Murchison Falls National Park, in Uganda, is one of the most animal-rich environments in Africa. It’s a geologic smorgasbord where the enormous Bunyoro escarpment slides into the plains of Eastern Africa, creating the consummate image of African savannah.
For paddlers, the Murchison Falls section on the White Nile is one the most dangerous and exhilarating runs on the planet. The actual falls of Murchison are un-runnable, but the stretch leading up is back-to-back, high volume Class V. Excitable hippos live in eddies, often preventing a scouting mission or even a chance to catch your breath. And after the rapids, the calm water is pinged by ominous, unseen crocodiles.
Imagine being the first person to see this natural wonder.
Florence Baker certainly wasn’t the first person to come upon Murchison Falls, but she and her husband, Samuel, were the first people of European descent to take in the sight. Unlike many other white explorers at the time, Florence didn’t disguise her thirst to see the world under some global version of manifest destiny. She had already lived many lives in her short twenty-some years, and she was indulging her endlessly curious and adventurous nature. As a former slave in the Ottoman Empire, she was also learning to trust her own moral compass and newfound voice as a human rights advocate.
Florence Barbara von Sass was born in Transylvania in 1841, and orphaned during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Shortly after, she was sent to an Ottoman harem, where though she had no freedom, she did receive a quality education. She was allowed to stay in the harem as a chore girl until she hit puberty, when was sold to a slave auction in Vidin, Bulgaria. After a vigorous bidding war, she was purchased by a Balkan pasha.
Samuel Baker was about 34 years old at the time. Wrapping up a hunt in Eastern Europe, the wealthy Englishman was entranced by the teenager on the slave block. When he couldn’t outbid the pasha, he simply kidnapped her at the first opportunity.
Though an auspicious start to a romance, Samuel and Florence seemed to develop a true kinship right from the start. She was not his slave; she was his partner. By all accounts, they fed off one another’s energy and adventurous spirit, and they were more strong together than alone. They set off to Africa in 1861, first venturing around Ethiopia, then setting their sights on the biggest prize of all: the source of the River Nile.
Samuel was a hard man, obstinate and not generous in his treatment of the team. The hired team did not appreciate his approach and showed their ill-will through general disobedience and disdain. Florence was fiery by nature, but far more diplomatic. From her upbringing, she knew what it was like to not have a choice, and she understood compromise.
With 20 years on her and more expedition experience, Samuel initially took the lead. It was in Gondokoro, a town in South Sudan near the modern day city of Juba, where Florence would demonstrate an equally influential, if different, style of leadership. Gondokoro was a pivotal point in “Source” expeditions because it marked the point where explorers were forced to abandon the relative comfort upriver boats, and continue up the White Nile by foot.
Gondokoro was also the site of pivotal change in Baker’s internal life. By the time they arrived, the expedition crew and Samuel had reached an impasse that threatened the future of their goal. Florence tapped into her considerable diplomatic skills to negotiate an understanding and kept the expedition intact and moving forward.
The city was the site of more than a leadership win for Florence. Gondokoro was a slave-trading hub. Witnessing the slavery from the vantage of a free woman helped identify what would become a far more profound mission than finding the source of the Nile. Having known firsthand what is was like to be sold as a slave, Baker vowed to return and stop the slave trade in East Africa once and for all.
Progress up the White Nile was slow, bug-infested, sickly, and dangerous. Much of the team eventually abandoned the Bakers. The couple (and it is unknown who else) persevered. The reward? They claimed the European discovery of Murchison Falls and Lake Albert beyond, which they named after Sir Roderick Murchison of the Royal Geographic Society and Queen Victoria’s deceased husband, respectively. It wasn’t the definitive source of the Nile, but it was a huge piece in the puzzle.
In 1865, Florence and Samuel returned to England and were married. He was knighted by the Queen for his accomplishments in exploration. Florence was given the honorary title of Lady because she was married to Samuel. Even with the title, the non-traditional couple with a wild background was not welcomed openly into formal English society.
Florence’s true calling came in 1869 when she and Samuel were welcomed back to Gondokoro to fight the slave trade as abolitionists. They put up the good fight, literally and figuratively, for nearly four years. Ultimately, they were unable to end the vile practice. Florence, always more of a doer than a watcher, jumped right into the fray of the physical fighting. Though she was credited as a medic, her EMT pack included multiple rifles and a pistol.
Florence and Samuel lived out the rest of their lives quietly in the English countryside. Some report that she became the quintessential society lady; others suggest that she was never accepted and kept to herself. Either way, the couple seems to have been happy together to the end. Florence died in 1916, 20 years after Samuel.
Murchison Falls photo by Rod Waddington.