One of the more unusual stories of Victorian exploration was that of Samuel Baker, whose epic journey with a 14-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 (1866).
Almost 100 years later, Richard Hall rewrote this gripping tale as a romantic adventure, Lovers on the Nile . Now a US professor has stepped out of her recognised field, human evolution and paleontology, to write an absorbing, sometimes speculative biography of the girl, Florence Stasz, who became Florence Baker. In fact, Pat Shipman's biography, despite its interest, often crosses into conjecture, which, in my view, lessens its credibility; I do not agree with her (quoting Bernard Malamud) that "all biography is ultimately fiction".
The material she has to work with is wonderful. Baker, born in 1821, was married very young to the local rector's daughter, at the same time as his brother married her sister in a double wedding. The four of them went out 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. Sam and his wife, Henrietta, had seven children, three of whom died young. Twelve years later, he returned to England, where his wife succumbed to typhus, leaving him, aged 34, with four young daughters and no profession. Restless, rootless and alone in lodgings in London, Baker left his daughters with his unmarried younger sister and travelled aimlessly. He toyed with the idea of joining Livingstone's 1859 expedition to Africa, but met a young maharaja, Duleep Singh, with whom he embarked on a hunting trip in central Europe. Almost at the end of this fateful journey, having abandoned their boat on an ice floe on the Danube, they limped into Viddin, in Bulgaria, where, one afternoon, simply to amuse the maharaja, Baker went to the slave market.
As a very young girl, Florence Stasz had travelled with her soldier father during the Hungarian revolution. After the defeat of his army, most of her family were murdered by Vlad peasants. She walked with her wounded father 120 miles to Orsova on the Danube in 1849, and was sent to a refugee camp in Viddin; she never saw her father again. Kidnapped from the camp, she was sold to Armenians to be raised for the harem. For the next few years, pampered and treated kindly, she did not realise she was a slave until auction day.
What happened in the Viddin slave market comes 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 man in the audience, was aggressively bidding for her against the pasha of Viddin, who eventually paid the higher price. As Shipman tells the story - whether it is fact or fiction is not clear - Baker then bribed the eunuch in charge of Stasz, abducted the girl, fled Viddin with the confused maharaja in some hastily arranged coaches and eventually reached Bucharest, where the maharaja departed for Italy, and Baker and his young charge were left alone.
Before Baker and Stasz left Bucharest, he had applied for and been refused the new post of British consul in Constanza. Instead, having got a position as managing director of a company building a railway from Constanza to the Danube, he convinced the long-time British consul in Bucharest to issue Stasz with a British passport in the name of Florence Barbara Maria Finnian. He now made plans to go to Africa with her.
A few years before this, in 1856, Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke had marched from Zanzibar on the east coast of Africa into the centre of the continent. 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 offered Speke support for a further expedition. So the same year Speke, with James Augustus Grant, set out to go to Lake Victoria and "then proceed up the shore of the lake until they verified that the Nile issued from its northern end". For their return they planned to march further northwards along the Nile until they reached Gondokoro, the White Nile's most southerly navigable point - if possible by December 1861.
Baker, with his young companion, decided that they would start at the other end of the Nile, in Cairo, and travel southwards, hoping to meet Speke and Grant en route. He returned to London briefly in 1860 to sign off his railway contract and, despite being snubbed by the Royal Geographical Society, which refused to lend him its instruments because he was not a fellow, set out with Florence and arrived in Cairo in March 1861.
Having somehow navigated the impregnable Sudd to Gondokoro, the pair encountered the half-starved Speke and Grant, who confirmed that Victoria Nyanza was indeed the source of the Nile but that another important lake, Luta N'Zige, existed that had not been explored and that might have a bearing on the Nile question. Baker and Florence decided to find this unknown lake.
They were, at this stage, riddled with disease, desertion and bilious fever and were at first imprisoned by the notoriously hostile Bunyoro chief Kamrasi. They were then provided with a "satanic escort" to Luta N'Zige - which Baker renamed Albert Nyanza in 1864 after Queen Victoria's late consort. Persisting up the lake's eastern edge, they ascertained that the Nile both entered and exited the lake, and beyond this they found the falls that they generously named after Murchison. Then, somehow, weak with sickness, they made their way back cross-country through the hostile Bunyoro kingdom to plague-ridden Gondokoro, from which they escaped in a discarded slave boat to Khartoum.
England acclaimed them on their return in 1865. After marrying secretly, they settled quietly in the West Country. Baker was knighted by Victoria; and the prince of Wales invited them on a trip to Cairo. Only Sam went along, because Florence was pregnant. In Egypt, the khedive offered Baker a job: to rule a vast region and help eradicate the slave trade along the Nile. On return home, he discovered that his wife had lost the baby and would never have children. She grudgingly followed him to Egypt in 1870, where he was given enormous power and a small army. But Baker's regime met with fierce resistance. In April 1873, his term as pasha expired.
Back in England, the Bakers found the house Sandford Orleigh near Newton Abbott in Devon, where Baker's hunting trophies and mementos from Africa mingled with the trappings of Victorian country life. They were visited by General Gordon in 1884, who took on the task of evacuating British troops and citizens from a besieged Khartoum. Florence had persuaded Sam not to accept this suicidal mission, in which Gordon would die during the fall of the city.
Samuel Baker died in 1893 and was much honoured. His wife stayed on at Sandford Orleigh. When she died in 1916, only the barest information appeared in a notice in The Times . In Shipman's words: "The world took little notice. The Bakers' remarkable deeds had been eclipsed by war news.
On the day that her death was announced 800 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."
Florence Baker deserved a better epitaph.
Christopher Ondaatje is a council member, Royal Geographical Society, and author of Journey to the Source of the Nile .
The Stolen Woman
Author - Pat Shipman
Publisher - Bantam
Pages - 428
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 593 05006 1