Flashman’s history

Harry Paget Flashman VC, KCB, KCIE (1822-1915) was a famous Victorian English soldier who had the rare distinction of being the subject of two best selling books.

The first was Tom Brown’s School Days, an 1857 novel by Thomas Hughes depicting life at Rugby Public School in which Flashman is portrayed as a school bully. The second was the Flashman Papers, a collection of his personal reminiscences in manuscript which was edited by George MacDonald Fraser and published as 12 separate books 1969-2005, all giving a sardonic view of the despicable underside of Imperial rule, and a superb history of the 19th century British Empire.

1 Flashman

The exposé

The Flashman Papers reveal what all the pageantry, uniforms and rhetoric conceal, that men are frightened of death, pain and danger, and will do anything to evade them.

Motivated entirely by lust and cowardice, Flashman is involved in his adventures firstly by his need to get every attractive woman he meets into bed (or any other handy place). This invariably leads him into conflict with a number of formidable villains who do him harm. While frantically trying to evade their machinations, Flashman makes friends with all kinds of unlikely people, many through his only skill (other than his ability to attract women). This is a remarkable skill with languages.

Flashman’s frantic efforts to escape danger inevitably leave him the apparent hero of events he unwillingly participated in. He appears at all times in his reminiscences oblivious to this subversion of the glory of Empire, but family members must have been responsible for suppression of the Papers until their discovery in 1966 and subsequent publication by Fraser.

The saga

The Flashman Papers collectively are one of the best history books written covering 19th century Britain and its empire, caustic, cynical, funny and exciting reading. Those with an interest in history but ignorant of the details of 19th century British imperial expansion can read in the Flashman Papers an unvarnished, but thanks to Fraser, a verified account, of what happened, written by one who was there, usually unwillingly and trying desperately to run away from every danger.


The Flashman Papers begin with an account of the years 1839-1842, published under the title Flashman (Herbert Jenkins London 1969). Flashman gives some autobiographical information, expulsion from Rugby, and enrolment in Lord Cardigan’s 11th Light Dragoons. A duel gone wrong sends him to Scotland to lie low, where he meets and marries his wife Elspeth Morrison. The marriage earns Flashman dismissal from the Dragoons and a transfer to a fighting regiment in India, as Elspeth is a commoner, and Flashman a disgrace to the regiment in Lord Cardigan’s opinion. From there it was a short step into the thick of the First Afghan War. Between 1839 and 1842 the Great Game began, with the British campaigning to contain Russia, whom they feared would invade India and detach it from the rule of the East India Company. The British dethroned an Amir with pro Russian sympathies, appointed a pro British and unpopular successor, and settled an occupying force in Afghanistan. Arrogance, poor diplomacy, ignoring signs of mounting unrest and poor discipline in the army led to eventual British defeat. The British retreated from Kabul and attempted the passes in the Khyber while under harassment of sizeable Afghani forces, and the army was destroyed, losses being reported of over 16,000 men. (Any resemblance to the USA’s long war, since 1996, against the Taliban, and its inconclusive results, could possibly be coincidental, but the 19th century conflict avoided the rhetoric about Muslim terrorism and the fight for Democracy). A disciplined army and modern firepower finally won the war for Britain. The war failed in its objective, as every war does; and Empire contains the seeds of its own dissolution. Flashman’s account is strictly accurate, Fraser finds, and as detailed as only a participant can make it. Read how Flashman ran away from a losing army, tried to surrender, was the only survivor of a battle and ended up a hero and symbol of British might. •••••

4 Flash mountain of light


The story continues with the title Royal Flash (Pan London 1970). The book begins with an account of the meeting between Flashman and the frightful Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), and then the lovely but dangerous Lola Montez (born Eliza Gilbert in county Sligo 1821-1861). This is a preamble to later events. ••••


