The third packet of The Flashman Papers, published as Flash for Freedom in 1972 covers the years 1848/49, and takes up almost directly where Royal Flash leaves off. Once again, Flashman’s adventures involve no military campaigns and gain him no honours, but George MacDonald Fraser uses this book to send Flashman to America for the first time, and to focus his story upon the contentious issue of the Slave Trade.
I say contentious, and I mean contentious. This book was written over forty years ago, by an author who had no truck in later life with Political Correctness. It’s about a subject with very deep racial aspects, and it’s narrated by a man of the early-to-mid Nineteenth Century with an already well-established set of Victorian prejudices, overlaid by an innate lack of concern for his fellow man save as he can serve Flashman’s purposes.
This is not going to be a book in which comfortably liberal sympathies as to the horror of Slavery are going to be expressed.
Yet Flashman is honest, and Fraser is an honest historian. From both of them we get the Slave Trade seen from more practical angles than most contemporary histories are prepared to give. Fraser doesn’t pretend that the Slave Trade was anything but horrific, but neither does he shy away from plain speaking, pointing out that the trade could not have existed, let alone proliferated without the active participation of black chiefs herding and selling their beaten enemies and their surplus young tribesmen and women to the white traders.
And he cannot help pointing out that the anti-slavery campaigners may have been hot against the trade as it applied to poor black tribes, but that they were perfectly willing, and sometimes actively engaged in allowing the working class of their own country to work in conditions of abject poverty, cruelty, misery and despair: in short, an effective slavery that was less escapable than the ‘official’ Trade.
Fraser adopts a similar structure to Royal Flash to set up his story: there is an early phase, two, in fact, one minor, one major, this time without the separation in time, before he finally gets to the meat of his story a third of the way into the novel.
It all starts from Flashy’s return from Europe, where the Revolutions of 1848 have been chasing each other across the continent. In Britain, this doesn’t get further than the great Chartists’ Petition, which has its absurdities that Fraser and Flashman both highlight.
But whereas Flashy can’t take the Chartist Petition seriously, his miserly Scottish father-in-law does. He’s in terror of the revolutionary ingratitude of the working class (oh, he’d have been voting for Margaret Thatcher all right) and he’s thinking of buying himself a dozen MPs in order to be as reactionary as is humanly possible. And he’s considering Flashman as one of them.
Considering his recent experiences, Flashman, despite being wholly apolitical, is perfectly willing to set himself up in the House of Commons, away from being shot at, so Morrison arranges a weekend away at a political house party to set Flashy up.
It’s intolerably boring, the only interest being in the prospective conquest of Miss Fanny Locke (who will shortly become Mrs Fanny Duberly, who will write books about British Army campaigns that are still highly regarded today). But there’s a fly in the ointment in the shape of Bryant, Flashy’s old toadie from the 11th Hussars, who pimped and such for him and who ensured that when Flashy took part in his famous duel, his opponent didn’t have a ball in his pistol.
And over a friendly card game in the evening, Bryant frames Flashy as a card cheat, at which Flashy loses his head, knocks Bryant down the stairs and fractures his skull.
So much for politics: what Flashy needs now, once it’s clear he’s not actually killed Bryant, is to be hied away elsewhere until the scandal dies down. That a furious Morrison, complete with threats to completely cut him off from Elspeth (who is pregnant) and, more importantly, money, undertakes by sending Flashy to the South Coast to await the arrival of Captain John Charity Spring, defrocked Oxford Don with a thirst for the classics (in Latin, naturally), who is to taken Flashman onto his ship, Bailliol College, as supercargo.
It isn’t until Flashy has boarded off Dieppe, off the coast of France, and is under way, that he twigs why the ship has such a large hold consisting of shelves with chains attached…
And Flashman so does not want to be part of any such thing, not for any ethical reasons, because Flashy doesn’t have any, but sheer, naked fear of the potential outcome if they’re caught. And you know that, despite the profusion of testimonials Captain Spring has from all sides as someone who does not get caught, that sooner or later it’s going to happen, simply because Flashy is on the ship.
