Ramage is the first novel in the Lord Ramage series by Dudley Pope which chronicles the adventures of Nicholas Ramage, a British naval officer during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Ramage is set in the Mediterranean theater around 1796, after Nelson has left HMS Agamemnon for HMS Captain. We join Ramage when he is already a lieutenant.
Major spoilers follow.
Lieutenant Nicholas Ramage regains consciousness as his ship HMS Sibella, a 28-gun 12-pounder frigate, is trapped against the Tuscan shore and being pummeled by a Barras, a French 74. The first news he gets is that he, the third lieutenant, is now the only surviving officer and Sibella is taking on water at an alarming rate. On the quarterdeck, as he regains his wits from having been knocked out by a wood splinter, he learns that the Sibella is only able the fire 4 or 5 guns on its engaged side, and the bosun reports:
“You can see this lot; sir: wheel’s smashed and so’s the tiller and rudder head — can’t rig tackles ‘cos the rudder pendents is shot away. Ship’s just about steering herself, with us helping with sheets and braces. Chain pump’s smashed, so’s the head pumps. The Carpenter’s Mate says there’s four feet o’ water in the well and rising fast. The foremast will go by the board any minute — just look at it, I dunno what’s holding it up. Mainmast is sprung in two places with shot still embedded, and the mizzen three.”
(This is enough to give one flashbacks to Ranger school when you suddenly find yourself in charge in the middle of a real goat rope with a Ranger NCO in your face yelling, “whaddaya going to do now, Ranger!!??”)
In short, it is obvious to everyone that Ramage’s command will be a short lived one.
With over two-thirds of the crew dead or wounded, Ramage decides the only way of saving the wounded is by striking. He contrives a plan to enable the able bodied sailors to escape while leaving the French with a unsalvageable hulk.
Ramage knows Sibella was sailing under sealed orders. He quickly finds the orders in what remains of the captain’s cabin. With the aid of the captain’s coxswain, Thomas Jackson, he recovers all confidential materials and puts his plan to abandon ship into action.
Having successfully abandoned Sibella he opens and reads the captain’s orders. He finds that Sibella had been detailed to pick up several Italian aristocrats who were on the run from Bonaparte’s army, but whom, in the view of the British government, might constitute a rallying point for resistance to French occupation. Sibella had specifically been chosen because Ramage spent a portion of his childhood and adolescence in Italy and is fluent in Italian. In the list of names of the refugees he recognizes the name of the Marchesa di Voltera, whom he and his mother had lived with for some time.
He elects to send the majority of the men back to the British base on Corsica while attempting to rescue the refugees with one boat.
As the countryside is currently unoccupied by the French and the people are loyal to the fleeing aristocrats, Ramage is able to find the refugees with little trouble. Some of the party elect to not risk making the journey in a small boat, leaving only three to take aboard. While making contact, though, Ramage finds that the Marchesa is not the elderly lady of his childhood but rather her stunning daughter. The removal of the refugees is interrupted by an encounter with French cavalry. One of the noblemen is lost and presumed dead, the Marchesa is wounded, and the remaining nobleman accuses Ramage of cowardice.
Ramage’s boat is able to rendezvous with a British frigate raiding coastal shipping and he returns to Corsica. But not before his disgruntled passenger has made a formal complaint to the captain of the frigate and Ramage and the Marchesa begin an romantic attachment.
In Corsica, Ramage finds as the senior surviving officer he will have to stand court martial for the loss of the Sibella. What should have been a fairly routine affair is complicated by the fact that the senior captain empowered to convene the court is a political enemy of Ramage’s father and makes it clear that he intends to ruin Ramage by using the charge of cowardice made by the Italian nobleman. The court martial is interrupted by the arrival of the squadron commodore, Horatio Nelson, and adjourns without a verdict.
Nelson sharply questions Ramage and lets him know that questions remain about his conduct.
Ramage is ashore visiting a long time friend of his father who is the senior British official on Corsica… and with whom the Marchesa is residing… when a messenger arrives bearing orders that give him command of the cutter HMS Kathleen with an urgent mission to rescue the crew of a British frigate wrecked on the Italian coast. Kathleen has a very experienced crew and Ramage accomplishes his mission. He returns to find the allegation of cowardice has been disproven in his absence and he is left in command of Kathleen.