Flashman has nothing more on his mind than a game of cricket, and is persuaded to go on a pleasure cruise to Singapore courtesy of a plausible villain, who there kidnaps his wife and is revealed as a Borneo pirate. Flashman meets James Brooke (1803-1868), the ‘White Rajah’ of Sarawak, who is engaged in the eradication of pirates from Borneo waters. Flashman joins in the expedition, but is caught by the pirates, and ends up in Madagascar. He becomes a prisoner of Queen Ranavalona I (1778-1861). The larger story is that of the expansion of the European empires in both these areas, but Flashman’s reminiscences are mainly of his own adventures, which read at times like a RM Ballantyne or Rider Haggard novel (In fact Brooke was a model for Conrad’s Lord Jim). The excerpt from the Flashman Papers includes on this occasion extracts from the kidnapped Elspeth Flashman’s diary, but as the lady is uniformly silly these become tedious. The story is told in Flashman’s Lady (Barrie and Jenkins London 1977). •••


Flashman gives the incredible but true story of how British India and the Raj were created as the result of the First Sikh War. The story is told in Flashman and the Mountain of Light (Collins Harvill London 1990). The Sikh religion was founded about 1500 AD by Guru Nanak, and by the 17th century the Sikhs had combined to form the Khalsa, a powerful military force  dominating the Punjab and NW India. As the East India Company consolidated their position in East India they formed an uneasy alliance with the Sikhs, who kept the Afghans and the Russians out of India. Maharajah Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) had the most powerful and effective fighting force in Asia, but on his death, his empire started to collapse through dynastic intrigue allowing the army to take control. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities with the British, power was precariously held by Jind Kaur (1817-1863), last wife of Ranjit Singh and Regent for her son Duleep Singh. Reputed a nymphomaniac and a drunkard, and known for her cruelty to enemies, Jind Kaur was yet highly popular. This was the woman Flashman is sent to negotiate with. He finds himself at the heart of a bloody faction fight at the Sikh court between the British, Jind Kaur, and the Khalsa. (Jind Kaur was then the owner of the Koh-i-Noor (Mountain of Light), one of the largest known diamonds, now in the possession of the British Crown). War broke out between the Khalsa and the East India Company, lasting a period of little more than two months in 1845/6.  Flashman meets two adventurers, Alexander Gardner (1785-1877) from Wisconsin; and Josiah Harlan (1799-1871) from Pennsylvania, the original of Kipling’s ‘man who would be king’. In battle the army and the Sikh command were at loggerheads. Rather than winning the battles, the British watched as the Sikh forces defeated themselves, leaving the British in control. A fascinating account, in accord with other contemporary records. •••••


The story of Royal Flash (see above) continued. Flashman is lured to Munich by Lola Montez, and then involved in a plot which served Anthony Hope as the source of his 1894 best seller The Prisoner of Zenda. It all has to do with the Schleswig Holstein Question. These two duchies were part of the Danish kingdom (though independently ruled) but had a population the majority of whom were Germans. Germany wanted the two duchies within the German empire as part of Bismarck’s plan of unification of the German states to form a powerful central European state. France and Britain weren’t too happy about that, and supported the Danish claims on the duchies. The year 1848 saw a rash of revolutions across Europe, as developments in the Industrial Revolution empowered a newly wealthy middle class asking for a share in power. Both Denmark and Prussia were conservative powers, but there was much agitation in the two duchies for reform along class lines that threatened both powers’ claims to ownership. Eventually Germany won, with enough ill will between the European powers because of the dispute (and two later wars) to have some effect on the outbreak of WWI 50 years later. In the tiny duchy of Strackenz near Holstein there is a scandal concerning the heir to the throne which would play right into the reformers’ hands if publicly known, and Bismarck forces Flashman to impersonate the Crown Prince to avoid scandal and the ruin of all his schemes of unification. Flashman once again proves a reliable witness to history, and his cynical viewpoint gives a more realistic look at politicians’ rhetoric. ••••