Fraser has ample time to educate us as to the realities of the Slave Trade as it was being practiced, and even Flashman confirms his disgust at the process, and regards it as hell, though he is also critical of the fact that, by sheer weight of numbers, the slaves could at any time have overcome the slavers and killed them all, but that they lacked the mentality to do so.
Spring himself is an object of fascination: a tyrant, a madman, an obsessive, and altogether someone who simply sails outside the bounds of rational humanity, but who Fraser brings to life as someone as real as any of the madmen he has already portrayed in the series, and who have been historical figures that have been drawn from life. There is no difficulty in taking Spring for what he is.
Two other crew-members ought to be mentioned. One is the ratty little cabin boy, who gets left behind with King Gozo of Dahomey. He’ll be referred to later in the penultimate book, but in a story finally published in book form after being commissioned for the Sunday Times in 1972, making it contemporaneous to this novel.
The other, and of more immediate importance, is third mate Beauchamp Comber or, to give him his full title, Lieutenant Comber of Her Majesty’s Navy, an undercover agent set on exposing the slave trade. Flashy knows the type, one of Arnold’s boys, the little Christian heroes, like Brown and East (whose death Flashman foreshadows without at this point revealing that he was present). But Comber gets a native spear under the ribs and, mistaking Flashman for someone who cares, confides his role, and his papers to him, expecting Flashman to use them to bring the slavers to justice. Flashman’s intention is to use them to blackmail his father-in-law, who is incriminated up to the eyeballs.
On the other hand, when the Balliol College is attacked in the Caribbean by the American Navy, and attacked successfully despite Spring’s record, Comber’s papers and his ID come in very handy to identify H Flashman Esq. as a Royal Navy undercover agent.
Naturally, the US Navy is delighted to welcome Lieutenant Comber, and even more so the information he can give them to enable them to put an end to this accursed trade. So Flashy has the unenviable and hugely amusing task of steering between proper, many, modest acceptance of his lionisation, fear of discovery of his real identity, and honourably refusing to give Brother Jonathan (a pre-Uncle Sam term for the Americans) any concrete information whatsoever.
Being Flashy, he manages it beautifully, though there is one figure in Washington who seems to see straight through him and finger him for a rogue who has never been anywhere near any Navy. This is a Member of Congress, a tall, ugly-looking fellow with deep-burning eyes, a lantern jaw and a cowlick of black hair falling across his forehead. We do not need Flashy’s confirmation of his name to recognise him immediately as Abraham Lincoln.
Still and all, maybe only Lincoln spots Flashy’s pretences but the Navy aren’t letting him out of their sight whilst there’s the chance of him providing any information. Besides, they’ll need him in New Orleans for the trial, eh, which is the last thing Flashy wants to appear at. So, the first opportunity he gets, our hero ducks out and goes to ground.
Here follows a spot of useful advice for handsome young men needing a bolthole in a strange town. Tour the brothels until you find a specific kind of Madam: late-Forties, a bit over-fleshed but still interested in handsome young men. Flashman winds up hanging around in the establishment of Mrs Susie Willinck, who is soon sufficiently impressed with his, ah, stamina, to arrange passage out of town onto a ship for England.
Needless to say, Flashy doesn’t get there.
Fraser is having the time of his life, throwing in obstacle after obstacle to Flashman’s simple return to civilisation. The next one is the Underground Slave Railway, in awe of Lieutenant Comber’s activities, and kidnapping ‘him’ to escort a prominent black slave/philosopher, George Randolph, and run him up the Mississippi to freedom.
Flashy has no recourse but to accept this unwanted burden, which becomes all the more unwanted the moment he sets eyes on Randolph, who is cold, aloof, demanding and self-entitled. It’s a controversial section: Flashy doesn’t start off with any sympathies towards Randolph, and the latter surely doesn’t improve on that basic indifference: he is completely unable to accept that his escape relies upon his playing the part of a subservient slave until he is on safe ground, and his constant demands that Flashy acts completely and exaggeratedly out of his supposed character as a slave owner risks drawing attention at every moment, and ultimately draws exactly the wrong attention from the wrong man, one Peter Omohundro, a former owner.
