“Flash for Freedom!,” by George MacDonald Fraser

10 Jan

“Flash for Freedom!” by George MacDonald Fraser (332p)
1848-1849: The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Underground Railroad

The third instalment in the late George MacDonald Fraser’s popular Flashman series is Flash for Freedom!. Written in 1971, this third book, continuing the false-memoir of a Victorian hero who is a really a down right bastard, sees Flashman tell of his first visit to the United States in 1848. There, he deals with the slave trade and the difficulties in beating it with the Underground Railroad, meeting a number of interesting people along the way, like a young Abraham Lincoln.

Beginning almost immediately where Royal Flash finished, Flashman is back in England after his nightmare in Germany with Otto von Bismarck. All he wants to do is do what Flashman does best – drink, gamble, whore and enjoy himself and his wife’s pregnancy. But his malevolent father-in-law has other plans and wishes to have Flashman elected as a member of parliament to push his own agenda. So he arranges for Flashman to be taken to a party of political types, including Benjamin Disraeli, to meet and greet and make an impression. He does this as he always does and bluffs his way through, putting on a show for members of the Tory party that he could be a possible MP. But as is often the case for Flashman things go wrong, and so one night during a game of cards an old nemesis returns to get some revenge on him. Outraged, Flashman strikes out and almost kills the man, thus creating a scandal that would need him to be out of England for awhile again. So Morrison, his father-in-law, sees him placed on a supposed merchant ship as a worker and is whisked out of England within a matter of days of the scandal.

However, Flashman is in for a rude surprise when he settles into life aboard the merchant ship, captained by the eccentric Latin-sprouting John Charity Spring. The ship, the Balliol College, is no ordinary ship – it is a slave-runner. Flashman is thrown into the world of the still thriving Atlantic slave trade and becomes complicit in all those crimes. He is forced to accompany them to the Dahomey coast (modern Benin) where Captain Spring has arranged with the local tribal king, Gezo, a purchase of a few hundred slaves in exchange for a number of European goods, namely weapons. But during the meeting Spring tests the patience of the king’s famed Amazon warriors too much and they react violently when he tries to buy six of them, and a bloody chase sees Flashman and the rest of the crew of the Balliol College run for their lives to the ship. They escape, just, and head for the Mosquito Coast (modern Nicaragua) to unload the slaves and receive payment. Along the way Flashman details the horrors of life aboard for those slaves and creates an image of the dirty, cramped and stinking hell those people endured before more of the same on land. Flashman finds himself hating it more than he has ever hated anything else and is beyond relieved when the slaves are unloaded. The journey is almost over and only requires the transport of less than ten slaves-turned-prostitutes to the United States, which is illegal, when they are spotted and captured by the United States Navy.

As ever, Flashman thinks on his feet and immediately assumes the identity of a secret Royal Navy agent on board who had been spying on Captain Spring. He bluffs his way out of capture and is taken aboard the American vessel, immediately being taken to Washington. In the American capital he bluffs his way through a number of glaring eyes, save for one, belonging to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln can sense Flashman isn’t who he says he is, but lets him go anyway, and allows Flashman to be taken to New Orleans for the adjudication of the Balliol College as a witness. But that would almost certainly reveal Flashman’s true identity and so he does what Flashman does best in that situation – he runs! Holding up in New Orleans for a few days, he is soon taken in by members of the infamous Underground Railroad, for his assumed identity is plenty well known. Flashman is roped into smuggling a former slave on the run, a slave who is also highly educated and whose intelligence is valued highly. He tries, but it, as usual, goes wrong and he flees to a secluded plantation in northern Mississippi where he takes work as a slave-driver for a few months, but that also goes wrong when the owner of the plantation catches Flashman in the middle of something (or, rather, someone) and he is forced to run again. This time he has another running slave with him, a woman named Cassy, and the two flee across the southern states, creating even more trouble, to the Mason-Dixon Line and Ohio.

They almost make it to Ohio via paddle steamer until they are spotted by slave-catchers and forced to run again, fleeing across half-frozen lakes and rivers and into friendly territory. In Portsmouth, Ohio they find refuge with Lincoln, in town for a debate on abolitionism. Lincoln sees Cassy a safe passage north and out of the United States to Canada, but does Flashman a real turn and orders him to return to New Orleans and be a witness against Captain Spring, which would almost certainly reveal Flashman’s complicity in all those crimes as well. With no way out he returns to New Orleans and sits the trial, only Flashman doesn’t exactly play ball with the United States government this time and ruins their case against Captain Spring. The story is later continued in Flashman and the Redskins.

This is a truly great novel and one of the best in the Flashman series. It is full of twists and turns that leave the reader flying through the pages at a very quick rate. The supporting cast in Flash for Freedom! is excellent, though. Fraser went to great lengths to create a supporting cast with so many interesting distinct personalities that are fleshed out. Each person Flashman meets has their own voice which gives the novel a fulfilling touch. In many ways Flash for Freedom! is a social commentary on pre-Civil War America and heavily covers the slave issue and abolitionism. I don’t doubt Fraser spent an immense amount of time researching to properly construct the pro/anti-slave sentiments throughout the novel and he certainly had a very good understanding of the system and how it worked. So in that respect is an enlightening look into pre-Civil War America told within the scope of a simple yet very enjoyable plot with a wonderful cavalcade of supporting characters helping Flashman along his way. I very much loved it.

Lastly, with the novel’s subject being the Atlantic slave trade and, in effective, a social commentary of a country hurtling toward a civil war over the slave trade, it is little surprise that during Flashman’s time aboard the slave-ship and in the American south there is a hell of a lot of racist dialogue. “N****r” appears throughout, as it should. As good as Flash for Freedom! is I would not recommend any person who becomes uncomfortable with that word and the sort of racism to be expected read this, for it will most definitely put you off it. It doesn’t bother me because “n****r” doesn’t have that impact on me due to where I was born and raised, but I completely understand why some people will not like hearing it. All the same, Flashman explains the hell that those people would have endured aboard the ship and then hears it himself from the runaway slaves he meets in his travels, and it is an eye opening experience for him and the reader. When he meets slave owners, slave runners and slave catchers it gives readers an idea of what life must have been life in that part of the world then and the sort of people who happily committed such violence against fellow humans, despite them not being considered human. He sees the racism they receive and it changes his character a little, but all the same it is very much there and will probably upset people sensitive to it.

9.5/10.

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One Response to ““Flash for Freedom!,” by George MacDonald Fraser”

  1. Dee July 25, 2009 at 6:12 am #

    It’s an excellent novel, but Fraser’s portrayal of the Underground Railroad is vastly exaggerated.

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