5 Flash for freedom


Between 1526 and 1853 well over 12 million people were herded like cattle to the slaughter into unsanitary shipboard accommodation and bought across the Atlantic from the west coast of Africa to the Americas as slaves; most of them in the 18th and 19th century by British entrepreneurs, who were busy at home herding millions of poor Britons into horrifying working conditions in mines and factories. Of the Africans it is thought at least another 12 million died, most by callous disregard of their needs by the men who shipped them as a mere commodity for profit. By 1807 the practice of shipping slaves had been banned by Britain, slavers declared pirates who would be given the death penalty if caught, and the seas efficiently patrolled by the Royal Navy until the slave trade became unprofitable and ended about 1860. Flashman, a reluctant candidate for political office and urged to toady Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1891) gets embroiled in a card game scandal in Britain and is shipped out to America by his father in law to lie low. But his ship goes to America via Africa, captained by the insane John Charity Spring. Flashman finds himself in the slave trade, at a time when that involvement earned the death penalty. His woes are recounted in Flash for Freedom (Knopf NY 1972). Flashman is caught by the Navy, takes refuge in a brothel, forced to join the Underground Railroad smuggling runaway slaves to freedom in Canada, is discovered, and becomes a slave himself. He escapes, suffers an ignominious wound in his buttock and is rescued by Abraham Lincoln  (1809-1865). On the run in New Orleans, Flashman puts himself in the kindly hands of John Charity Spring. A look at slavery from all angles, with Flashman’s caustic asides adding humor to the exciting narrative. •••••


It was the subject of a thousand films and TV shows: the settlers heading West in their wagon trains, attack by hostile Indians, tragic loss of life, rescue by the US cavalry, and the resolve to build a better life in the West. Flashman and the Redskins (Knopf New York 1982) gives Flashman’s version of what westward expansion was like, and it was far from romantic. Desperate to leave New Orleans before the law catches up with him, Flashman falls into the hands of John Charity Spring again, but is rescued by a former mistress. He elopes with one of her girls (she’s a madam), sells the girl to Indians and joins what turns out to be a scalping party, hunting redskins (there were savages on both sides, Indian and white man). Captured by Indians, Flashman marries the Indian girl he has seduced and lives with the tribe. We learn much about the tribes, their politics and way of life, and how they reacted to the white invasion. Finally Flashman escapes the Indians, and is saved from pursuers by no less a person than Kit Carson (1809-1869), a scout and Indian fighter Flashman admires a lot. And finally he sails for home. •••••


Lord Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade has made that engagement during the Crimean War 1853-1856 the most famous cavalry charge in military history. In fact it was a futile blunder in a futile and tragically mismanaged war in which Britain and France sought to keep Russia out of Turkey. Flashman at the Charge (Barrie and Jenkins London 1973) tells the true story. It all started in London, with Flashman making efforts to keep Lord Cardigan (1797-1868) away from his wife Elspeth. He is made mentor of a German prince by Prince Albert, and is sent to the Crimea as part of that prince’s military education. Flashman participates in the celebrated charge, the fruit of the elderly commander Lord Raglan’s unclear instructions to Division commander Lord Lucan, who couldn’t understand them but didn’t want to admit it; and the arrogance of the martinet Brigade commander Lord Cardigan, who detested Lucan and wouldn’t remonstrate with him about the absurdity of the order to charge the Russian front, which was protected by Russian cannon on commanding heights to the right and left of the battlefield.  Flashman is taken prisoner, and this is just the start of his adventures. Treated leniently as a POW, Flashman overhears of a plan to attack India from the north and distract Britain from the war in the Crimea, as well as annexing all the small kingdoms of central Asia and making them Russian dependencies. Flashman escapes just ahead of a serf uprising, and is captured again but freed by tribesmen fighting to avoid Russian imperial ambitions. Flashman’s account gives a jaundiced overview of the war in the Crimea and of the high command, and throws light on Russia’s expansion into central Asia. Fraser edits it all into a thrilling adventure tale. •••••

6 Flashman and the Redskins


One of the most bloody and savage conflicts of the 19th century was the Indian Mutiny 1857-1859, in which first native army men then other groups among the population rebelled against the rule of the British East India Company, which was siphoning wealth from India back to Britain which really should have gone to the local Rajahs they thought. Flashman in the Great Game (Barrie and Jenkins London 1975) retails Flashman’s role in these events. The British Government is alarmed at Russia’s presence in Afghanistan and northern India, and sends Flashman as an agent familiar with local languages to investigate. He meets the delicious Lakshmabai, Maharani of Jhansi (1826-1858), who may or may not have seduced him but is in any case a keen politician and a great patriot. Unfortunately Flashman has to flee attacks by Thugs and takes refuge in Meerut, where the Mutiny began, then Cawnpore, where the most sickening of the massacres of white settlers took place. Fleeing desperately from every battle, Flashman ends up back at Gwalior as British reprisals begin. No matter how often he surrenders, his heroic reputation makes him a hero of every conflict, and a title and the VC are his reward. Out of the carnage emerged the British Raj, as the British Government took control of India. The political situation in Asia, the unjust rule of many Rajas, the effrontery and harshness of European rule and the savagery of Indian reprisals are treated clearly and concisely by Flashman, and edited by Fraser to make one of the most exciting of the Flashman narratives. Fraser assembles original sources that confirm the truth of Flashman’s account. •••••


