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Florence Baker, a Nearly Forgotten Hungarian Explorer
Florence Baker, a Nearly Forgotten Hungarian Explorer

Samuel Baker and Florence

Florence Barbara von Sass, also known as Szász or Sas Flóra in Hungarian, was born in Nagyenyed, Transylvania in 1841. She was orphaned during the 1848/49 Hungarian Revolution for Independence from Austria. When on January 8, 1849, Nagyenyed was burned and destroyed by Valachian soldiers and rebelling Romanian peasants, 600 Hungarians were murdered.  The seven year old Flóra watched from her hiding place as her mother and brother were killed in the middle of the night.  Her life was saved by her nanny, a Romanian woman who claimed Flóra as her daughter. They escaped the horror and walked for days, hiding and avoiding people and farm houses until they found her father, Mathias von Szász.  He was in the Transylvanian army, adjutant to Polish General Bem who had offered his services to Lajos Kossuth to fight the Austrians for Hungarian Independence, and had been assigned the defense of Transylvania.

When the Freedom Fight for Independence from Austria was lost with the help of Russia  and the Surrender at Világos was signed on August 13, 1849, the Austrians engaged in high reprisals against Hungary. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians were sentenced to death or were imprisoned. In Arad they executed 12 generals and one colonel, known as the 13 Martyrs of Arad. The Prime Minister, Lajos Batthyány was executed by firing squad. Flora’s father was wounded at Temesvár where Bem’s last battle was fought and lost.

Thousands were escaping by walking in the August heat to Orsova, the furthest outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. From there they crossed the Danube in boats to seek refuge in Vidin (now in Bulgaria), a small old fortified port town on the banks of the Danube in the Turkish Empire. The town was not equipped to handle the influx of refugees; there was a shortage of food, sanitation, the wounded soldiers died without proper medical care. Flora was living in the camp with her nanny and her father.

The Austrians demanded the refugees be returned to them for punishment under the terms of the Belgrade Treaty concluded between the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian Emperor in 1739. The Hungarians were at the mercy of the Sultan. One of the tenets of Islam was to offer asylum to those who seek it, therefore the Sultan and the Porte were honor-bound to protect the refugees according to religious law. The Sultan refused their extradition.

The Austrians offered amnesty to junior officers and enlisted men if they agreed to join their army and renounce the Rebellion. Senior officers and high ranking officials and those who defected from the Austrian army to join the rebels found their names on a list of those  wanted for punishment. Louis Kossuth and General Bem were singled out. Death awaited those on the extradition list. Tensions grew between the demands of extradition and refusal.  On October 13, 1849, approximately 3,360 men accepted amnesty and returned to Austria.  Kossuth and many other leaders and the remaining 1,250 stayed in the camp and in November moved to Shumla (now in Bulgaria).  Eventually they were released.  By the time the refugee camp closed, 500 men had died.    

Mathias Szász and nine other officers in the camp drafted a letter of allegiance to Kossuth and the Revolution and refused Austrian amnesty.   On September 18, 1849, the Sultan sent an envoy, Ekrem Effendi, to meet with the Hungarian leaders, to present them with an extraordinary offer. Anyone who converted to Islam would be given a military position in the Turkish army equivalent to his former  rank.  As a new citizen of the Ottoman Empire he would be protected from extradition.  If all those on the extradition list converted, the problem would be solved.  A great number of Hungarian soldiers, close to 500, and 15 officers accepted the Sultan’s offer and took Muslim names.  Among the converts were 15 women.

Kossuth took a completely opposite view and was offended by the offer.  He made an impassioned speech in the camp to prevent junior officers and common soldiers from joining their generals in converting.  Kossuth and many other Hungarians  thought that conversion to Islam was a disgrace, and the converts thought that amnesty was cowardly.

General Bem was the first to accept  the offer immediately and converted to Islam, taking the name Murad Pasha.  He became governor of Aleppo in what is now Syria. He died shortly thereafter of malaria in 1850, but not before he quelled an uprising and saved Aleppo’s Christian population from being massacred.

Flora was living in the refugee camp with her father and her nanny, but one day her father left camp and she never saw him again, and then her nanny disappeared. Flora was left alone, hungry and cold, waiting in their tent.  After several days she was taken in by an Armenian family by the name of Finjanjian, a common surname in the Ottoman Empire for porcelain sellers. (Finjan is the name for a tall porcelain beaker set in an openwork metal holder.)  They named her Florence.

It was a common and accepted practice for well-to-do women in the Ottoman Empire to buy young girls, to train and sell them for the harem.  This was the fate awaiting Florence, who had no idea of this plan.  She was raised with other girls and believed she was adopted.  She was educated and learned several languages. When she was 17 years old, she was highly shocked when she was taken to a slave market to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.  She stood out from the other  girls because she was very pretty, fair skinned, her hair was golden and curled round a fair face, all of which added to her value.  Even in her old age she was described as beautiful and had a lovely smile.

Among the buyers at the slave auction was a light skinned man wearing a long, black beard, and Flora noticed him immediately.  He was Samuel White Baker who was in Vidin with his friend the Maharadjah Singh while awaiting their boat, which had been damaged by an ice floe, to be repaired.  With nothing to do, they attended the slave auction out of curiosity.  Sam was entranced at the sight of the beautiful slave girl on the auction block and noticed she was upset and angry.  He felt empathy for her and decided immediately he would rescue her from an unknown fate.  It is not known whether he was outbid by the Pasha of Vidin, but the fact remains that he escaped with her in hired carriages and sped to Bucharest for safety along with his friend Maharadjah Singh.

(to be continued)

Éva Wajda is a member of the Magyar News Editorial Board.

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