To the Heart of the Nile: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa|
by Pat Shipman
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|A Review of: To The Heart of the Nile: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa
by Christopher Ondaatje
One of the more unusual stories of the Victorian explorers was that
of Samuel Baker, whose epic journey with a fourteen-year-old Hungarian
slave girl to find the second of the great reservoirs of the Nile,
Lake Albert, was recounted in Baker's autobiography Albert Nyanza:
Great Basin of the Nile, published in 1866. It is a gripping story.
Then, almost a hundred years later, Richard Hall rewrote this
extraordinary chapter in the great saga of Victorian England with
his romantic adventure story Lovers on the Nile. Now Pat Shipman,
an American Professor of anthropology at the Pennsylvania State
University has deserted her recognised field of human evolution,
paleontology and anthropology to write an absorbing, but sometimes
speculative, biography of Florence Stasz, the girl the middle aged
Baker took with him to Africa for five years in an almost impossible
quest to search for the source of the Nile. In fact, Shipman's
biography often crosses the line into fiction, which, unfortunately,
lessens the credibility of her work. This is a pity because the
bizarre Florence Stasz epic has long deserved a plausible and
reliable profile (I don't agree with either the author or with
Bernard Malamud that "all biography is ultimately fiction").
Shipman almost succeeds-in part because she has had wonderful
material to work with.
Samuel Baker was born on 8th June 1821-the first son of a prosperous
commercial family in Enfield, Middlesex. As a young man he married
the local rector's daughter. His brother married her sister at the
same time in a double wedding, and the four went out first to the
family plantation in Mauritius and then to Ceylon in 1843, where
they started a British settlement, eventually called Nuwara Eliya,
in the highlands. The Baker family grew. Sam and his wife Henrietta
had seven children, three of whom died young. Twelve years later
the elder Baker returned to England where his wife succumbed to
typhus and also died. Thus, at thirty-four, Samuel Baker was suddenly
widowed with four young daughters and no profession. Restless,
rootless, and alone in lodgings in London, Baker left his four
daughters with his unmarried younger sister, traveled aimlessly,
and for a while toyed with the idea of joining Livingstone's 1859
expedition to Africa. Instead, meeting the young Maharajah Duleep
Singh on the Duke of Atholl's shooting estate in Scotland, he
embarked on a hunting trip to central Europe (the Balkans: wild
boar in Serbia, bear in Transylvania) with stops in Frankfurt,
Berlin, Vienna and Budapest. It was almost at the end of this fateful
journey that Baker, and by now the grumbling Maharajah, hired an
insecure wooden boat in Budapest which was eventually abandoned on
an ice floe on the Danube. From there they limped into Viddin
where, one afternoon, and simply to amuse the Maharajah, Baker went
to the Viddin slave market.
Florence Stasz's story is very different. As a very young girl she
followed her father, who was in the army, from Nagy-Enyed in
Transylvania, during the Hungarian Revolution, to Temesvar. After
their defeat most of her family were murdered by the Vlad peasants.
The tiny frightened girl walked with her wounded father 120 miles
from Temesvar to Orsova on the Danube. This was in 1849. From there
Florence was sent to a refugee camp in Viddin. She never saw her
After the war she was kidnapped from the refugee camp and sold to
Armenians to be raised for the harem. For the next few years the
child was pampered and treated kindly, never realising she was a
slave until the day of the auction. She presumed, understandably
enough, that she had been adopted by the Armenian family.
What happened then in the 1859 Viddin slave market is a story right
out of the Arabian Nights. Dumb with outrage as she was introduced
to the audience, she must have been astonished when she realised
that Baker, the only fair-skinned Englishman in the audience, was
aggressively bidding for her against the wealthier Pasha of Viddin,
who eventually paid the higher price. As Shipman then tells the
story, Baker then bribed the eunuch in charge of Florence Stasz,
abducted the hapless Hungarian slave girl, and fled the town of
Viddin with the confused Maharajah in some hastily arranged coaches.
Eventually arriving in Bucharest, the Maharajah Duleep Singh departed
for Italy, and Samuel Baker and his young charge were left alone
to ponder their future.
Before Baker and Florence Stasz left Bucharest, Baker had applied
for and was refused the new post of British Consul in Constanza.
Instead he received a position as Managing Director of a company
building a railway linking Constanza with Cernovoda on the Danube.
He convinced the long-time British Consul in Bucharest, Robert
Colquhoun, to issue a British Passport in the name of Florence
Barbara Maria Finnian-even though he knew that Florence was neither
British by birth nor by marriage. The legal age of consent in England
at that time was twelve years.
