Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Extemporaneous Elopement of the Adventurous Abolitionist

                      The truth is stranger than fiction. For example, consider the story of Sir Samuel White Baker. He was born into a wealthy commercial family in June 1821, was privately educated and graduated as civil engineer, after which he was employed building bridges and railways on the banks of the Danube and the shore of the Black Sea. 

Samuel White Baker

In 1843, he married Henrietta Martin and his brother, John, married her sister, Eliza, in a double marriage. The four emigrated together to Mauritius, where they oversaw the family plantation, before Samuel and Henrietta moved to Ceylon, where they founded a settlement. After twelve years of marriage Henrietta died from typhoid fever, and Samuel arranged for his four daughters to be raised by his unmarried sister, Mary, (two sons and another daughter had died in childhood). On a visit to Scotland, he became friends with Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire and presenter, in questionable circumstances, of the Koh-I-noor diamond to Queen Victoria. The Queen and Prince Albert were great friends of the Maharajah; she was godmother to several of his children and presented him with a substantial pension. In 1858, the Maharajah and Baker went on a hunting trip to central Europe and the Balkans, and the following year, at Vidin, (now in Bulgaria, then part of the Ottoman Empire), the two attended a slave auction. 


On the stand was a young, blonde, white girl and Baker instantly fell in love with her. She was Florenz Barbara Maria Szasz, said to have been born in 1841, although it is more likely she was born in 1845, a member of an aristocratic Transylvanian family who had been caught on the wrong side in the 1848 Hungarian revolution. Her family had been killed before her eyes and she was taken into slavery from a refugee camp, to become a harem girl. The Ottoman Pasha of Vidin bought the girl as an intended concubine but Baker had other plans for her. He bribed her guards and spirited her away to Romania, where they were supposedly married (the Victorian age of consent was 12) and where he completed his previous engineering work, before returning to England. 

Samuel and Florence White Baker

In 1861, Baker and Florence (as she was now called) departed for Africa, when he was forty and she was sixteen, intending to travel south from Cairo to the source of the Nile, and to meet the expedition, somewhere in the area of Lake Victoria, of John Hanning Speke and James Augustus Grant, who were travelling north from Zanzibar. By now, Samuel and Florence were inseparable; she wore to same uniform as designed by him, carried pistols in her belt, rode horses, mules and camels, and spoke English, Hungarian, Romanian, German, Turkish and Arabic. 

Baker's route to Lake Albert

In 1862, the Bakers arrived in Khartoum, “A more miserable, filthy, and unhealthy spot can hardly be imagined,” where they were astonished at the depths of Turkish corruption, mismanagement and barbarity. 

In his The Albert N'yanza, Great Basin of the Nile, and Explorations of the Nile Sources (1866), Baker describes in detail the horrors of the trade in slaves and ivory carried out by the Sudanese, and the problems encountered by travellers at the hands of the Turkish administrators. In December 1862, they departed in three ships to sail the White Nile from Khartoum and discover its source. 


They arrived at the trading post of Gondokoro (‘a perfect hell’), where his crew, led by an Arab, Eesur, threatened to mutiny but Baker bribed them with a roast ox. Soon after, Speke and Grant arrived and informed him that whilst they had been at Lake Victoria, they had information from a local chief that another, as yet unexplored, lake also fed its waters into the Nile. Speke wrote detailed information in Baker’s journal, of which chiefs to visit, which languages were spoken and where game could be found, and at the end of February Speke and Grant took charge of Baker’s boats and returned to England, via Egypt and Khartoum. 

Baker at Unyoro

Baker’s forward progress was halted when his Sudanese bearers again mutinied and were disarmed at gunpoint and the threat was made that if he moved south, he would be attacked by the slave traders, who suspected him of espionage. After prolonged negotiations, a tiny party of the Bakers and seventeen men departed in February 1864. 

Latooka funeral dance

Their journey was beset by difficulties, hardships and dangers but the Bakers endured, until they arrived on the shores of Lake Albert, which Samuel mistakenly thought supplied a far greater feed to the White Nile (it is only about 15% of the whole, the far greater majority coming from Lake Victoria). In a return journey of even greater perils, the Bakers eventually arrived back in England in October 1865. 

Lake Albert N'Yanza

He was awarded a Victoria Gold Medal by the Royal Geographical Society and Samuel and Florence were ‘officially’ married; he was knighted the following year. Queen Victoria refused to meet Lady Baker, as she and Samuel had not been married during their travels, in spite of assurances from many people tha she was a perfect lady. In 1869, Samuel accompanied the Queen’s son, Bertie (the future Edward VII) on a visit to Egypt, and the men became firm friends. 

A conflict with slave traders

Later in that year, the Khedive Isma’il Pasha (the Magnificent) requested Baker to take an armed force of Egyptian troops into the equatorial region of the Nile, in a bid to eradicate slave trading, raising Baker to the rank of Major-General in the Ottoman army and giving him the title of Pasha. With the establishment of the territory of Equitoria, the Khedive appointed Baker as the Governor-General for four years, at the astonishing salary of £10,000 per year. Throughout all the adventures, battles and hazards of these years, Florence was firmly by Samuel’s side. 

Samuel Baker Pasha

After his appointment had been fulfilled, Samuel was succeeded by Colonel Charles George Gordon (later, the famous General Gordon of Khartoum), and Baker spent much of his later life on safari, hunting big game in countries across the world, and writing several excellent books.

The Big Game Hunter

Samuel White Baker was every bit as remarkable as any of the Victorian explorers – Livingstone, Stanley, Burton, Speke, Grant, Park and the rest, but he is not as generally well-known as them, possibly because of his ‘unusual’ relationship with Florence (and his place in polite society was compromised further when his brother, Valentine, was found guilty of raping a woman in a railway carriage). 

Lady Florence Baker

He deserves to be better known as an explorer, naturalist, anthropologist, engineer, writer, geographer and, especially, as an abolitionist. His hatred of the slave trade was obviously a personal concern, considering the potential fate of Florence in Vidin, but it also shines through in the humanity of his writing. 

He died, as a result of a heart attack, in 1896, aged 71. Florence died twenty-three years later, in 1916, aged 74.

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