Samuel’s Slave

Caroline Moorehead

  • Lover on the Nile by Richard Hall
    Collins, 254 pp, £7.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 00 216471 X
  • Nellie: Letters from Africa by Elspeth Huxley
    Weidenfeld, 326 pp, £8.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 297 77706 8
  • Black Country Girl in Red China by Esther Cheo Ying
    Hutchinson, 191 pp, £5.95, January 1980, ISBN 0 09 139080 X

‘And do you think, Dame Freya,’ an interviewer once asked Freya Stark, ‘that travel broadens the mind?’ There was a pause. The explorer pondered; a distant, reflective gaze settled on her face. The young man sat back, well pleased to see his question taken so seriously: for a minute, he could have been forgiven for thinking he was onto a winner. At last it became clear that Dame Freya was about to pronounce. He lent forward, expectantly. ‘No,’ the clear voice enunciated with extreme finality. ‘No.’ There was nothing more to be said.

Travel books, like no other, and perhaps not like travel, possess that peculiar charm of being able to carry the reader for an instant of irresponsibility from the gloom of a northern winter afternoon into the heat of the tropics. They leave a smell of the impossible. Individually they may not be profound; they may not, like travel, be broadening. But the pleasure and the power are enormous. This taste of the unfamiliar has of course to come from the travellers themselves, from their expectations and their sense of the new. It is what they bring with them, and what, exhausted, exhilarated or astonished, they carry away.

Lovers on the Nile is Richard Hall’s account of Samuel Baker’s voyage in search of the Mountains of the Moon with his young companion Florence. It is not so much a biography as the story of a seven-year travelling honeymoon. In fact, the book flows at an easy pace, but only once the lovers are embarked upon their journey: before that, in the summary of Baker’s early life and the background to the expedition, the narrative falters a little. As with so many Victorian travels, the voyage itself is almost indescribable in its litany of disasters. The reader marvels at the way the travellers survived. But survive they did, and they were still the people they were when they set out, even though they had been physically attacked, and had come down with repeated bouts of malaria and dysentry. For one entire week Florence was unconscious with exhaustion and heat stroke, having fallen into a coma while crossing a swamp. She awoke to the sound of men digging her grave.

In 1851, having been thwarted by the Royal Geographic Society in his desire to join Livingstone in Central Africa, and prevented from looking for Speke and Burton, then in search of the vast lakes that were said to be the sources of the Nile, Samuel Baker left London with the effete-looking Maharajah Duleep Singh to shoot wild boar in Serbia and bears in Transylvania. The pair got stuck in Widdin, the main Turkish fortress in the Balkans. To pass the time, they attended a slave auction, and it was there that Baker, a widower with four daughters – who was never in his life to mention the incident – bought a slave girl, a slim, small teenage Hungarian called Florenz Barbara Maria Finian. She was 17, he was 38.

The event, and his new, not easily explained companion, only made him more keen to travel, to escape the prying eyes of his family for the time he needed to sort out what he would do about her. Now, as he set his mind more firmly on Africa, he wrote nothing of Florence’s existence, but explained somewhat tendentiously: ‘I am going to Khartoum, and thence God only knows where, in search of the sources of the Nile.’ The future Lady Baker’s first home in Africa was a thatch and wood hut on the banks of the Atbara, where Florence laid out a piece of chintz and placed on it her brushes, her scent and a mirror. It is at this point that the extraordinariness of this little-known story starts to carry the book along.

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