There were five ships of this class built. Two were captured by the British, L'Unité and La Tourterelle. The records from this First Empire period of French history are sparse and provide no information on her actions before she was taken. Here we look at the Surprise ex L'Unité, famous in her own life for the Hermione exploit, but famous today because of the writing of Patrick O'Brian. In his books on the adventures of Captain Aubrey and the surgeon Maturin, it is the fictionalized Surprise, based on this real ship, that comes to life as the Captain's favorite ship. Here is the history of the original:
She was constructed in Le Havre as L'Unité in 1794: a 24 gun corvette, armed with 8lb long guns. She was captured in the Mediterranean (April 1796, from Bona, modern day Annaba in Algeria, a neutral) by the British frigate Inconstant and taken in as Surprise (there was already a L'Unité). Her lines were taken off and she was re-armed and classed as a 28 gun ship. The Surprise actually carried 24 32lb carronades on her main deck, 8 32lb carronades on her quarter deck and 4 6lb long guns on her foredeck. It was difficult to rate her and she was regarded as a fifth rate till 1798 and then re-classed as a sixth rate.
She sailed to Jamaica in July 1796 under the command of Captain Edward Hamilton. The big moment in her lifetime was the extraordinarily audacious cutting out of the frigate Hermione on the 24th. of October 1799. The Hermione crew had mutinied, killing their commander, Captain Pigot, and their officers. The ship was then surrendered to the Spanish who were allied with the French. She was in the harbor at Puerto Cabello (in what is now Venezuela), defended by shore batteries mounting about 200 guns. The boats of the Surprise, led in person by Captain Hamilton, were detected and fired upon by the patrolling gunboats, but they proceeded, boarded the Hermione, whose crew were at quarters, cleared the deck and sailed her out. Their losses were 12 wounded; the Spanish suffered a loss of 119 killed and 97 wounded. Captain Hamilton was knighted for his conduct and the Hermione was restored to the navy.
The Surprise sailed back to England where she was sold at Deptford in February of 1802.
back to top