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Samuel Baker was knighted after discovering Lake Albert

Posted in Africa, Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 28 February 2013

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This edited article about Samuel Baker originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 165 published on 13 March 1965.

Samuel Baker at Lake Albert, picture, image, illustration

Samuel Baker discovers Lake Albert by Severino Baraldi

Brandishing a rifle, the Arab leader of the porters who were carrying explorer Samuel White Baker’s equipment through the African jungle came up to Baker and pushed him violently backwards.

“We won’t follow you another step further!” shouted the Arab. “Find someone else to carry your goods!”

“Load up the animals!” commanded Baker tersely.

“We take no more orders from you!” retorted the Arab.

Without another thought Baker shot out his right fist. The chief porter slumped to the ground.

“Now load the animals,” Baker commanded his men. Wide-eyed, they obeyed without a murmur.

That incident in the steaming jungle was one of a whole list of difficulties that beset Baker in his quest to make new discoveries about the Upper Nile.

The British explorers John Speke and Captain J. A. Grant had penetrated Africa in 1863 to discover the source of the Nile – the Lake Victoria Nyanza. On their return journey Speke and Grant borrowed boats from their friend Baker, whom they chanced to meet at the town of Gondokoro.

It had been Baker’s plan, too, to discover the Nile’s source and when Speke and Grant told him what they had found he must have felt a sense of disappointment akin to that which Captain Scott experienced when he found that Amundsen had reached the South Pole before him.

Baker was a tenacious man. He asked his friends if there were any native rumours about other worthwhile discoveries to be made and then Speke told him that the natives had spoken of a lake supposedly to the west of Victoria Nyanza into which the Nile flowed.

If it existed this lake clearly provided the Nile with a considerable additional amount of water near its basin, and geographically it would be an important and valuable discovery.

Baker made up his mind in a trice. He would discover it!

Hardy explorer though he was, he and his Hungarian wife who accompanied him could hardly have guessed at the amazing number of hazards that would block their path.

Trouble beckoned from the start. Mohammed, an Arab assigned to providing porters for the party, began a plot to persuade Baker’s men to desert. What lay behind Mohammed’s plan was his belief that if the white men opened up the Nile they would oppose trade in African native slaves, conducted by the Arabs in a barbaric fashion down the Nile to the Egyptian ports.

Baker’s answer to the plot was to dismiss all the porters involved. But that left him with a mere seventeen men and they refused to start unless he took a route through far more difficult country than the one he proposed.

Baker gritted his teeth. He was not yet master of the situation, but he intended to be. Through the humid jungle tramped the explorer and his wife, their train of donkeys and camels and the seventeen grumbling porters. No one was sure exactly in which direction the village that was their immediate destination lay because there was no guide. All they could do was to follow the tracks of the slave trade caravans, one of whose chiefs had earlier warned Baker that he would shoot him if he found him doing just that.

They had not gone very far before they were overtaken by a following slave caravan led by an Arab named Ibrahim. Baker knew this fellow of old; for Ibrahim had promised that he would send a murderous tribe of natives against him if he used the route through the jungle taken by the slaves traders. Now, as Ibrahim’s caravan, with nine times as many men as Baker’s, drew level, the tension was unbearable.

It was Mrs. Baker who saved the situation. Tersely she called out to Ibrahim to stop and talk; what he was about to hear would be to his advantage.

Ibrahim took the hint and sullenly stopped his men. Then Baker stepped forward and told him dramatically that if he made difficulties he, Baker, would see that he went to prison; that if he harmed any Englishman the British government would hound him down and hang him.

“Co-operate with me and you will be rewarded,” Baker told the Arab. “Behave in a hostile manner, and you will live to rue it. The choice is yours.”

Ibrahim hesitated. Then Mrs. Baker observed dryly: “I would fear for the fate of any man who dared to interfere with a British subject.”

That, and a few presents, won over Ibrahim the Arab. And off plodded the explorer’s caravan on the heels of the slave traders.

But Baker’s own porters were furious. They had a plan to desert the explorer and join the slave traders; now their hopes were dashed. At one of the halts along the way their leader angrily turned on Baker. That was when the explorer decided that if his authority were to be maintained he would have to use his fist.

Slowly the caravan went on. They had not gone very far when a local African tribe decided to wreak vengeance on the slave traders for a burst of thieving and pillaging they had committed in Latooka, one of the tribe’s villages. Baker and his men were included in the target by reason of their accompanying the troublemakers.

At once Baker took command of the situation. He formed the porters up into the famous British Army defensive square and handed round rifles. When the belligerent natives appeared and saw how prepared the enemy were against their attack their chief promptly called them off and sent his men home again.

Through swamp, river and thick jungle, toiling under the blazing sun, the caravan went on. Gradually the porters deserted, one by one, until hardly any were left. At last they came to a river – only to see on the other side the hostile tribe of King Kamrasi, spears poised, inviting them to come across and be killed.

Nonetheless Baker decided to cross alone, and sufficiently impressed the natives by his courage in doing so to obtain an audience with their chief. King Kamrasi was a well-known African villain and laid every conceivable obstacle in the white man’s way before allowing him to proceed.

By the time that Baker had at last received permission to leave Kamrasi’s capital he had only a handful of porters and only temporary guides in the form of a band of Kamrasi’s trouble-seeking warriors, whose nuisance value was so great that the explorer breathed a sign of relief when they at last went home.

For several weeks Baker had been in poor health with fever; and now he became very ill. Worse still, the hardy Mrs. Baker was stricken too, and fell into a coma.

To add to the general misery the skies blackened and rain fell endlessly in torrents. The rivers flooded, the swamps turned into tortuous mud and the mosquitoes seemed to bite with renewed vigour.

One night in March, 1864, the unconscious Mrs. Baker’s condition became desperate. The few remaining porters clustered in a group nearby, deciding how they would split up the caravan’s supplies between them when the white folk died, as they surely must do. Baker knew what they were discussing, but was too helpless to intervene.

It seemed that only a miracle could save the expedition now – and a miracle did. Next morning Mrs. Baker regained consciousness. Two days later she had recovered sufficiently for the caravan to move on.

Amazingly, death had hovered over the very end of their trail. For all this time they had been within only a few miles of the mystery lake. On March 14 the explorer broke through the jungle and saw the great sheet of water below a steep cliff in front of him.

Baker wrote vividly of his discovery:

“Weak and exhausted I tottered down the steep and zig-zagging path. The waves were rolling up on a beach of sand and as I drank the water and bathed my face in the welcome flood, with a feeling of gratitude for succes, I named this great basin of the Nile Albert Nyanza.”

Baker’s brave journey, which earned him a knighthood when he finally returned to London, established beyond doubt that Lake Albert (Albert was the name of the Queen’s husband, the Prince Consort) was, like the Victoria Nyanza, a reservoir of the Nile. It established, too, another magnificent triumph for British exploration.

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