Science historian chronicles true story of Lady Florence Baker

February 03, 2004

University Park, Pa. -- A new book titled "To the Heart of the Nile: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa," to be published this month by William Morrow, traces the life of the remarkable Victorian woman who would become known as Lady Florence Baker. For the project, award-winning author Pat Shipman, adjunct professor of anthropology at Penn State, used a compelling prose style and authoritative documentation to tell the true story of a woman whose unconventional history was carefully concealed during her life in a most conventional era.

From Baker's childhood devastated by war, she survived kidnapping, white slavery in an Ottoman harem, explorations of uncharted Africa, and a life-threatening military campaign to put down the black slave trade along the Nile. Against daunting odds, she shaped a life of lasting romance and adventure that won her acceptance at the highest levels of British society.

Born Florence von Szasz, she was orphaned and forced from her childhood home in Transylvania by the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Kidnapped from a refugee camp, she was raised in a harem in the Ottoman Empire, then put up for sale at puberty at an elite white-slave auction in 1859.

She should have left the auction with the Pasha of Viddin, the governor of the province who was the highest bidder, who would doubtless insist she lead a claustrophobically restricted but comfortable life as one of his concubines until her looks faded. But Sam Baker, a wealthy English adventurer, happened to be in the audience and fell in love on sight with this very young, very beautiful, and very angry girl.

Baker managed to steal her before the Pasha took possession of his new prize; together, they fled in desperation back into the safety of the AustroHungarian Empire. Unexpectedly, the instant attraction between them deepened into lasting love.

Together, they would explore the dangerous African interior, participating in one of the great scientific quests of the day: the search for the source of the Nile. As his confidante, fellow explorer, and eventually his wife, Florence helped Sam Baker make geographic discoveries that proved crucial to England's ever-changing understanding of the African landscape, including Lake Albert and Murchison Falls.

Their discoveries were amply rewarded, with a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society and a knighthood for Sam, but soon they faced unanticipated dangers from straight-laced Victorian society. When vague rumors surfaced about Florence's unconventional past and the legitimacy of the Bakers' marriage, the duo conquered Victorian society with charm and grace by constructing a public persona for Florence as the perfect, demure and dutiful wife.

Sir Sam and Lady Florence Baker ultimately were welcomed into British society by marquesses, dukes, and the Prince and Princess of Wales. Only Queen Victoria held herself aloof, believing that perhaps Florence had "been intimate with her husband before marriage," as indeed, she had.

Wealthy, established and well accepted among the aristocracy, Florence and Sam had no further need to risk their lives, but a commission from the Viceroy of Egypt tempted them back to Africa again. They accepted the challenge of a nearly impossible task: to wipe out the vicious black slave trade that blighted the lives of thousands of Africans and fed the voracious Ottoman slave trade.

Though provided with a small army and navy and abundant resources, Florence and Sam nearly lost their lives in this courageous campaign, which was nothing less than open warfare against a greedy and entrenched system. Shipman's telling of their personal experiences of the horrors of the black slave trade -- a fundamental component of the Ottoman Empire's economic and political system -- and their compassion for its victims sheds new light on this long-enduring traffic in human misery.

Reconstructed through journals, documents, maps and photographs, and told in the unusual narrative style for which Shipman has received international acclaim, "To the Heart of the Nile" chronicles the life of a formidable, compassionate and unlikely explorer -- a woman who faced life, love and war alongside some of the toughest men in history. From the wilds of central Africa, where they braved malaria, mutiny, political intrigue and starvation, to the drawing rooms of Victorian England, they faced hardship with courage.

Florence and Sam Baker not only survived but found love and contentment against all odds.

"To the Heart of the Nile" has been hailed by reviewers in advance of its February 2004 publication date. In the Los Angeles Times, Michael Koehn called the book "an absorbing narrative" and Publisher's Weekly remarked, "Shipman's account shines with historical clarity and narrative fluency." Booklist, a publication of the International Library Association, gave the book its highest accolade, a starred review, and said, "With myriad life-or-death confrontations backed by keen social commentary on an African world poisoned by slavery and fractured by imperialism, an English society rife with misogyny and racism, and complex religious and cultural conflicts, Shipman presents a remarkably compelling tale of heroic love and epic endeavors."

Pat Shipman is the author of seven previous books, which have won numerous honors and prizes. In 2001, "The Man Who Found the Missing Link" was a New York Times Notable Book. In 1998, her book "Taking Wing" won the Phi Beta Kappa Prize for science and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. She has twice has been a finalist for the prestigious Rhone-Poulenc General Science Award, winning the prize in 1997 with "The Wisdom of the Bones" (with Alan Walker). Both "Taking Wing" and an earlier book, "The Neandertals" (co-authored with Erik Trinkaus in 1992), were featured on the covers of their respective issues of the New York Times Book Review section.

Last Updated September 29, 2010