Sir Samuel and Lady Baker

Henry Stanley

From “Four Great African Travelers”

Century Magazine/May, 1873

Had Captains Speke and Grant thoroughly performed their work in Central Africa; had they not been in such a hurry to leave the region of the Nile’s sources before they had explored that other lake they had heard of in Karagwah and Uganda, which lay to the west of their route as they marched toward Gondokoro and home, we doubt whether we should have heard of Baker as one of the White Nile explorers, or have received such an interesting work from the press as the Albert N’ Yanza.

Sir Samuel Baker is a different person altogether from either Livingstone, Burton, Speke or Grant. While he lacks the silent, moral heroism and the lofty enthusiasm of Livingstone, he undoubtedly is a hero of the muscular and bold type. He does not seem to enter on the work of exploration for the sole sake of acquiring geographical knowledge, but because it furnishes him with the food his adventurous spirit requires. The dangers and excitements incidental to African exploration lend to it an alluring charm, which has been the inducement for Baker to visit Central Africa. As a man, Baker is singularly devoid of angularities of disposition. He is honest, warmhearted, and impulsive, with a cheery, sunny temper, which, though apt to wax hot occasionally, has no malice in its grain, and this enables him to win the love of his people. He is, perhaps, too severe a disciplinarian, but he makes up for this severity by such an openhanded generosity that his people feel more than compensated for any severity they may be subjected to.

In scholarship and erudition he is the inferior of Burton, but he is superior to him in the vim and energy requisite for a great explorer, and his style of writing is much more attractive. He is the equal of Speke in the hunting field, and second to none, not even Gordon Gumming; and though he is not such a student of natural history as Grant, he certainly excels both Speke and Grant in the art of bookmaking.

But Baker has the advantage over his predecessors in Africa—if it can be called an advantage—of, having a loving wife as his companion. Both may sicken of fever, suffer from famine, be menaced by belligerent natives, yet are they all in all to each other; true companions in misfortune or in pleasure; helpmates one to the other. No acridity can arise from such companionship, the interest of one cannot clash with the other’s, enmity stands abashed, treachery avoids them, jealousy is unknown, suspicion may not hide between the close embrace of man and wife isolated from their species in the jungles of Central Africa. Sweet is the companionship of the lonely pair, and romance surrounds them with its halo. Perhaps it is this charm which makes Baker’s books so attractive to the general reader. Baker in person truthfully embodies the ideal, which the writer of this article in common perhaps with other readers, has formed of him. Indeed, when I saw him at Cairo, in 1869, preparatory to his start on his present journey, I fancied I knew him well. There he stood, the burly, bearded incarnation of the hunter who shot rhinoceroses with the Hamram swordhunters, had bagged elephants by the dozen near the sources of the Atbara, and had “tumbled over” antelopes at 600 yards’ distance in the. lowlands of the Sobat. A true Englishman in appearance, with a keen and bold blue eye, a wealth of brown beard over the lower part of his face, a square, massive forehead, and prominent nose; a man with broad shoulders, of firm, compact build, a little taller than the average of his fellowmen; a man who planted his feet down solidly as he walked, like the surefooted, dogged, determined being that he is.

His wife—a Hungarian lady whom he met, loved, and married at Cairo, in Egypt—is the feminine counterpart of himself—frank and hearty, with enough prettiness in her features to make her interesting at first sight; in short, a real woman, possessing womanly lovingness, strength of character, endurance, and every other virtue fit for an explorer’s wife.

Sir Samuel Baker prefaces his account of his journey to the Albert N’Yanza with the following: “I weighed carefully the chances of the undertaking. Before me, untrodden Africa; against me, the obstacles that had defeated the world since its creation; on my side, a somewhat tough constitution, perfect independence, a long experience in savage life, and both time and means, which I intended to devote to the object without limit. England had never sent an expedition to the Nile sources previous to that under the command of Speke and Grant. Bruce, ninety years ago, had succeeded in tracing the source of the Blue or Lesser Nile—thus, the honor of that discovery belonged to Great Britain; Speke was on his road from the south; and I felt confident that my gallant friend would leave his bones upon the path rather than submit to failure. I trusted that England would not be beaten; and although I hardly dared to hope that I could succeed where others greater than I had failed, I determined to sacrifice all in the attempt. Had I been alone, it would have been no hard lot to die upon the untrodden path before me, but there was one me, but there was one who, although my greatest comfort, was also my greatest care; one whose life yet dawned at so early an age that womanhood was still a future. I shuddered at the prospect for her should she be left alone in savage lands at my death; and gladly would I have left her in the luxuries of home instead of exposing her to the miseries of Africa. It was ill vain that I implored her to remain, and that I painted the difficulties and perils still blacker than I supposed they really would be; she was resolved, with woman’s constancy and devotion, to share all dangers and to follow me through each rough footstep of the wild life before me.”

