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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sir Samuel White Baker


Agent Triple P watched a documentary about the source of the Nile this weekend which featured a little bit about Sir Samuel Baker. Baker was one of the most active of African explorers in the 19th century and was one of those in the race to find the source of the Nile, which was eventually discovered by his friend John Hanning Speke who trekked inland from Zanzibar. Baker took the more conventional, but no less arduous, route of following the river from Egypt.

Born in 1821 he married a conventional wife, a vicar's daughter, and dragged her off to Ceylon for eight years where he successfully bred cattle and embarked on many of his characteristic hunting forays into the wilderness, publishing a number of books including the splendidly named The Rifle and the Hound in Ceylon. His wife was obviously not so robust and died out there in 1855. Undeterred, he returned from Ceylon via Constantinople and the Crimea, building a railway in what is now Bulgaria.

Whilst hunting in Vidin he attended an Ottoman slave auction and saw on the block a beautiful teenage Transylvanian girl, Barbara Maria Szász, who had been orphaned in the Hungarian uprising and brought up in a harem where she had been given the name Florenz. Despite having being bought by the local pasha Baker stole her away and the couple fled back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire on horseback.

In 1861 he travelled to Africa with Florence, as she was now known, who he called his wife (although they were certainly not married at this stage). He explored and hunted in the Sudan and Abyssinia before setting off from Khartoum, still accompanied by Florence, for his journey up the Nile. They met Speke returning from Lake Victoria which he had rightly identified as the source of the Nile, although his inability to conclusively prove it led to his suicide shortly after. The Bakers went on to discover and name Murchison Falls and Lake Albert.

Returning to the UK after four years in Africa he was awarded the Royal Geographical Society's gold medal and got officially married in 1865.

In 1869 he led a military expedition (with Florence) to fight slavers in Equatorial Africa and was made Major General and Governor of Equatoria by the Viceroy of Egypt with a salary of a staggering £10,000 per annum.

The Bakers returned to Britain in 1874 and bought an estate in Devon. He continued to travel and write books until his death in 1893.

Baker has never been as well regarded or famous as his contempories Burton, Livingstone, Speke or Stanley. Although he was knighted in 1866 there were always rumours and innuendo about his relationship with his wife and her unconventional origins. Although Sir Samuel and Lady Baker were personally charming enough to conquer most of Victorian society the Queen refused to have them at Court as she believed Baker had been "intimate with his wife before marriage", as indeed he had.


The documentary used footage from the 1971 mini-series The Search for the Nile where Florence Baker was played by gorgeous Hungarian actress Catherine Schell (or Katherina Freiin Schell von Bauschlott to give her her real name). Florence too, was from an aristocratic Hungarian family, by a nice coincidence. She outlived Baker by 23 years and in later life was looked after by her step daughters, one of whom was only six years her senior.

So, top marks for a true Victorian hero with an excellent taste in feisty young women and the determination to ignore conventional behaviour. Top marks too for Lady Baker who was as handy with a rifle as she was cooking hippopotamus or making bead necklaces to give to the natives.

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