Randolph is exposed exactly as Flashman warned he would be, and gets a shot in the back. Flashy takes a dive off the Riverboat into the Mississippi, still no nearer to getting out of the South, let alone onto a ship to England.
His next phase is to change his name again (to Tom Arnold), and fetch up as an overseer at a cotton plantation where he stays the winter, into 1849. It’s an easy life, especially for someone with Flashy’s bullying steak, but unfortunately, the plantation owner’s wife, the diminutive Annette Mandeville, decides that overseer Arnold would be better off screwing her than the slaves.
But this is the point where it all turns deadly serious, in a blackly humorous way. Mandeville’s first reaction is to beat his overseer to a pulp, whilst simultaneously denying that his darling wife had any part to play in this: it was a ravishment, d’you hear? His cronies, whilst professing to believe that, have a rather more cynical punishment. One is returning a runaway slave to Alabama: he offers to take Flashy with him – as a black slave.
It’s a moment of doom for our hero, a fate that, once commenced, is literally inescapable and, given his involvement in and around the Slave Trade, however reluctantly, one that’s oddly justified. But all is not yet lost for Flashman: his fellow ‘slave’ is a resourceful young woman named Cassie (Cassiopeia) who is prepared to tempt their transporters into screwing her, so that she can get to a knife and a gun and kill both.
So it’s back to the Mississippi for Flashman, or James Prescott as he now is (names are an ever-changing business in this book). All Mr Prescott has to do is get his slave-girl Cassie upriver but, despite her co-operation and acquiescence in her role, he’s no more successful than he was with George Randolph. By an accident due to inattention and comfort at the fact that he’s screwing his way up the river with Cassie, Flashman manages to book tickets on a downriver steamer, back into slave territory.
The pair head north again, though by now the pressure is telling severely on Cassie. Ultimately, in sight of freedom, but on the wrong bank, she snaps. The pair have to run, and run across the ice, jumping from floe to floe, with slave-stealers on their tails – literally in Flashman’s case as he is shot in the buttock!
It’s all very Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Fraser suggests in the footnotes that, like Royal Flash, this is probably the original source for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic book. But the climax is reached when, having got to the town, Flashman and Cassie seek refuge, only for the slave-stealers, as they are legally entitled to do, to invade the house of their helpers, threatening to drag them back.
Until they’re confronting by one of the guests, who faces them down in a stirring manner, showing the force within him: shortly to leave office congressman Lincoln.
It’s a classic confrontation, and in any other book it might be the finale, bringing Flashman’s panicky adventures up and down the Mississippi Valley to a secure end. But of course that’s not it: Tom Arnold, James Prescott, Mr Lincoln knows our hero as Beauchamp Comber, RN, and there’s the small matter of a trial down in New Orleans, for which Comber’s evidence is required…
So all that running around, and Flashy hasn’t got away after all. It’s enough to make you believe in God after all, but the old rogue isn’t dead yet, nor is he identified as his real self either – so long as the evidence he gives in a New Orleans court doesn’t convict John Charity Spring and his ship.
Once again, it’s a juggling match of considerable skill and cunning on Flashman’s part, to only give non-incriminating evidence without arousing the suspicions of the Navy that he’s been nobbled. And Flashy being Flashy, in a brilliant but draining performance, he gets away with it.
Of course, that doesn’t resolve Flashman’s overwhelming problem: getting the hell out of America before anyone asks him a question he can’t answer. On the other hand, there’s a ship leaving New Orleans very very shortly, and if it means sacrificing the precius information he was going to use to blackmail Morrison (he’s always got the knowledge) to pay for his passage, well, it’s worth it. So he asks Captain Spring for passage!
That’s not quite the end, though it would be years and another four books before we would realise how not the end it was, but in the meantime, Fraser, recognising and respecting a gigantic punch-line when he writes one, left it there, but for a ‘clipping’, attached to the final page, setting out the obituary of John Morrison, in January 1949, whilst Flashman was bigging it up at the Mandeville Plantation.
