Ramage: A series of historical novels
The Ramage series of novels is fictitious but is the result of extensive research into events, customs and values that were prevalent during the times of Nelson's navy. The popularity of this genre is evident by the success of the 'Hornblower' series on television and the recent motion picture 'Master and Commander: The far side of the World'. The intended market for this review is the wider population. Some may know the background to the period and be intrigued by the premise; others may just be interested in reading a good 'yarn'. You do not need to be a student of history to get something out of it.
One of the earliest recollections I have as a child is going out to the shed and opening my grandfather’s old sea chest. Under the lid was a painting of a tall ship, his ship. He left his home on the Isle of Skye as a young boy and after many years at sea, the last few as a ship’s captain; he retired and took a post as a lighthouse keeper in South Australia. The ocean has always held a significant place in Australian society. Up until the 1960s that’s how people got here, our history, our trade and even the elevations of our inland features are based on it. Matthew Flinders was a boy hood hero of mine. He sailed halfway around the world and charted our coastline with an accuracy never before seen. He even named the spot where my Grandfather’s lighthouse stood, Corny Point. It is little wonder, then, that when a fictional British Naval hero, set in the time of Flinders and based on historical accounts, hit the bookstores, I should waste no time in checking it out.
Nicholas Ramage is the creation of British author Dudley Pope and the series of books that follow his naval career are set between 1796 and 1806. Ramage entered the Royal Navy as a midshipman in 1788 at the age of 13. His father, the Tenth Earl of Blazey, was an admiral who was made a scapegoat for a failed naval action and was unjustly dismissed from the service. Despite the political difficulties this created for the younger Ramage, his rise through the ranks was rapid.
The first book of the 18 book series, simply titled 'Ramage', introduces our central character as the Third Lieutenant of the 28 gun frigate 'Sibella'. When his ship is battered by a much larger French Ship, Ramage is suddenly in command when all other senior officers are killed. Ramage leaves the sinking hulk to the French and escapes into the night in an open boat. In what we will come to recognise as characteristic Ramage move, he decides to carry out his dead captain's orders to rescue a stranded group of aristocrats from Napoleon's advancing army. The fact that these orders were intended for a frigate with a full compliment, and Ramage is now in an open boat with a handful of tired and poorly armed survivors, doesn't seem to worry him at all. Over the next 17 recorded adventures, Ramage fights his way through the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the English Channel. Along the way he is promoted to Captain, given command of a series of larger ships and manages to keep together those members of his close knit crew lucky enough not to get decapitated by round shot.
One of the strong points of Pope's writing is his attention to historical detail. A noted naval historian, Pope has gone to great lengths to accurately portray life in Nelson's navy. He describes in detail the many activities that made life on board a 19th century warship possible. For a reader expecting a cutlass stroke with every pen stroke this could become a little tedious. Extensive passages about how the ship's pork is stored, accounted for and prepared, or calculating how much rope it takes to rig a ship, can leave significant sections of the book to be avoided on a second reading. They do, however, give an insight into what it took to keep a navy afloat and what the men who served in it had to endure.
Historical research has also influenced the story lines of the novels with several being based on actual events. 'Ramage's Diamond', is based on the blockade of Martinique after the failure of the Peace of Amiens and the origins of 'Ramage's Mutiny' come from the story of the Hermione. It is interesting to note that the research Pope carried out for his novels often lead to factual histories such as 'England Expects', about the Battle of Trafalgar', and 'The Great Gamble', which deals with Nelson's attack on the Danish fleet in 1801. Pope also created other characters. In 'Governor Ramage RN' Ramage befriends a West Indian planter and ship owner, Ned Yorke. This meeting spawned another series of novels about Ned, his antecedents and his descendants, all named Ned Yorke. These books are set from the era of the buccaneers right through to the Second World War. Pope came from an old Cornish family and his great-great-grandfather was a ship owner in the time of Nelson. He served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and did much of his writing while cruising the Caribbean aboard his 53 ft yacht Ramage. He published his last Ramage novel, 'Ramage and the Dido' in 1989 and died in 1997 after suffering from the effects of his war wounds.
The Ramage series of novels is an enjoyable romp through a period in history when the shores of England were yet again threatened by invasion. Although the pace is sometimes slowed by a mass of trivial detail, and the sometimes annoying vendetta against Ramage by a bitter admiral, there is enough adventure, romance and intrigue to satisfy most people. If you are looking to entertain the younger members of the family, and introduce them to the fascination of history, the Ramage series is a good starting place.