Fact or fiction?
Fiction: Today, most people are familiar with the Surprise
from the Aubrey/Maturin series of novels by Patrick O'Brian. Though
the novels are fictional, many of the actions that they depict, together
with the ships involved are soundly based on fact.
O'Brian's fictional Surprise too is based on an actual ship
of the same name, the captured French frigate L'Unité.
Although the true Surprise was sold out of service in 1802,
the fact that this fictional Surprise is based on the real
ship is apparent throughout the novels by the fictional characters storytelling
of actual previous actions, such as the cutting out of the Hermione,
and continual references to the actual captain, Edward Hamilton, the
actual ship's surgeon, John M'Mullen, the actual gunner, John Maxwell
General remarks about Surprise's more distinguishing features
such as the fact she was coppered, she had an unusual mast arrangement,
the size position and layout of the cabins/galleries etc. all show that
Patrick O'Brian researched the history of the actual ship that was to
become the favourite of his fictional captain, Jack Aubrey.
Fact: The real Surprise was originally built
at Le Havre in 1794 and named L'Unité. L'Unité
was captured by Inconstant, Thomas Fremantle, on April 20,
1796. Captain Fremantle commented 'She is called L'Unité,
a Corvette of 34 Guns and 218 Men.'.
L'Unité was renamed Surprise as there was already
a Unite in the Royal Navy (this Unite was a fifth
rate 32 gun 12 pounder frigate).
Although seemingly classed as a fifth rate while in Jamaica during 1796/1797,
Surprise arrived for refit at Plymouth on January 21, 1798,
and was officially classed, under Captain Hamilton, as a 28 gun sixth
rate, although her armament remained significantly higher than 28!
This refit was extensive and included a complete re-coppering and re-arming
of the ship as well as general repairs, taking in stores and re-masting
and rigging and she finally made sail on May 2, 1798. Later in May she
arrived at Sheerness where she was re-masted and rigged again as it
was found that her increased masts, fitted at Plymouth, were unsuitable.
Surprise again made sail on June 7, 1798, bound for Jamaica.
Surprise is most famous for an action in which, unusually,
the ship itself took no real part - the cutting out of the Hermione.
Further details on this
action can be read here.
This kit of Surprise is based on the real ship and depicts
her as she would have appeared under Captain Hamilton during the cutting
out of the Hermione.
Further details of the kit will be announced as they are unveiled during
We are often asked how we carry out research into our kit production
subjects, how we have determined the look of the kit or where certain
information has come from.
With this in mind we have now started a new Research
Section which will give details of specific facts, documents and
general findings to help illustrate that the accuracy of our kits is
down to sound research.
During the course of researching Surprise it has been necessary
to separate the facts of the actual ship from the fiction of the O'Brian
novels. No doubt, as the prototype photos are unveiled, the model's
appearance will cause a few raised eyebrows. Therefore, as our prototype
photos are added we will be updating the research section by way of
explanation and providing cross links between various points of note.