John Brown’s crusade to free people of African blood (or, treasonable attack on unarmed citizens if you were a Southerner) at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 raised a storm that led inexorably to the American Civil War in 1861. Flashman and the Angel of the Lord (Harvill London 1994) gives Flashman’s role in the course of these events. This rather thoughtful account of John Brown’s (1800-1859) muddled and yet visionary raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry starts with Flashman en route home stopping at Cape Town, where he is shanghaied by an old enemy John Charity Spring and sent back to America, where he is a wanted man. There he finds himself blackmailed and embroiled in the war against slavery by no less than three organisations (one being the US Government) who want Brown to/not to attack, and then not be/be defeated and destroyed. All three groups think Flashman an intrepid and valorous hero, more fool they. Interested parties want the South to secede so they can be forced more securely back into the Union: secession was very much in the wind in 1859. Fraser finds verification of Flashman’s account in contemporary sources, and both he and Flashman give a clear account of Brown and the confused politics of the time. Flashman meets then Government man Allen Pinkerton (1819-1894), Robert E Lee (1807-1870) and is impressed despite himself by John Brown. ••••


In 1860 China was divided by two major conflicts. A militaristic Christian inspired movement known as the Taipings won a series of victories which left them in control of central and southern China for a time. The war lasted 14 years, 1851-1864, took 70 million lives, and ended only with the death of the Taiping leader, Hong Xiuquan, a crazed visionary who thought himself the younger brother of Jesus. Meanwhile the British were using their superior armament power to force trading concessions from China. This process included two periods of the Opium Wars, 1839-1842 and 1856-1860.  China resisted, but Britain, who manufactured opium in India harvested by the East India Company, used its victories to force acceptance of the trade. Into this unsettled state of affairs comes Flashman, commissioned as a special agent by British consul Harry Parkes to treat with the Taipings. Flashman’s adventures are described in Flashman and the Dragon (Collins Harvill London 1985). He begins as an unwitting gun runner, is attacked by pirates and bandits, sent to the Taipings, and back again with their proposals, is captured by the Qing government army, and ends up the sex slave of concubine Yehonala (Empress Dowager Cixi 1835-1908). Flashman is on hand to see the British enter Beijing, and the destruction of the Summer palace area, its buildings and art treasures and 200 years of inspired landscape gardening, a major piece of barbarism on a par with the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258. Britain was forcing through trade treaties with China at this time, including the trade in opium. The destruction of the Summer palace was like taking to the Parthenon friezes with jackhammers, or smashing the Crystal Palace to smithereens. It was a model for the Cultural Revolution 100 years later. China signed on the dotted line. In this episode of his memoirs Flashman is on the sidelines of events and his account is less clear than usual, though it is in accord with other sources given by Fraser. •••

8 Flash and great game copy


1858 had seen the Indian Mutiny. 1884 was to see the fall of Khartoum and the heroic death of General Gordon. But in 1867 the concern of Britain was the handful of British officials and missionaries held prisoner and tortured in Magdala in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) by its emperor Theodore (1818-1868), who reportedly had gone insane. Britain must be seen to intervene decidedly, and a huge sum was voted by Parliament for the relief of Magdala and the prisoners, £9m. The problem was that most of the route to and in Ethiopia was uncharted, there were no roads or other transport available, and the mountainous terrain was filled with many rival warring nations who would be glad to plunder such a British force and who hoped to replace Theodore with their own king. The British commander Sir Robert Napier (1810-90) was successful, and his achievement compared to Hannibal’s. The process of getting the army to Magdala was much more difficult than any battle fought. The Emperor had virtually no allies and very few of his soldiers remained in the ranks, and he eventually committed suicide. From a British perspective it was overkill. Fleeing from a vengeful relation who objected to his educational efforts towards a young girl on her way to marriage in Germany, Flashman is persuaded to bring campaign funds to Napier’s army in Ethiopia. Somehow he ends up as an agent for Napier, and his thrilling experiences are recounted in Flashman on the March (Harper Collins London 2005). This is the last published excerpt of the Flashman Papers (so far). A trifle disjointed, a bit diffuse, we follow Flashman as he escapes torture and imprisonment, as usual tries to surrender whenever in danger, and resolutely seduces all the attractive young women in sight despite his advancing years, and emerges with more prestige than ever. •••


