FIRST EDITION, INSCRIBED TO ADMIRAL SIR EDWARD HAMILTON BART, THE HERO OF 'AN EXPLOIT UNSURPASSED, IF EVER PARALLELED, IN THE MIGHTIEST EFFORTS OF BRITISH VALOUR' (William O'Byrne A Naval Biographical Dictionary (London: 1849), p.450). Hamilton's own account of this exploit - the cutting out of the Hermione from Puerto Cabello -- is reprinted and illustrated in The Naval Achievements of Great Britain ...
Edward Hamilton entered the Navy at the age of 7 in 1779 as a Midshipman on board the 'Hector', under the command of his father Sir John Hamilton, and served on various ships (including the Dido and the Victory) over the following years, gaining a reputation for bravery and daring. He received the command of the fire ship Comet in 1796, and, following a brief posting on the San Josef, he exchanged to the 'Surprise'. In July 1798 'he was ordered with convoy to Jamaica. While on that station he took and destroyed upwards of 80 armed and other vessels, of which those that were preserved sold for no less a sum than 200,000l. On one occasion he chased a privateer and her prize into Laguna, on the north side of the island of Cuba, and, after having effected their destruction, was two days and nights in constant action with the batteries, the baffling winds and light airs preventing his clearing the port' (O'Byrne, op. cit., p.451).
It was from the Surprise that Hamilton undertook his most famous action: the capture of the Spanish frigate Hermione in October 1799, described and illustrated in The Naval Achievements of Great Britain on pages - and the accompanying plate (see illustration). The 'Hermione' was a British frigate, whose crew had mutinied, killed their officers, and sailed the ship to La Guayra, where it was handed over to the Spanish and fitted out with 44 guns and a company of 392. Although many of mutineers had subsequently been captured, 'every officer on the station felt that the presence of the Hermione under the Spanish flag was an insult to the navy and to England' (The Dictionary of National Biography (London: 1921-1922), VIII, p.1029).
On 21 October 1799 the Surprise anchored outside Puerto Cabello, and discovered that the Hermione was moored within the harbour, between the two large batteries armed with some 200 guns which guarded the entrance to the port. Following a preliminary reconnaissance, Hamilton determined to cut out the captive ship and retake it. At midnight on the night of the 24-25 October 1799 a force of about 100 men was armed, and embarked on the boats of the Surprise, but 'on their way they were discovered by the Hermione's launch, rowing guard a mile in front of the ship. [The launch] was beaten back, but the noise of the conflict gave the alarm both to the Hermione and the batteries. The Spaniards went to quarters and opened a warm but random fire in the direction of the boats, in the midst of which the first boat, containing Hamilton himself, the gunner, and some ten men, pushed alongside and boarded. They were for several minutes unsupported on the Hermione's quarter-deck, but the other boats coming up, the Spaniards, after a fierce struggle, were beaten below; the cables were cut, sail made, and the ship towed out of the harbour, the batteries opening their fire on her as she passed out, regardless of the fate of their own men. The loss of the Spaniards was 119 killed and 97 wounded; of the English only twelve men wounded [including Hamilton], which is more extraordinary as the ship was not taken by surprise' (The Dictionary of National Biography, VIII, p.1029).
For this audacious and successful attack, Hamilton was knighted, awarded the naval gold medal, given a sword valued at 300 guineas by the Jamaica House of Assembly, and granted the Freedom of the City of London in a gold box at a dinner to mark the first anniversary of the action. However, the serious wound to the head he had suffered seems to have affected his mind, and in 1802 he was court martialled for meting out excessive and cruel punishments to members of the crew he felt had disobeyed his orders, and accordingly dismissed from the service. He was exceptionally reinstated the following year, and commanded the royal yacht Mary (later The Prince Regent) between 1806 and 1819, and was created a baronet in 1818.
The present copy of The Naval Achievements of Great Britain... is a subscriber's copy, and one of the earliest issues of the first edition, with the title uncoloured and pre-publication watermarks, contained in a signed, contemporary binding by the celebrated London firm of Hering. Although some copies of the work are found with portraits of the Lord St Vincent and Nelson (which are not called for in the list of plates), Tooley notes that 'The work is complete without them', and adds -- writing in 1954 -- that it is 'sought after' and 'becoming uncommon'.