To the Heart of the Nile: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa

by Pat Shipman
ISBN: 0060505559

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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 father again.
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 March, 1916.

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.

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