There are 18 novels in the Ramage series, featuring the exploits of Lord Nicholas Ramage, an intrepid British Sea captain during the Napoleonic Wars. The novels cover the years 1796-1806, when England was locked in a brutal struggle with Napoleon’s France. Our first meeting with Ramage is in the middle of a naval battle off the coast of Italy. As a callow lieutenant, he assumes command of his ship after all the senior officers are killed. Ramage completes the mission successfully, attracting the attention of his superiors.
British author Dudley Pope’s nautical credentials were well deserved. He joined the Merchant Marine at the start of World War Two. When his ship was torpedoed in 1942, he spent 14 days in an open lifeboat and was subsequently discharged due to the severity of his injuries. Almost immediately Pope began his writing career, first as a war correspondent and later as a writer of history and fiction.
The Ramage novels are full of action. At the same time the reader is given an inside look at the workings of the British Navy. At one point, Pope goes on for several pages describing the precautions taken when loading gunpower. “Curious stuff, just innocent- looking grey powder.” The galley fire was extinguished, smoking was forbidden and the decks were wetted down. Sailors carrying the powder were required to wear felt shoes or go barefoot.
An avid sailor, Pope cruised extensively in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, the settings for most of his books. Although he admired the way French and Spanish ships were built, he was not as impressed by the way they were handled. The British fleet was outnumbered at Trafalgar, but they were victorious due to the accuracy of their fire and the discipline of their crews.
Pope’s hero Ramage rises rapidly through the ranks. His first command is a sloop, followed by a brig, then a frigate and finally a-ship-of-the-line in the last book. There is a bit of James Bond in Ramage, who survives hurricanes, mutinies, pirate attacks (in the Caribbean, naturally), not to mention engagements with enemy ships, jealous admirals, courts martial, and the guillotine in the French Revolution. Faced with overwhelming odds, Ramage usually finds a way to escape. During the Battle of Trafalgar, he tricks a French ship-of-the-line into chasing him into shoal water, with the result that the French ship is dismasted when it hits the rocks.
Another Ramage trick is to show false colors. When he commands the Calypso, a French-built frigate he has captured, he uses the tactic to surprise an unsuspecting enemy. The rules of war at the time allowed you to fly enemy colors as long as you hauled them down and hoisted your own before opening fire.
There are similarities between Pope and another famous writer of naval fiction, Patrick O’Brian. Both authors used the long voyages to digress on a variety of topics. Pope had a special ear for the conversations of the common seaman, probably because he had been to sea himself. We get to know the men of Ramage’s “lower deck” as well his officers.
The series builds to an exciting climax at the Battle of Trafalgar. Pope knows his history and gives an excellent description of this epic conflict. Pope died in 1997. Unfortunately in the last decade of his life he became so disabled from his wartime injuries that he was unable to continue writing. I have the feeling he had more tales to tell. q
Retired from teaching history, Harry Gratwick spends time on Vinalhaven and in Philadelphia.