When we last encountered Lieutenant Nicholas Ramage, he was heading home from the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, having lost his ship, the cutter HMS Kathleen, in an attempt to keep a Spanish ship of the line from escaping.
Ramage and the Freebooters opens with Ramage reporting to Whitehall in response to a summons from Lord Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty. Spencer is a long time friend of Ramage’s family and sympathetic to the dangers facing Ramage in the service because of the court martial of his father.
Major spoilers follow.
Ramage reported to Admiralty fulling expecting to be informed that he could expect no further employment. He has powerful enemies in the service who wish his ruin as a way of striking at his father and he knows that even though he has been successful, he has been so by exceeding or ignoring orders.
Much to his surprise he is given command of the brig, HMS Triton, with the mission of warning the commanders in the Mediterranean and West Indies about the ongoing mutiny at Spithead. The command is a double-edged sword as he finds that Triton has mutinied and the Admiralty orders require him to bring her into obedience before he can carry out his orders forcing him to confront the prospect of imminent failure.
Ramage asks Spencer to exchange about half the Triton’s crew for the ex-Kathleens so he will have a core of men who trust him and thereby have a chance of bringing the Triton under his command. Spencer readily agrees. Among these men are the former master of the Kathleen, the redoubtable Henry Southwick, and Ramage’s coxswain, Jackson.
[Here I’d note that Pope, uncharacteristically, engages in a substantial rewrite of history and relies upon a suspension of disbelief to make the basic plot work. As we wrote in our series on the Spithead mutiny, that mutiny was confined to the ships of the line. The frigates and below-rates were pointedly excluded by the mutineers because they realized the importance of those ships to protecting commerce and keeping watch on the French and if their claim to be loyal subjects was to be believed they could not interfere in those activities. So the Triton being in mutiny is barely plausible. That it was in mutiny and still obeyed an Admiralty order to exchange men with another ship is inexplicable.]
Ramage reports on board Triton and decides against undertaking any action which would provoke the crew into disobedience. He finds his newly transferred Kathleens are afraid of their shipmates and realizes their loyalty to him is tenuous.
Ramage takes the bull by the horns and not only gets the Triton underway but avoids a possible mutiny the first night out of Spithead when the mutineers would have been able to take Triton into a French port.
Once the danger of mutiny is put aside, Ramage begins working to neutralize tensions and uses the long voyage to the West Indies to undertake the detoxification of his surgeon.
Ramage receives a pleasant welcome from the commander in Kingston, Jamaica, and receives his mission. Shipping from Grenada is being plagued by disappearances due to French privateers. The admiral has previously dispatched two frigates to suppress the privateers but they had no results. Ramage realizes he will used by the admiral to protect two of his favorites from allegations of incompetence if Ramage can’t do what they failed to do.
Ramage discovers that there is little cooperation between the military commander, the governor, and local ship owners and planters. Ramage’s open style wins him the cooperation of the military commander and a prominent local merchant.
An initial patrol provides no answers to the location of a base for the privateers and Ramage suspects the privateers are benefiting from a spy within the government on Grenada to warn them of the departure of ships.
Through shrewd deduction Ramage discovers how the information is transmitted and baits a trap for the privateers. He successfully springs the trap and shuts down the operation.