Baker’s travels from Gondokoro southward, though they cover very little ground compared to the great march of Speke and Grant, are yet so full of incidents that it is a difficult task to give anything like a fair resume of them in an article like this. Those who would like to know what Baker and his noble wife suffered and performed had better read Bayard Taylor’s abridgment of the travels of Burton, Speke and Grant, and Baker (The Lake Regions of Central Africa. Scribner, Armstrong & Co.), or else read Baker’s Albert N’Yanza unabridged. It is impossible to give here more than a few leading points.

The first portion of Baker’s narrative, after leaving Gondokoro, treats of a conspiracy of his own men against him, and the method he took to crush it; of the symptoms of deeply rooted hostility from the pudding-headed, slave-kidnapping Turco Arabs which was evinced towards him wherever he went; of a battle he witnessed between the Latookas and the Turks, which ended in the latter’s signal defeat; of a treaty of friendship finally entered into between himself and the Turks, which enabled him to struggle on towards Unyoro, where he hoped to obtain the aid of King Kamrasi towards finding the great lake that was said to be west of that which Speke discovered. Of many curious manners and customs witnessed among the tribes of Illyria and Latooka; of fevers endured by himself and wife; of sketches of interesting scenery; with page after page enlivened with many a graphically described incident of adventure, and vivid portraitures of life in the far Central African region; of six months’ detention at Obbo, during which time nearly all his carriage animals had died, and he himself was so reduced by illness that he appeared but a pale shadow of the former stout hunter.

On the 12th February, 1864, Sir Samuel Baker stood in the presence of Kamrasi, King of Unyoro, whom he thus describes:

“Upon my approach, the crowd gave way, and I was shortly laid on a mat at the king’s feet. He was a fine-looking man, but with a peculiar expression of countenance, owing to his extremely prominent eyes; he was about six feet high, beautifully clean, and was dressed in a long robe of bark cloth most gracefully folded. The nails of his hands and feet were carefully attended, and his complexion was about as dark a brown as that of an Abyssinian. He sat upon a copper stool placed upon a carpet of leopard skins, and he was surrounded by about ten of his principal chiefs.”

Baker having described the object of his coming to Unyoro, he proceeded to present the king with a Persian carpet, an abbia (large white Cashmere mantle), a red silk-netted sash, a pair of scarlet Turkish shoes, several pairs of socks, a double-barreled gun and ammunition, and a great heap of first-class beads made up into gorgeous necklaces and girdles. The king, strangely enough, did not seem to care for any of these valuable things, but requested that the gun might be fired off. This was accordingly done, to the utter confusion of the large assembly of savages, who rushed away in such haste that they tumbled over each other like rabbits, which so delighted the king, that, although startled at first, he was soon convulsed with laughter.

But the gallant traveler soon found that though things seemed auspicious enough at first, the nature of Kamrasi was so susceptible to suspicions, that excuses were daily furnished him which retarded his prosecution of the search for the Lake Luta Nzige. Finally, however, he was permitted to go, and towards the end of February, 1864, Baker and his wife set out westward in the direction of the lake.

As they were about to bid farewell to Kamrasi, the king turned to Baker, and in the coolest manner said, “I will send you to the lake and to Shooa, as I promised, but you must leave your wife.” Suspicious of the king’s intentions, Baker, quick as lightning, drew his revolver, and pointing it at him, said if he dared to repeat the insult, he would shoot him on the spot, and not all his men could save him. Mrs. Baker, also indignant at the proposal, rose from her seat, and, maddened with the excitement of the moment, made him a brief but fierce speech in Arabic.

Astonished by the outbreak of the white people’s tempers, Kamrasi made haste to say, “Don’t be angry. I didn’t mean to offend you by asking you for your wife. I will give you a wife, if you want one, and I thought you might have no objection to give me yours. It is my custom to give my visitors pretty wives, and I thought you might exchange. Don’t make a fuss about it; if you don’t like it, there’s an end to it.”

This little scene over, Baker and his party traveled for three days westward over a flat, uninteresting country, and reached the Kafoor river, where one of the most deplorable misfortunes of the march presented itself The party were crossing the river over a natural bridge of closely woven grass, and Baker had completed about one-fourth the distance, when, accidentally looking back, he was horrified to see his wife standing in one spot, and sinking gradually through the weeds, while her face was distorted and perfectly purple, and then instantly falling down as though shot dead. Springing to her side, with the help of some of his men he dragged her like a corpse through the yielding grass to the shore. Then, laying her under a tree, he bathed her head and face with water, as it was thought she had fainted; but she lay perfectly insensible, with teeth and hands firmly clenched, and her eyes open, but fixed. It was not a fainting fit; it was a sunstroke!

After watching by her side for two nights, Baker was gratified at hearing a faint “Thank God” escape from her lips. She had awakened from her torpor, but her eyes were full of madness! She spoke; but the brain was gone!