In 1856 African exploration and the source of the Nile River were
urgently debated in London learned societies. That year Richard
Burton and John Hanning Speke had marched from Zanzibar on the East
Coast into Central Africa. Three years later, in 1859, Speke had
returned ahead of Burton, announcing that they had accomplished
their aim, that he alone had discovered Lake Victoria, and that it
was the true source of the Nile. Sir Roderick Murchison, the
powerful President of the Royal Geographical Society, immediately
promised to fund and send Speke out to Africa again to confirm his
findings. Burton, arriving two weeks later, found that his companion
had received all the accolades and had been granted a second
opportunity to carve his name in fame. Thus Speke, with James
Augustus Grant, set out in 1859 with a plan to take the most direct
route possible to Lake Victoria and "then proceed up the shore
of the Lake until they verified that the Nile issued from its
northern end." To return they would march further northward
along the Nile until they reached Gondokoro, the most southerly
navigable point of the White Nile-hopefully by December 1861.
Even before Speke and Grant set out, Baker and his young companion
had decided that they too must go to Africa. "They would start
at the other end of the Nile at Cairo, and travel southward, hoping
to meet Speke and Grant en route." Baker returned to London
briefly in 1860 to sign off his railroad contract and, despite being
snubbed by the Royal Geographical Society (the organization refused
to lend him instruments because he was not a Fellow of the Society),
he set out with Florence in what was to be one of the most extraordinary
African journeys of discovery. They arrived in Cairo in March 1861.
Baker's well documented perilous five-year African experience is
now part of Victorian history, and the greater part of Shipman's
biography is a semi-fictional account of how the famous pair,
realising that a mid-19th century England was no place for them,
braved the black continent. Having somehow navigated the impregnable
Sudd to Gondokoro they encountered the half-starved Speke and Grant.
They confirmed that Victoria Nyanza was indeed the source of the
Nile, but that another important lake, Luta N'Zig, had not been
explored and might have a bearing on the Nile question. The Bakers
decided to find this other lake. Plagued by disease, desertion and
bilious fever, the Bakers were eventually imprisoned by the notoriously
hostile Bunyoro Chief, Kamrasi, who ultimately provided a "satanic
escort" for the sick pair to Luta N'Zig. Baker renamed the
lake Albert Nyanza on 15th March, 1864, after Queen Victoria's late
husband, the Prince Consort. Persisting up the eastern edge of the
lake they ascertained that the Nile both entered and exited the
lake. Going even further up the Nile they found the falls which
they named Murchison after the President of the Royal Geographical
Society. Then, still weak and plagued with sickness, they somehow
made their way back cross-country through the hostile Bunyoro Kingdom
to a plague-infested Gondokoro from which they escaped in a discarded
diahbah slave boat to Khartoum.
In 1865 they returned to England to acclaim. They were married
secretly and settled quietly in the West Country. Baker was knighted
by Queen Victoria; and the following year his book Albert Nyanza:
Great Basin of the Nile was published. The Prince and Princess of
Wales enjoyed the Bakers' company and invited them on a trip to
Cairo. Only Sam went as Florence was pregnant. In Egypt the Khediv
offered Baker a job to rule a vast region of Egypt and help eradicate
the slave trade along the Nile. He returned to England pleased with
his commission only to discover that Florence had lost the baby and
would never be able to have children. Florence grudgingly followed
Baker to Egypt in 1870, where he was given enormous power and a
small army to end the slave trade. However, his short tenure met
with fierce resistance. In April 1873 Baker's term as Pasha expired.
Back in England, the Bakers were honoured again. The next year,
in 1874, they found the house Sandford Orleigh near Newton Abbott
in Devon, where Sam's hunting trophies and mementos from their
adventures mingled with the trappings of a more elegant Victorian
existence. They were visited by General Charles Gordon in 1884, who
took on the task of evacuating British troops and citizens from a
besieged Khartoum. Florence had persuaded Baker not to accept this
suicidal mission. Her fears proved well justified since Gordon was
killed the next year in the fall of Khartoum.
The Bakers lived out their lives in Devon in quiet splendour. Samuel
Baker died on the night of 30th December, 1893. Florence lived
peacefully and quietly in Sandford Orleigh for another nineteen
years. When she died a short obituary appeared in The Times on 15th
BAKER on the 11th March, at Sandford Orleigh, Newton Abbott, FLORENCE
MARY BARBARA, wife of the late SIR SAMUEL WHITE BAKER, aged 74.
"The world took little notice. The Baker's remarkable deeds
had been eclipsed by war news. On the day that Florence's death was
announced eight hundred men were killed in the battle of Verdun.
The loss of one old lady who had escaped from a harem and explored
Africa twice with her lover seemed a small thing by comparison."
She deserved a better epitaph. And perhaps a biography that did
not rely quite so much on conjecture.