Florence Maria von Sass went from childhood in a prosperous Transylvania family to becoming an orphan overnight. She was only four years old at the time when she lost her mother, brother, and father. At that moment, her childhood came to an abrupt halt. Circumstances forced her to grow up fast amid war and revolution. The end of one part of her life indirectly led to the beginning of another part. One where she and the love of her life – Samuel Baker – would make history. It is remarkable that the first kindling of that fabulous romance began in a slave market. The peculiar institution of human bondage brought the couple improbably together. From the point forward, they became united as explorers and lovers.
In the mid-19th century, the city of Vidin was a bustling port along the southern bank of the Lower Danube. It had 26,000 inhabitants and a sizable military garrison that added another 8,000 soldiers to the population. At the time it was still part of the Ottoman Empire (the city is now in northwestern Bulgaria). An empire that would soon enough become known as “the Sick Man of Europe” due to its perpetual decline. It also looked increasingly backwards compared to a Europe on the cusp of modernity. One of the empire’s more lamentable traits was slavery. Anyone unlucky enough to find themselves as an orphan or refugee in the Ottoman lands could just as easily be sold into slavery. This was the situation Florence faced at the age of fourteen. While her life was on the verge of taking a turn for the worst, the man she would become inextricably connected with for the rest of her life had no idea of her plight.
Distress & Discovery – Favorable Circumstances
Samuel Baker was in the throes of a hunting trip across central and eastern Europe with Sir Duleep Singh. A decade earlier, Singh had been the Maharajah (Great King) of the Sikh Empire. He was only a child at the time and would later go into exile. Baker, like Singh, was born into favorable circumstances. He was the son of a wealthy merchant. This afforded him the opportunity to indulge a wide range of interests which included writing, hunting, ranching and travel. Baker and Singh arrived at Vidin on the tail end of their trip. To satisfy Singh’s curiosity, Baker agreed to accompany him to Vidin’s slave market. He had no idea that this would change his life forever. One of the slaves for sale in the market was Florence. The teenager caught the eye of Baker who was nearly thrice her age. (The age of consent in Victorian Britain at the time was twelve).
It may have been love at first sight, but “purchasing” Florence was not without difficulties. As the story goes, the Pasha (governor) of Vidin outbid Baker. A life in the cloistered, oversexed world of the harem awaited Florence unless Samuel could find a way to free her from bondage. Baker’s passionate pursuit took the form of bribes to her attendants. They allowed the Englishman to spirit her away by carriage. The couple then made their way to Romania. Some accounts state that they married there, others are more ambiguous. The couple would have a much more formal wedding in Great Britain, but that was five years into the future. For now, they settled down in Romania. Rather than a life of sexual slavery, Florence would now walk in lockstep with Samuel as they moved toward an era of their famous discoveries.
Into The Wild – Abolitionism in Africa
While the acclaim surrounding Samuel and Florence comes from their trip into the unknown wilds of the White Nile, a later journey into the same region of Africa says a great deal about their humanity. In 1869, at the invitation of Ismail Pasha (Khedive of Egypt), Samuel undertook a military expedition to end the sale of slaves there. Given administrative control over the new region and appointed to a four-year term in office, Samuel took command of 1,700 soldiers (mostly made up of former convicts). Florence was with him the entire time. They met with resistance every step of the way. The slave trade was a lucrative enterprise, but Florence and Samuel fervently believed in its abolition. Convincing those who profited from it was another matter. Their attempt to end the slave trade failed.
At the end of Samuel’s time in office they left the area. They spent the final years of their life together both at home in the English countryside and traveling the world. Their love for one another continued as strong as ever. Despite the scarcely disguised snobbery and rigid class hierarchy of Great Britain during the Victorian era, the romance of Samuel and Florence Baker would endure. The couple stayed married until Samuel’s death in 1893 at the age of seventy-two. Florence never remarried and lived until 1916. Theirs was an otherworldly romance, hers was a remarkable life.
Broken Records – An Air of Mystery
A word of caution for anyone attempting to ascertain the facts of Florence’s life, especially the early years. Piecing together her childhood and teenage years is difficult at best. The records are extremely vague, to the point of non-existent. Once the massacre at Nagyenyed (Aiud in present day Romania) occurred in 1849, everything about her life becomes open to conjecture. Her time as a refugee, probable abduction, and life in Vidin prior to meeting Samuel is obscure. It is the product of hearsay and family stories passed down through the years. There was good reason for both Samuel and Florence to not divulge the truth. With Samuel knighted for his discoveries in Africa, this meant they gained the spotlight in an intensely aristocratic society.
There were those among the British elite who would look down upon the couple due to Florence’s backstory. Word eventually got to Queen Victoria about Florence’s past. She would never receive the couple, purportedly because of the way they had first come together. This is also why historians believe the couple is overlooked when compared with other explorers of that time. Livingston, Stanley, and Burton all became household names, but Samuel and Florence Baker are all but forgotten. In Florence’s case, this also has to do with the fact that she was female. That makes her exploits much more remarkable and well worth remembering.