Recently, I finished reading “Living Among Cannibals and Other Women’s Adventures” by Michelle Slung. I picked up the book when I was browsing a bargain bin at a store and remembered that childhood anthology of female heroes. Here were the collected stories of women who had traveled the world in all its forms – land, sky, sea, and space. I have spent the last couple weeks reading it slowly to savor every adventure and story of triumph. These women are testimonies to any virtue humanity could claim to possess.
It is impossible for me to share all of these stories with you and even more impossible for me to share all the stories of women adventurers not included in the book. There are simply too many. But there is one I felt I should share: her name is Lady Florence Baker.
Samuel Baker was an English explorer. In the late 1850’s, he was in a Vidin slave market where he fell in love with a white slave girl. There are conflicting stories of whether he purchased her outright or bribed her attendants to help her escape, but he left the market that day with Florence who would become his lover and travel companion. The couple eventually married in 1865. (While their relationship may be the stuff of a romance novel, there is one icky detail that should be mentioned – the age difference. At the time of the slave market, Florence was 14 and had just reached puberty while Samuel was a widower in his late thirties).
Florence had been born in Transylvania in 1845 and orphaned during the Hungarian Revolution. Before she had been taken to the slave market, she had been raised in a harem in the Ottoman Empire. Once free from slavery, Florence was not a weak-willed side-kick to Samuel but a spirited and fiercely intelligent partner. She possessed talents and skills that would be essential to their travels, including the ability to speak English, German, Hungarian, Romanian and Arabic. She rode camels, mules and horses and carried pistols when necessary.
With Samuel, Florence traveled Central Africa in search of the source of the Nile. They did so successfully, but not without danger. They were forced to contend with illness, mutiny, and dangerous tribal wars. In one such perilous encounter, the couple was confronted by an African king who agreed to help Samuel on his journey if he left Florence behind. Samuel drew a gun and was prepared to duel with the king to protect his lover. But Florence stood her own ground. She gave a short but powerful speech in Arabic, which her husband did not understand. After the speech, the king backed down. He turned out to be the brother of the king, posing as royalty, and he had only hoped to trade a woman of his kingdom as a new wife for Samuel in exchange for his current traveling companion. He assured the pair he would never mention such a trade again.
The couple successfully found the source of the Nile, but only Samuel would reap all the rewards. Queen Victoria knighted Samuel but refused to allow Florence into the court, citing how she had been “acquired” by her husband and that they had traveled together as a couple before being legally married. But by virtue of her husband’s knighthood, she still became Lady Florence Baker despite the Queen’s disapproval.
History has not often given the spotlight to Lady Baker; she is more commonly treated as a romantic interest for the brave protagonist. Fortunately, history has been willing to reconsider its previous omissions. For example, the book “To the Heart of the Nile: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa,” focuses more on the life of Florence than her male counterpart and her contributions to their expeditions.
To me, Lady Florence Baker was a woman who was so ready, willing, and able to plunge into Africa and face dangers that had killed many who came before her. And for all her efforts, she was only judged by Victorian society as unfit for the honors she deserved. Even though she was free from slavery, she was treated as a harem girl with a tainted past Even though she fought along side Samuel to discover the source of the Nile, she was treated as a story telling device rather than a real person who contributed to the history of the world. Even though she defended herself with valor, she was treated as unclean and immoral because she traveled with a man she wasn’t married to.
I only hope Lady Florence Baker knew that history would be as proud of her as her husband was and as willing to offer her the accolades she earned.