione and, after an exceptionally bloody action, sailed her out of danger under Spanish gunfire.


She was sold out of the Service at Deptford in February 1802.[1]

Surprise in fiction

HMS Surprise was the ship chosen by author Patrick O'Brian to restore Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey of the Aubrey–Maturin series to his place as a Captain, and eventually see him raise his flag as an Admiral of the Royal Navy. HMS Surprise is an important element of the series, both because of her importance to the running plotline, and because of the emotional attachment she has earned among fans of the series.[1]

For the 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the role of HMS Surprise was filled by the replica of HMS Rose, which was purchased by the film studio and modified for the role. The film relates that Aubrey had served aboard her as a midshipman in 1785, which is impossible since the real Surprise had not yet been launched. The book HMS Surprise by O'Brian also mentions Aubrey being a midshipman aboard Surprise[2] - a chronology contradicted by a later book in the series[3], which has Aubrey as a Lieutenant in HMS Queen, in 1792.

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Brian Lavery (1994). "Jack Aubrey's Ships". in A.E. Cummingham. Patrick O'Brian: Critical Essays and a Bibliography. W.W. Norton. 
  2. O'Brian, Patrick. HMS Surprise, William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1973, Chapter 4, ISBN 0-00-614181-1.
  3. The Wine-Dark Sea, O'Brian, Patrick, ISBN: 978-0393312447

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