For seven days his wife suffered from an acute attack of brain fever—days of intense anguish to Baker; yet day after day, with the poor, suffering woman carried in her hammock, were the party forced to march, for famine had surely ended them all had they tarried. For seven weary nights he watched tenderly at her bedside, until finally nature succumbed, and he became insensible, thoroughly worn out with sorrow and fatigue. In the mean time, his men had put a new handle to the pickaxe, and sought for a dry spot to dig the wife’s grave. We will permit Baker to tell the rest in his own words: “The sun had risen when I awoke. I had slept, and, horrified as the idea flashed upon me that she must be dead, and that I had not been with her, I started up. She lay upon her bed, pale as marble, and with that calm serenity that the features assume when the cares of life no longer act upon the mind, and the body rests in death. The dreadful thought bowed me down; but as I gazed upon her in fear, her chest gently heaved, not with the convulsive throbs of fever, but naturally. She was asleep; and when at a sudden noise she opened her eyes, they were calm and clear. She was saved! When not a ray of hope remained, God alone knows what helped us. The gratitude of that moment I will not attempt to describe.”

They pressed onward through a delightful country. Mrs. Baker constantly gained in strength, and all hands became more and more elated at the prospect of the speedy and successful termination of their journey. Baker, as usual, enjoyed himself with shooting, and never omitted an opportunity to bag game. One evening, while returning home, he was attracted by a noise in the bushes, and saw a large animal endeavoring to steal away unobserved. Leveling his gun at it, he fired, and instantly a lion bounded hurriedly away. From his movements he knew that the lion was wounded badly; but contenting himself with the thought that he would find him dead in the morning, Baker proceeded on his way to camp.

An hour after sunrise, accompanied by some of his men, Baker sauntered out of the camp to hunt up the wounded beast. In a short time he traced him by his bloody tracks to where he lay crouched at the base of a rock, defiant and bold as ever. The lion’s back was broken by the bullet, and his rear half was paralyzed; but the frantic efforts he made to get at his enemy proved him to be still a formidable antagonist. Taking compassion on the disabled brute, Baker fired, and a bullet crashing through his brain, stretched him dead.

On the 13th of March the guides warned Baker that on the morrow the Luta Nzige would be seen, which so transported him with joy, that he could not sleep that night. These are his impressions and feelings of the following day: “The 14th March—The sun had not risen when I was spurring my ox after the guide, who, having been promised a double handful of beads on arrival at the lake, had caught the enthusiasm of the moment. The day broke beautifully clear, and having crossed a deep valley between the hills, we toiled up the opposite slope. I hurried to the summit. The glory of our prize burst suddenly upon me. There, like a sea of quicksilver, lay far beneath the grand expanse of water—a boundless sea horizon on the south and southwest, glittering in the noonday sun; and on the west, at fifty or sixty miles distance, blue mountains rose from the bosom of the lake to a height of about 7,000 feet above its level.

“It is impossible to describe the triumph of that moment; here was the reward for all our labor—for the years of tenacity with which we had toiled through Africa. England had won the sources of the Nile! Long before I reached this spot, I had arranged to give three cheers with all our men in English style in honor of the discovery, but now that I looked down upon the great inland sea lying nestled in the very heart of Africa, and thought how vainly mankind had sought these sources throughout so many ages, and reflected that I had been the humble instrument permitted to unravel this portion of the great mystery, when so many greater than I had failed, I felt too serious to vent my feelings in vain cheers for victory, and I sincerely thanked God for having guided and supported us through all dangers to the good end. I was about 1,500 feet above the lake, and I looked down from the steep granite cliff upon those welcome waters—upon that vast reservoir which nourished Egypt and brought fertility where all was wilderness—upon that great source so long hidden from mankind, that source of bounty and of blessings to millions of human beings; and, as one of the greatest objects in nature, I determined to honor it with a great name. As an imperishable memorial of one loved and mourned by our gracious Queen, and deplored by every Englishman, I called this great lake the ‘Albert N’Yanza.’ The Victoria and the Albert Lakes are the two sources of the Nile!”

I may not attempt to follow Baker further, though I can understand the joy he felt when he looked down upon the great lake, which had cost him so much toil, travel and trouble to find. Those who wish to follow him during his voyage of sixty miles on the Lake Albert N’Yanza, and his safe return home by the Nile, and across the desert, and to know further of his wonderful adventures, had better purchase his book. I have already exceeded the limits of my space, but I cannot close my remarks upon the character and explorations of the great African travelers, without expressing my regret that Baker did not deem it worth his while to circumnavigate the Lake Albert N’Yanza, and so settle forever the problem that now puzzles the minds of the learned Society of English Geographers, viz.: “Has the Albert N’Yanza any large influent from the south?” Baker had the opportunity, and he ought to have availed himself of it. Livingstone— patient, persistent, heroic Livingstone!—would have done it. But I am charitable, and I forgive Baker for the sake of the good service he has done, for the sufferings he bore with such good humor, and for the interesting record he has given to the world of his travels and researches in Central Africa; and conclude with the hope that now that he is back there again he will not return until he has settled the vexed question forever.