For Balladeer’s Blog’s Number One Harry Flashman Novel click HERE . For background info on George MacDonald Fraser’s infamous anti-hero Harry Paget Flashman you can also click that link.
9. FLASH FOR FREEDOM (1971)
Time Period: 1848-1849
Favorite Book Blurb: “Only Harry Flashman, that swashbuckling gremlin in the works of 19th Century history, could start out running for a seat in Parliament but wind up fleeing England over a gambling scandal, extortionately shanghaied onto a criminal slave ship, clashing with one of the African kings selling his own people to slavers, conning the American government, reluctantly working for the Underground Railroad and ultimately facing down a pack of southern slave-hunters side by side with a young Congressman named Abraham Lincoln.”
Synopsis: Wealthy John Morrison, Flashman’s hated father-in-law, still has Harry under his thumb money-wise. Morrison decides he wants a Member of Parliament in his control and figures Harry’s war hero status will make him a can’t-miss candidate.
For his part our scurvy protagonist gleefully anticipates all manner of graft money and getting to vote to send other people off to war for a change rather than being sent himself. With Morrison’s financial backing, Flashman finds himself in the political arena – an arena where other people are more skilled at cheating than he is.
Harry being Harry he also finds himself snogging in the grass with the real-life Fanny Locke (later famous as Fanny Duberly) and trading parlor-room insults with the likes of Benjamin Disraeli and Lord George Bentinck. At length a card-game scandal coupled with a charge of violent assault wind up forcing Flashman to flee the country for a few years.
With very few transportation options open to the on-the-lam scoundrel, Harry ends up on an outbound ship owned by his father-in-law but finds that he has once again gone from the frying pan into the fire. To Flashman’s great shock he learns that the ship he’s stuck on is a slaver – and that the illegal trade is a large part of John Morrison’s shady fortune.
Amid all this bad luck fate at last smiles on our protagonist when a crew-member that he befriends turns out to be an undercover Royal Navy Officer assigned to infiltrate and bring down Morrison’s sizable slaving operation. That officer – Lieutenant Beauchamp Comber – has clandestinely assembled a mound of incriminating evidence against Morrison and his agents.
This turn of events fills Flashman with hopes of at last getting out from under the thumb of his hated father-in-law … IF he can survive the slave-ship’s Africa-to-the-Caribbean run and get back to England in one piece. Naturally that’s easier said than done.
Armed now with a cutlass instead of his usual sabre and sporting Colt 5-shooters as well as a needle gun, Harry gets swept along into the gritty horrors of the African slave trade as practiced by Europeans and the Muslim world. George MacDonald Fraser’s descriptive powers are at their best as this hellish tableau is laid out.
King Gezo in Africa’s Dahomey region is one of the kings selling his own people to Morrison’s Captain John Charity Spring. Flashman, Spring and Spring’s crew pick up King Gezo’s latest unfortunates and conduct a meeting outside Gezo’s real-life Death House made of human skulls.
When Captain Spring tries to negotiate for something more than King Gezo and his people want to deliver a running battle breaks out pitting Flashman and his shipmates against Gezo’s real-life corps of elite female warriors. That thrilling action sequence is classic Fraser and takes place along a historically documented road made of human remains. A road surrounded on both sides by marshy, fetid swampland, thus dooming anyone knocked off the roadway during the bloody battle.
Beauchamp Comber is mortally wounded in that fight with its “truth is stranger than fiction” setting and Harry himself is lucky to escape the slow, tortuous death by flaying suffered by a few other crew-members. Weeks later, near Cuba, Spring’s ship the Balliol College gets into an epic sea battle with two American Navy vessels assigned to clamp down on slave-running.
(NOTE: Though slavery remained legal in the southern states until the Civil War, the importation of slaves was illegal by this point. That importation still continued as an outlaw trade and was a very lucrative criminal enterprise.)
With the Balliol College starting to lose that ship-to-ship battle Flashman’s survival instincts kick in and, courtesy of our wily protagonist, Captain Spring is shot down and Harry stops Spring’s crew from dumping their chained human “cargo” overboard to drown. Spring – like many other slavers – was more than willing to commit this heinous act to avoid being caught red-handed with live slaves on board.
Fraser’s storytelling prowess is further demonstrated by this. He once again has Harry doing the right thing but for the wrong reasons. In this case Flashman saves the slaves from being drowned but did it to save his own neck by making a great show of doing this in front of the approaching American Naval ships, then using the late Lieutenant Comber’s papers to claim that he’s a Royal Navy agent fighting the slave trade.