An appendix to Flashman and the Redskins (above) gives the story of Flashman’s later sightseeing trip to the USA with his wife Elspeth. President Grant wants his help with the morally suspect negotiations with the Indians, designed to get them on reservations and stop fighting (surrender in other terms). Flashman meets George Custer (1839-1876) and Geronimo (1830-1909), two great soldiers on opposite sides, and Geronimo considerably saner than Custer. The woman Flashman had sold to the Indians has him kidnapped and sold into Indian slavery or, more likely, death by flaying. He is saved by being on the site of the battle of the Little Bighorn when it erupts, and escapes in the confusion. Flashman gives an admirably clear account of the battle, including the fact that he may have accidentally shot Custer. Flashman is wounded, but saved from Indian scalp hunters by his own son, born of the prostitute he had sold to Indians. He arrives in Deadwood to meet an old friend, Wild Bill Hickok (1837-1876), only a few hours before Hickok was killed by a shot in the back. Flashman leaves just before the shooting. This is an admirably lucid account of the Indian wars and the ‘wild west’ and agrees closely with other primary sources. •••••


Flashman and the Tiger (Knopf New York 2000) consists of three minor extracts from the Flashman Papers. The first is The Road to Charing Cross, which covers the years 1878 and 1883/4, in which Flashman inadvertently saves the Austrian Emperor from assassination. The second is the brief piece The Subtleties of Baccarat covering the years 1890-1891, in which a social scandal engineered by Flashman, and by his wife, affects the Prince of Wales. The third is the equally brief Flashman and the Tiger, for the years 1879 and1894, in which Flashman comes up against Tiger Jack Moran, attempts to murder him but is saved the trouble as Moran is arrested by Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson and charged with murder himself. No involvement with major events in any of these extracts, but entertaining accounts of Flashman surviving as he does best. The old soldier is at times long winded but still as cynical. •••

12 Flashman and the tiger

A true history

The Flashman Papers cover the period 1839 to 1894, Flashman is aged 17 to 72. There are missing segments for 1851-1853, 1861-1866, 1869-1874, 1877, and the years of retirement, 1895-1915. One hopes these will one day come to light.

As well as being entertaining and exciting reading, the Flashman Papers are among the best, and most realistic, history books ever written in my opinion. They agree with all other primary sources extant in the events they relate, and combine accuracy with a sense of immediacy from a participant in the action depicted.

Nevertheless a corrective to Flashman’s cynical viewpoint is needed, and can be found in these books I can strongly recommend.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown (Barrie and Jenkins London 1970) is the classic Indian version of the wars against the white man; and a great book as well.

The Reason Why, Cecil Woodham-Smith (Constable London 1953), on the Crimean War, once derided as ‘anti-British’, is now recognised as one of the greatest of history books.

Kim, Rudyard Kipling (Macmillan London 1927) presents the Great Game of espionage between Britain and Russia as Britain sought to contain Russian expansion at Afghanistan and save India. A great read.

The Chinese Opium Wars, Jack Beeching (Hutchinson London 1975). Good on political and military events but also gives the big economic picture of China’s role in British prosperity.

The White Nile and The Blue Nile, Alan Moorehead (Hamish Hamilton London 1960, 1962). A superb coverage of European involvement in Africa focusing on the Nile, and covering the Abyssinian Expedition.

Finally, praise must be given to George MacDonald Fraser, one of the best of historians and a great 20th century writer in English.

©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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