I thoroughly enjoy Flash for Freedom for its fast pace and its ever-extending series of absurd situations that Flashman falls into in his desperate attempts to avoid the consequences of his own failings. It’s a far better structured book in that its separate phases are consecutive, and there is no awkward time-lapse as in Royal Flash. On the other hand, I wasn’t impressed by Fraser re-using the notion that Flashy’s ‘real’ adventures are the basis for a piece of famous fiction.
This was not a trope that would be repeated, for which I am grateful, as it tended to cheapen the books by emphasising points at which Fraser was borrowing from older, more respected fiction.
What’s also very noticeable is a motif that Fraser introduces to this volume, and which he then hammers constantly, and that is that Flashman is the engine of all his own travails. Constantly, Flashy is shown as making decisions, some important, most comparatively trivial, that with the benefit of his considerable hindsight, will lead him into disasters and terrible times. Laziness, complacency, even quaking cowardice, the list of factors is unending, but with an inevitability that suggests the presence of some kind of tutelary deity, time and again, it’s Flashman’s own fault that he is shrieking with terror once more.
But, inevitably, we must come back to the underlying theme of Slavery. In an era when liberal sympathy insists that the depiction of such horrible things not be attempted without a clear, accompanying condemnation of it, usually through the person of the hero himself, Flash for Freedom will inevitably attract harsh words.
I’m not saying that they aren’t deserved: Flashman is not an abolitionist and when he is placed in command of slaves, his worst traits come out like the swallows returning from Capistrano. There is even a moment, when he seduces Cassie, and she gives herself freely, the first man to whom she has not surrendered under coercion, when she describes Flashman as kind, and he mocks her, albeit gently, as being such an innocent that she cannot (yet) distinguish between kindness and the absence of cruelty.
But good historical fiction is an accurate reflection of its time. It does not superimpose anachronistic liberal ideals onto a time that had no conceptions of them, it does not portray the Twentieth/Twenty-First Century as existing long before it came about. It is honest to the times it depicts, and to the thoughts and actions of the men and women of that time, and it should be possible for the intelligent mind to condemn slavery for the abomination it was and still is, without the requirement that the men and women of a slaving society condemn it as well.
Unless you can read Flash for Freedom with that in mind, I would advise you not read it at all. After all, the very title is a complete irony: nowhere in this book is Harry Flashman concerned for anybody’s freedom except his own..
History and Memories
This little section will follow each blog. It will focus on those moments in each book where Flashman’s reminiscences touch upon periods of his career not directly related in The Flashman Papers, and those moments when Flashman’s memory lets him down and contradicts his ‘official’ record.
P75. Flashman compares the meeting in Captain Spring’s cabin, professionally and impersonally discussing the exact requirements for transporting adult slaves across the Atlantic with other, equally astonishing meetings he’s witnessed: General Grant and General Lee at Appamatox farmhouse, Lords Cardigan and Lucan at Balaclava. This latter will appear in his next book, but like the many, myriad references to the American Civil War down the years, we will never learn how these glimpses cohere in a story.
P139. Flashman, not necessarily meaning it as a compliment, comments that the simplistic decency of Captain Abraham Farebrother (who captures the Balliol College) could have been used by Dr Arnold at Rugby School and several of him by ‘Young Chard’ at Rorke’s Drift. Flashman’s adventures in the Zulu Wars are another gap in the Packets.
P194. Flashman, steaming up the Mississippi on a riverboat, refers to many years later, ‘booming’ down it with the Union Army.
P295. Flashman initially meets Abraham Lincoln in Washington, on p147, but their second meeting is of far greater import, as Lincoln’s natural combativeness, not to mention curiosity about ‘Beauchamp Comber’ (beach comber?) leads him to rescue Flashman from the slave-stealers, before despatching him to New Orleans. Flashman comments that he was not to see Lincoln again until that ‘fateful night’, fifteen years later, when, as President, he ‘bribed and coerced’ Flashy into ruining his military reputation and risking his neck to rescue Lincoln’s Union. That would make it 1864. Later references to Flashy’s Civil War experiences will suggest that Lincoln pushed him into service at an earlier stage than this.