A woman and her husband defy the odds and travel, though not to Joseph Conrad’s Congo, certainly to the heart of darkness in their exploration of Central Africa. The Quest: discovering the source of the Nile. The Journey: dangerously severe. The Story: ironically regressive.
Whether a result of minimal information directly from Florence Baker, the nominal subject of To the Heart of the Nile, or an intentional tool used by author Pat Shipman to reflect the oppression of women in Florence’s time, the work is written in complete yield to Samuel Baker, Florence’s husband and fellow explorer. This story, subtitled Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa does not merely address the gender inequalities of 19th Century Europe, it is actually written much more with Sam’s voice than with Florence’s voice.
Expectedly, when Sam Baker bought Florence out of a life of slavery after a harem auction in 1859, their plans to discover the source of the Nile were considered Sam’s plans. Of course, the British consul general regarded Florence’s decision to brave Africa insensible, remarking that if Sam really cared for Florence, “he should order her to go home to England and live with his sisters while he carried out his explorations.” Of course it was Sam’s exploration then.
But isn’t it supposed to be Florence’s exploration now, through Shipman’s book?
If so, it’s difficult to understand why Sam’s journal is quoted 38 times to Florence’s 20 quotes, why she’s the seamstress but we learn of her work only through Sam, why she teaches him Arabic, but we hear him talk about using it, and why she witnesses the brutal female circumcision of a native woman, but his journal entry describes it.
In reality, Florence probably lived an even less oppressed life than many English women of the 19th Century. She certainly lived a less oppressed life than she would have had she been forced into slavery as her fate wanted to dictate. It was not Sam who saw Florence as subservient. He felt the opposite, so much so that he fell in love with her “heart of a lion.” He knew her strength, and he knew they needed to go to Africa, because “in Africa they could be free.” He wanted Florence to be free.
With every societal freedom that Africa allowed, the continent retracted with physical suppression. Florence, as a woman of 16 years, dealt with every ailment and physical hardship that Sam and his crew of men suffered through. Afflicted with heat exhaustion, physical exhaustion, frequent fevers, and malnutrition, Florence’s disposition is described through Sam’s nursing as “he rubbed her chest, hoping to strengthen her heartbeat, and the slave women rubbed her hands and feet. Except for omitting occasional choking noises, Florence might have been a corpse.” Not to diminish Oprah Winfrey’s recent journey to Africa, but surely she wasn’t likened to a corpse. Fortunately, we’ve come far enough in gender equality to allow a woman like Oprah to step up and talk about her experience, something Florence herself could never do.
So, Pat Shipman tried to do it for her. Unfortunately, she leaves us with the idea that while it was part Florence’s journey, it was mostly Sam’s. The reader is left to question whether Florence’s diary even exists. But it does. Flip back to the note on archives and see that “Anne Baker holds the diaries of Florence Baker.”
Perhaps this book serves as fuel for the argument that oppression of any sort bleeds into the contemporary, even when it seems we’ve come so far. Certainly that’s applicable to slavery, racism, ant-Semitism (as seen greatly by the stir over Mel Gibson’s new movie), and gender inequalities. Despite the lack of celebration of Florence, the book does tell a remarkable story, one that might spice up any college history course. It may just be deserving of a new subtitle, like, Sir Samuel Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa.