Originally published on the The Old Salt Blog

In his Aubrey/Maturin series, Patrick O’Brian wrote of HMS Surprise, a small British frigate, originally captured from the French. Over several books, the Surprise became almost as beloved a character, in her own way, as Jack Aubrey and Doctor Maturin themselves.

Independent of her qualities in fiction, HMS Surprise was indeed a real ship upon which O’Brian based the ship in his novels. Now, Brian Lavery, the noted naval historian and author of more than twenty books on the Royal Navy, and Geoff Hunt, the president Royal Society of Marine Artists and the painter of many of the covers in the Aubrey Maturin series, have written The Frigate Surprise: The Complete Story of the Ship Made Famous in the Novels of Patrick O’Brian.

What makes the book so interesting is that it brings into sharp focus the differences between the ship of history and that represented in O’Brian’s novels. Equally fascinating is that the book also helps to contrast the Royal Navy of history with the often romanticized versions of fiction. It is an intriguing tale and it is hard to image two better qualified storytellers than Lavery and Hunt.

The Frigate Surprise begins in 1794 with the L’Unité, “a small to medium sized warship, considered a ‘corvette’ by French authorities”.  She was captured by the British within a year and renamed Surprise, a fifth rate frigate.  Unlike the fictional Surprise, she didn’t sail well to windward and her time in service was fairly typical of her time, only about eight years.  The Surprise of fiction, on the other hand, was said to be remarkably weatherly and sailed for more than 25 years.  Ironically, O’Brian has Jack first take command of HMS Surprise roughly two years after the Surprise of history had been broken up.  

The difference between the historical and fictional captains and crew was even greater than the difference between the historical and fictional ships.  There seem to be two models of the Royal Navy during the Age of Sail.   The one most commonly represented in nautical adventure novels is of the “band of brothers” - the rough and sometimes brutal world within the “wooden walls” bound together by the crew’s respect, bordering almost on love, for their captain.    At the other extreme is the Royal Navy, to use Churchill’s phrase, of “sodomy, rum and the lash.”   

O’Brian’s novels tend toward the “band of brothers” where “Lucky Jack” with his crew behind him, need only fight the French, the Spanish and at times the Admiralty.  On the historical Surprise, as told by Lavery, sodomy, rum, and the lash was not untypical, especially in the early days under Captain Edward Hamilton, a stiff-necked Scottsman, with a propensity for using flogging to maintain discipline.  

Over time, particularly after capturing a sufficient number of prizes, Captain Hamilton and his crew reached a more harmonious understanding, just in time for the one action that would make the Surprise well known - the “cutting out” of the Hermione.  After being mistreated by Captain Hugh Pigot, who was both incompetent and a sadist, the crew of the HMS Hermione  mutinied, killed Pigot and his officers and then turn the ship over to the Spanish.  Captain Hamilton and 100 of the crew of the Surprise “cut out” the Hermione, which is to say, recaptured her using ship’s boats. They then sailed and towed her out of the Spanish port of Puerto Caballo.  The Surprise herself played only a supporting role.

The Frigate Surprise is organized in four parts. The first - an account of the HMS Surprise of history is the longest section of the book.  Roughly halfway through, this account is judiciously interrupted by a chapter describing what it would have been like to tour the Surprise, followed by a chapter of wonderful drawings of the Surprise by Karl Heintz Marquardt.     Once the reader is firmly grounded in the geography of the ship, the book continues with the second half of its career. 

There is a slim chapter titled, “Jack Aubrey’s Surprise” which summarizes the entire Aubrey/Maturin series for that most unlikely reader who may have purchased the book without having been familiar with the O’Brian novels. 

The final chapter of the book is almost the most intriguing because it is so very different from the nine chapters that precede it. So far Brian Lavery appears to be providing the narrative supported by prints of Geoff Hunt paintings and other paintings from the period. In the last chapter, however, the artist is given a voice.  Geoff Hunt describes his research in preparation for painting the Surprise, including the hull, the rigging, fittings and color schemes.  He then describes composing the many covers that he painted for the series, starting with his sketches and studies and ending with the finished works.  Fascinating stuff. 

For any lover of the work of Patrick O’Brian, The Frigate Surprise is a wonderful book.   The Frigate Surprise says less about the world created by Patrick O’Brian than it does about the real world of the Royal Navy from which O’Brian’s world was drawn, but that is not a bad thing either.

Description of: The Frigate Surprise

Author: Brian Lavery and Geoff Hunt

© 2008-2024 David Hayes (Astrodene)