- Oana Barbu
Florica Maria Sas – from the Pasha’s Harem to the British Royal Court
Have you ever woken up in the morning searching for a reason to stand up, go to work, face the world? Have you ever thought of giving up, deeply convinced that nothing is really worth the effort? I bet you have. We all have. But I also bet that despite all the problems, we all found the resources to keep going and conquer our share of the world, no matter its size.
Imagine what would have happened with Florica Maria Sas (aka Lady Florence Baker or Barbara Maria Szasz) if she had given up. In case her name doesn’t ring a bell, let me tell you her story and show you how great it would have been for us, ordinary contemporaries, to have met this extraordinary woman! Her life resembles the stories that our mothers or grandmothers used to tell us before going to bed. The only difference is that hers is a real life story. And, bonus, it has a happy ending.
Florica Maria Sas was born on 6 August 1841 in Aiud, back then part of the Austrian Empire. Before the age of 7, Florica saw her parents killed and had to leave her hometown as a consequence of the political events surrounding the 1848 Revolution. From the refugee camp where she was living, Florica was kidnapped by the Turks, who took her to be raised in one of the Ottoman Empire’s harems.
By the age of 18, Florica was put on sale as a slave. Now stop for a moment and imagine how her story goes. Any sign of a happy ending? I wouldn’t say “yes” either, but then, you see, I’m not the most optimistic person in the world.
However, life knows how to make things right and sometimes chooses to turn round in the most hopeless moments. So, Florica Maria Sas was about to be bought by the Pasha of Vidin but at the right moment Samuel White Baker, a British officer and explorer, managed to ransom her and to change her destiny forever. The right person showed up at the right time, and suddenly what was bound to be a tragic destiny took on a different turn.
No need to say that the two fell in love immediately and that from that moment on they were never apart. But if you think that this is how the story ends, you couldn’t be more wrong. Florica Maria Sas became Florence Barbara Maria Finnian and she never consented to be only a housewife. Gifted with the ability of speaking many foreign languages like Romanian, Hungarian, German, Turkish, English, she became a reliable partner for her husband, together with whom she started to explore the world.
During their first expedition in Africa, to the River Nile, they discovered Lake Albert. One of the purposes of their expedition was to establish a new trade route, but also to help prevent the intense slave trade in that area. The expedition brought them immense fame, and for Samuel Baker - knighthood and a very important distinction from the Royal Geographic Society.
The African continent remained their main field of interest, where most of their expeditions were conducted. Also, on the African continent Florica Maria Sas actively combated the trade with African slaves, one of the main components of the Ottoman Empire’s political and economic system.
After putting their life in danger for many years, in 1874 Lady Florence and her husband returned to Great Britain, where they were very well received by the British society. Florica Maria Sas died on 11 March 1916.
Her story inspired anthropologist Pat Shipman, who, based on Florica’s notes, maps and pictures from her expeditions, wrote the book To the Heart of the Nile, a book dedicated to a woman who had explored life itself.
Lady Florence’s story should inspire us all. It should be a lesson to be learned. So, every morning when you find it difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, just think that change is just around the corner, ready to take another turn into your life.