Book Review: “Ramage’s Mutiny” by Dudley Pope

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In the eighth Lord Ramage novel, dashing young Captain Nicholas Ramage remains in command of the frigate Calypso, which he had captured from the French off Martinique in Book 7. He is still on the Caribbean station, too, under the command of the admiral whose share in the Martinique prizes ought to incline him favorably toward Ramage. His spectacular success in a mission of which not much was expected stands, however, in embarrassing contrast to the failure of the admiral’s favorite, a captain who was supposed to cut a shipful of mutineers out of the Venezuelan port to which they had surrendered themselves. The first captain had sailed up and down in front of the harbor, decided there was nothing he could do about it, and sailed home. Now it’s up to Ramage to do or die — most likely the latter — or, failing to do either, to serve as a convenient scapegoat for the admiral and his favorite captain.

This tale of naval derring-do in the age of sail is based on the story of the HMS Hermione, a ship whose crew mutinied in 1797, handed themselves over to the Spanish ship and all, and were later recaptured by the British. Here Ramage is up against not only the dangerous Spanish shore batteries of the fictitious port of Santa Cruz, and the ships that cruise the Spanish main, but the very real threat of mutiny spreading like a virus from one ship to another, even perhaps to a whole fleet, unless it is put down soonest and discipline restored.

As usual, the very capable Ramage is backed up by a capital crew, much of which he has somehow managed to keep together through three or four commissions. He still has among his lieutenants the loyal Aitken and the able Wagstaffe, as well as a fiery, aristocratic youth named Paolo Orsini as his midshipman; ship’s master Southwick with his full range of expressive sniffs, red-faced marine lieutenant Rennick with his passion for cutting-out actions, American-born coxswain Jackson with his shrewd reserve, and the dear, familiar peanut gallery of seamen Stafford and Rossi, and others, serving at times as chorus to the developing suspense and intrigue of the mission.

Plus, you get to see all these familiar faces in a strange and perhaps hilarious disguise. In a ruse of diabolical cleverness calculated to get the Calypso past Santa Cruz’s impassible batteries, they become a shipful of mutineers themselves. The humor of the situation is somewhat tempered by the risk these men are taking, the risk of being shot as spies, and a very close-run risk at that as, inevitably, the plan comes off with hitches galore, and a tremendous explosion at the end.

Author Dudley Pope, himself a sailor who loved cruising the Caribbean, succeeds beautifully in this installment of a series that takes a deliciously slow-paced survey of Ramage’s naval career. In reality, he would already have taken more than his share of prizes as a frigate captain, but we don’t mind seeing the cruise go on. Perhaps less subtle than a Hornblower or Aubrey-Maturin novel, a Lord Ramage story is always worth reading for the sheer thrill and delight of being, as it were, an eyewitness to such daring exploits in an era when warfare was just deadly enough to make each battle really matter.

Recommended Age: 12+