Friday, March 30, 2012

Florence Von Sass Baker

While British explorer Samuel Baker was visiting the Duke of Atholl on his shooting estate in Scotland, he befriended Maharaja Duleep Singh and in 1858–1859, the two partnered an extensive hunting trip in central Europe and the Balkans, via Frankfurt, Berlin, Vienna and Budapest. On the last part of the voyage, Baker and the Maharajah hired a wooden boat in Budapest, which was eventually abandoned on the frozen Danube. The two continued into Vidin where, to amuse the Maharajah, Baker went to the Vidin slave market.

There, Baker fell in love with a white slave girl, destined for the Ottoman Pasha of Vidin. He was outbid by the Pasha but bribed the girl's attendants and they ran away in a carriage together. Eventually she became his lover and wife and accompanied him everywhere he journeyed. They are reported to have married, most probably in Bucharest, before going to Dubrushka, but Sir Samuel certainly promised that they would go through another ceremony on their return to England - where they had a family wedding in 1865.

The story handed down in the Baker family is that she was the daughter of a Hungarian Szekely officer of a German aristocratic family, who had great estates in Romania, called von Sas (a branch of the von Sass family) and at some time, while she was very young, during the terrible uprising and revolution of 1848 "her father and brothers had been killed before her eyes".

She spoke initially Hungarian, Romanian, German and Turk. She was officially born August 6, 1841 (but more probably 1845) in Nagyenyed, Austrian Empire (today Aiud, Romania) and was baptised Florenz Barbara Maria. She said that her nurse helped her to a refugee camp in Vidin, Bulgaria. Possibly it was there that she was adopted by an Armenian family with name Finnian (or Finnin). Her nurse married and left her, probably during the first Amnesty of 1857. Later she was abducted and sold to an Armenian slave merchant, who groomed her for the Harem.

Baker and the girl fled to Bucharest and remained in Romania, Baker applying for the position of British Consul there but he was refused. In Constanta, he acted as the Royal Superintendent for the construction of a railway and bridges across the Dobroqea, connecting the Danube with the Black Sea. After its completion he spent some months on a tour in south-eastern Europe and Asia Minor. The new consul issued Baker's companion with a British passport under the name Florence Barbara Maria Finnian, although she was British neither by birth nor yet by marriage. She was affectionately called "Flooey" by Baker and later nicknamed Anyadwe or Daughter of the Moon in what is now northern Uganda by the Luo-speaking Acholi natives, who prized her long blonde hair.

Florence refused to stay home, instead following her husband in his travels. She spoke English, Turk and Arabic, rode camels, mules and horses and carried pistols when in the wilds.

She died on March 11, 1916 at the estate she had shared with her husband in Sandford Orleigh, Devon. She was 74 years old and was buried with her husband, who died 23 years earlier, in the Baker family vault at Grimley, near Worcester, although her name was never recorded.

It is possible that the story of how Samuel Baker met his future second wife and her origin were romanticised by him and adapted to the expectations of Victorian society. (A rescue of an exotic princess by a brave white gentleman was a favorite plot of contemporary colonial novels.) Similarly, Florence Baker is on all drawings from Africa depicted in a conventional Victorian lady's dress but in Africa she used to wear an outfit almost identical to the one her husband had designed for himself.

Although Sir Samuel and Lady Baker were personally charming enough to conquer most of Victorian society, Queen Victoria refused to receive Florence at court since she believed Baker had been "intimate with his wife before marriage", as indeed he had. Confusingly, Lady Baker is in Hungarian sources known as Sass (or Szász) Flóra, and Florica Maria Sas in the Romanian sources.

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