Legend has it that Sir Samuel Baker, on a hunting tour of Eastern European the late 1850s, first set eyes on her as a beautiful sixteen year old in a white slave market in Hungary. He promptly bought her freedom; in return she became his life-long companion. They may (or may not) have married immediately in Budapest, either way, Florence was his inseparable companion. Whilst still in her teens, she travelled with Baker to the Sudan to look for the source of the Nile in the early 1860s. Her youth, reputed beauty, fluency in English, Turkish and Arabic, handiness with both pistol and rifle, bravery in withstanding native raids, skill with nursing and possession of enough physical and mental strength to endure years of hardship in killer conditions, make her an intriguing figure.
Having discovered Lake Albert and the Murchison Falls in Uganda, the pair were celebrated by Victorian society on their return home to England in 1865. Despite Florence’s incredible achievements, Queen Victoria refused to shake her hand, the rumours of her ‘past’ and unofficial marriage being insurmountable.
A vivid and detailed letter writer and diarist, Florence leaves no paintings or drawings for me to explore. Accounts of her endless sewing of tents, fashioning of uniforms for the soldiers that accompanied their party, making of practical costumes for her and her husband and papering the walls of their temporary homes along the White Nile with pictures she ordered from England tell us, however, of her practical abilities and strong sense of aesthetic.
Florence is the first adventuress into the Orient I came to know of, the first European woman to go up the White Nile into Uganda, and the beginning of my obsession with this subject…