Monday, 16 August 1999

George MacDonald Fraser: Flash for Freedom! (1971)

Edition: Fontana
Review number: 312

By the third volume of 'the Flashman papers', George MacDonald Fraser has settled down into the style and mannerisms that mark the rest of the series to date. Indeed, from this point on there is an air of interchangeability about the novels.

The chronology of Royal Flash and Flash for Freedom leaves a gap of six or seven years (between parts one and two of Royal Flash), which will be filled in by later volumes in the series. The events of Flash for Freedom immediately follow the second part, and fall in 1848-9.

Flashman becomes involved in the slave trade, forced by his father-in-law to take a passage on a slave ship that he owns. As usual, he stumbles from one scrape to another, driven by his absolute cowardice. Although not an abolitionist - he considers them hypocrites, condoning the maltreatment of children in British mills and mines while pretending a concern for Africans who they have never seen - Flashman is surprised and horrified by the conditions on board the slaver. He is of course too cowardly to do anything about it, but he does give Fraser an opportunity to recount some of the more unpleasant stories of the trade at this period, based on his (as usual) meticulous research.

Being called to the deathbed of another crew member, Flashman discovers that Comber is in fact a naval officer, a spy on the slavers. (The Navy has been trying, since the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, to stamp out the British-owned vessels involved in slave trading.) When the ship (named the Balliol College as a gesture against the Oxford college which had thrown out the captain after a scandal) is captured by an American warship in the Caribbean, Flashman escapes the fate of the others by pretending to be Comber and to have important information about the influential backers of the trade. (In the 1840s, the US slavery laws were rather complicated, as the division over the issue which eventually led to the Civil War became apparent. Though slavery was legal, to bring in new slaves from overseas was not. Thus the crew of the Balliol College had to stand trial for doing so, even though they had already unloaded their slaves - even empty, to sail a ship equipped as a slaver was a crime.)

From this point, Flashman gets involved with the underground railroad, the network of abolitionists helping slaves to escape to Canada and freedom. All the while, the only thing on his mind is to find a way to avoid danger and get back to England in one piece.

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