Benjamin Franklin, the American commissioner in Paris, wished to cause enough trouble between the French and British that the French would feel obliged to enter the war on the American side. Part of this involved acquiring small warships from the French that could be used to attack British merchant ships. The first of these ships was a 14-gun lugger from Dunkirk on 1 March 1777. Her original name was probably La Surprise, but in any case he named her Surprise (not to be confused with the Continental sloop Surprise in the Delaware River at the same time or the Continental gundaloe Surprise on Lake Champlain). The British Secret Service imagined that Franklin was going to use the vessel to carry secret correspondence, so in order to get a look at that correspondence the British were cleverly hoodwinked by Franklin into paying for the warship! A lugger normally had the exact same hull and bowsprit as a cutter, but with an unusual 3-masted rig of French design. Luggers were originally developed for the fishing fleet, but they also found widespread use as coastal privateers, smugglers, and armed corsairs. No doubt this one had been used to smuggle cognac brandy into England in exchange for quantities of copper used by the French Navy to cover the bottoms of their warships to protect them from ship-worms, barnacles, and seaweed and make the ships sail much faster, a trade that was amazingly allowed to continue even in wartime. She measured about 65 feet (20 metres) long on deck and 21 feet beam. Another major reason for this ship was that the British public could be easily terrified into thinking that American thugs were going to land on their coasts at any moment, in which case they would make enough noise that the Royal Navy would have to devote considerable money and ships to coastal defense that they otherwise would have sent to America to prosecute the war.
Franklin placed Commander Gustavus Conyngham/Cunningham of Philadelphia in charge of her. In the same way as Commander Samuel Nicholson later had a high American-style quarterdeck and stern, as well as a low forecastle, fitted to the cutter Dolphin, Conyngham had carpenters build such a stern and forecastle on Surprise (but without quarter-galleries) – undoubtedly the only lugger ever to be so fitted. Due to the excess weight, she could mount only ten guns instead of her original 14. At the same time, using the existing masts and yards, he converted the fore and main masts to standard square rig, which he considered much more versatile for deep-sea sailing than the lug rig, but he left the lug mizzen in place with its fore-&-aft sail, using its topmast as an ensign staff. Therefore, the best description of the rig is that she was a barque. Her ensign, incidentally, is known to have been simply thirteen red and white horizontal stripes. With a motley crew of Americans, Irishmen, Frenchmen, and others, Surprise was the first American Navy warship to be commissioned in Europe, the Continental Navy’s 29th vessel. The idea was that she would attack the Irish linen fleet and any other British merchant ships available in their home waters, which would cause plenty of consternation in London. However, things did not work out that way. On her first brief cruise, she captured two British ships, one of which was an official mail packet – off-limits even in wartime. The British then leaned on the French (who were not yet officially in the war and then had no wish to be) to confiscate the vessel and lock up her captain. The two prizes were returned to the British with apologies. Conyngham was quietly released from prison in a few days, so he could take command of the cutter Revenge in May 1777, but Surprise’s subsequent history (out of American control) is not recorded. Of course, this Surprise is completely different from the frigate Surprise (formerly Rose) that appeared in Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey movie with Russell Crowe, Master & Commander, and that is on display at the Maritime Museum of San Diego.
Colonial Navy Inc. (non-profit, tax-exempt) plans to build a full-sized operational copy of Surprise to take part in a year-round sail-training program with several other historic ship copies. She is to be built of cold-molded wood-epoxy laminates for strength and longevity. Now that the 250th anniversary of American independence is around the corner, it is the right moment to get Surprise sailing again and seen by as many people as possible (which will reinforce the public’s awareness of the enduring French-American alliance). Our Project Director is John Millar, who built the full-sized copies of the 24-gun frigate Rose and the 12-gun sloop Providence, so he is the right person to supervise this new ship. Surprise and Providence are identical in size. Contributions, which are tax-deductible, may be sent to Colonial Navy Inc., 710 South Henry Street, Williamsburg, Virginia, 23185-4113. Please designate Surprise.
Colonial Navy Inc.’s historic ship line-up: ships Batchelors Delight, General Pickering; barque Surprise; brigs Tartar, Cabot, Andrew Doria; schooner* Royal Savage; ketch Thunder;* sloop Enterprise; cutter Dolphin.