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Christopher Ondaatji

The Stolen Woman

by Pat Shipman

Bantam Press £16.99

One of the more unusual stories of the Victorian explorers was that of Sir Samuel Baker, and his 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 wonderful 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 speculative biography often crosses the line into fiction and here, unfortunately, she lessens the ‘impact’ and credibility of her biography. It 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”. Despite this Shipman almost succeeds with her story. She has had wonderful material with which to work.

Samuel Baker was born on 8 th June 1821 – the first son of a prosperous commercial family in Enfield , Middlesex. As a young man he had 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 a widower 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 – he was refused on the grounds that no one who lacked a useful occupation would be permitted to join the expedition. 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 the by now 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. Then 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 in the Ottoman Empire and sold to Armenians to be raised for the harem. For the next few years the beautiful 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 square-shouldered, 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 (fact or fiction?) 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 had left Bucharest Baker had applied for and been refused the new post of British Consul in Constanza; received a position instead as Managing Director of a company building a railway linking Constanza with Cernovoda on the Danube; and 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 or by marriage (although the legal age of consent in England at that time was twelve years old).

While in Constanza in 1856, living as man and young companion, 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 . Now 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 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 go as directly as 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 en route”. He returned to London briefly in 1860 to sign off his railroad contract and, despite being snubbed again by the Royal Geographical Society who refused to lend his instruments because he was not a Fellow of the Society, he set out with Florence in what was to be one of the more unusual 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 19 th 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, who confirmed that Victoria Nyanza was the source of the Nile but that another important lake Luta N’Zigé existed which had not been explored and which might have a bearing on the Nile question. The Bakers decided to find this other lake. Riddled with disease, desertion and bilious fever the Bakers were eventually imprisoned by the notoriously hostile Bunyora Chief – Kamrasi – who ultimately provided a “satanic escort” for the sick pair to Luta N’Zigé which Baker renamed Albert Nyanza on 15 th 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 effluent of the Nile they found the falls which they named Murchison after the President of the Royal Geographical Society. Then somehow, still weak and plagued with sickness, they made their way back through the hostile Bunyaro Kingdom cross-country to a plague-infested Gondokoro from which they escaped in a discarded diahbah slave boat – to Khartoum.

They returned to England to acclaim in 1865. There they were married secretly and settled quietly in the West Country of England. Baker was knighted by Queen Victoria ; and the following year his book Albert Nyanza: Great Basin of the Nile was published. Sir Roderick Murchison befriended them. The Prince and Princess of Wales enjoyed the Baker’s company and invited them on a trip to Cairo . However only Sam went mistakenly believing Florence to be pregnant. In Egypt the Khedir 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 was never 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 expedition met with fierce resistance. It wasn’t until 1 st April 1873 that 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 himself took on the task of evacuating British troops and citizens from a besieged Khartoum . Florence had persuaded Baker not to accept this suicidal mission in which Gordon was killed the next year in the fall of Khartoum .

The Bakers lived out their lives in quiet splendour in Devon . Samuel Baker died on the night of 30 th December 1983 . Florence lived peacefully and quietly in Sandford Orleigh for another nineteen years. When she died a simple obituary appeared in The Times on 15 th March 1916 .

BAKER on the 11 th 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.

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