NOTE: This type of story element allows Fraser’s fictional Flashman to avoid having the reader hate him while still preserving his dark-humored ruthlessness and Byronic antihero status. In contrast the storyline in the movie Solo made Han Solo too goody-goody in his early career as a smuggler. George MacDonald Fraser excelled at writing roguish characters with a tangibly dangerous streak of black-heartedness. It’s what separates fiction’s true Bad Boys like Harry Flashman from the mere pretenders.
At any rate, these developments set the stage for the second half of the novel. Harry as “Beauchamp Comber” finds himself getting far more attention than he bargained for, given the strong feelings on both sides of the slavery issue in 1848 America. With the rest of the Balliol College crew facing hanging, Flashman has no choice but to continue his impersonation of the late Lieutenant Comber.
Like something from a Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce tale, Harry’s lies continue to snowball as he gets feted in Washington D.C. by assorted politicians, including one Congressman Abraham Lincoln. Abe senses something off about the scurvy Brit and uses seeming politeness mixed with alarming insinuations to set Flashman on edge, terrified that he’ll be exposed.
Lincoln comes across like a homespun Sherlock Holmes, chewing up Harry’s lies and spitting them out on the b.s. pile. Harry/ Beauchamp counters with an observation that Abe isn’t entirely on the level, either, masking his obviously calculating nature behind a facade of folksiness.
The two part on reasonably friendly terms, but Lincoln smilingly makes it clear that he knows Flashman/ Comber is conning everyone about being a naval officer. However, Abe also makes it clear that whatever the rascal is up to it doesn’t seem to pose any harm to him, so he shrugs it off and goes on his merry way.
When Harry is taken back to New Orleans he slips away from his American handlers and finds shelter in a whorehouse run by Susie Willink, a voluptuous MILF who takes a real shine to the British blackguard.
From there our main character’s fugitive status makes him throw in with the Underground Railroad (who think he’s Beauchamp Comber) as he hopes to reach Canada by joining the team of agents smuggling the real-life slave and future activist George Randolph north to freedom. As history tells us, chaos breaks out on the riverboat transporting Randolph and his Underground Railroad allies up the Mississippi, with Randolph escaping recapture and reaching Canada.
Flashman isn’t so lucky and remains on the run in the American south. Using a variety of aliases, Brett Maverick-style, the British scoundrel inches his way northward. Along the way he beds Annette Mandeville, a beautiful blonde plantation owner’s wife fond of using her riding boots’ spurs on her lovers.
Flashy is then sold into slavery himself by the furious MISTER Mandeville on the cuckolded husband’s word that Harry is partially black, a true damning to hell in those days of “one drop of negro blood” making a person subject to being sold.
Our protagonist ultimately escapes bondage with Cassy, a beautiful, educated household slave. They pay their way northward through the type of “sell the slave then help the slave escape and pocket the sale proceeds” con also depicted in the James Garner movie Skin Game (likewise from 1971).
By now it’s early 1849 in Flash For Freedom and Harry & Cassy have slave-hunters closing in on them even though they’ve reached Free Soil, thanks to the Fugitive Slave Act. One thing leads to another and the fleeing pair wind up having their paths cross with Flashman’s Washington DC acquaintance Abe Lincoln.
The future president faces down the pack of slave hunters with some backup from a few anti-slavery folks and so Harry and Cassy are saved.
COMMENT: The downbeat and outrightly hellish nature of the Atlantic slave trade & plantation slavery are the reason this novel is rated in 9th place by me. In my opinion Flashman’s Jack Sparrow/ Bret Maverick style adventuring doesn’t mesh as well with the atrocities of slavery as it does with the horrors the antihero witnesses elsewhere in his travels. Violent deaths on a massive scale are one thing, but the living hell of slavery is something entirely different.
Regular readers of Balladeer’s Blog know I’m not bound by PC wimpiness so you can rest assured I’m saying this with all sincerity and not because I’m trying to impress anybody.
George MacDonald Fraser’s writing is as solid as ever in this novel so it’s purely my own personal taste that makes me rate it so low compared to the other Flashman books. As always he uses science fiction methods of messaging but for stories set in the distant past instead of a hypothetical future. +++
FOR MY TENTH PLACE FLASHMAN NOVEL CLICK HERE
FOR MY DETAILED SPECULATIONS ON WHAT MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED IN THE FLASHMAN ADVENTURES REFERRED TO BUT NEVER FINISHED BY G.M. FRASER (like in the Australian Gold Rush, 2nd Opium War, Taranaki War and U.S. Civil War) CLICK HERE
FOR MY LOOK AT THE TOP SEVEN ROBERT LUDLUM NOVELS CLICK HERE
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