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M. B. Synge

Baker Finds Albert Nyanza

B AKER had not been long at Gondokoro when the two English explorers arrived from the south.

"In March 1861," he tells us, "I commenced an expedition to discover the sources of the Nile, with the hope of meeting the East African expedition of Captains Speke and Grant that had been sent by the English Government from the south via Zanzibar for that object. From my youth I had been innured to hardship and endurance in tropical climates, and when I gazed upon the map of Africa I had a wild hope that I might by perseverance reach the heart of Africa."

These are the opening lines of the published travels of Samuel Baker, famous as an elephant-hunter in Ceylon and engineer of the first railway laid down in Turkey. Like Livingstone, in his early explorations, Baker took his wife with him. "It was in 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 to share all dangers and to follow me through each rough footstep of the wild life before me."

On 15th April 1861, Baker and his wife left Cairo to make their way southward to join the quest for the source of the Nile. They reached Korosko in twenty-six days, and crossed the Nubian desert on camels, a "very wilderness of scorching sand, the simoon in full force and the thermometer in the shade standing at 114° Fahr." By Abu Hamed and Berber they reached Atbara. It now occurred to Baker that without some knowledge of Arabic he could do little in the way of exploration, so for a whole year he stayed in northern Abyssinia, the country explored by Bruce nearly ninety years before.

It was therefore 18th December 1862 before he and Mrs. Baker left Khartum for their journey up the Nile through the slave-driven Sudan. It was a fifty days' voyage to Gondokoro. In the hope of finding Speke and Grant, he took an extra load of corn as well as twenty-two donkeys, four camels, and four horses. Gondokoro was reached just a fortnight before the two explorers returned from the south.

Baker's account of the historical meeting between the white men in the heart of Africa is very interesting: "Heard guns firing in the distance—report that two white men had come from the sea. Could they be Speke and Grant? Off I ran and soon met them; hurrah for Old England. They had come from the Victoria Nyanza from which the Nile springs. The mystery of ages solved! With a heart beating with joy I took off my cap and gave a welcome hurrah as I ran towards them! For the moment they did not recognise me; ten years' growth of beard and moustache had worked a change, and my sudden appearance in the centre of Africa appeared to them incredible. As a good ship arrives in harbour battered and torn by a long and stormy voyage, so both these gallant travellers arrived in Gondokoro. Speke appeared to me the more worn of the two. He was excessively lean; he had walked the whole way from Zanzibar, never having ridden once during that wearying march. Grant was in rags, his bare knees projecting through the remnants of trousers."

Baker was now inclined to think that his work was done, the source of the Nile discovered, but after looking at the map of their route, he saw that an important part of the Nile still remained undiscovered, and though there were dangers ahead he determined to go on his way into central Africa.


Baker and his wife crossing the Nubian Desert.

"We took neither guide nor interpreter," he continues. "We commenced our desperate journey in darkness about an hour after sunset. I led the way, Mrs. Baker riding by my side and the British flag following close behind us as a guide for the caravan of heavily laden camels and donkeys. And thus we started on our march in central Africa on the 26th of March 1863."

It would take too long to tell of their manifold misfortunes and difficulties before they reached the lake they were in search of on 16th March 1864. How they passed through the uncivilised country so lately traversed by Speke and Grant, how in the Obbo country all their porters deserted just a few days before they reached the Karuma Falls, how Baker from this point tried to follow the Nile to the yet unknown lake, how fever seized both the explorer and his wife and they had to live on the common food of the natives and a little water, how suddenly Mrs. Baker fell down with a sunstroke and was carried for seven days quite unconscious through swamp and jungle, the rain descending in torrents all the time, till Baker, "weak as a reed," worn out with anxiety, lay on the ground as one dead.

It seemed as if both must die, when better times dawned and they recovered to find that they were close to the lake.

Baker's diary is eloquent: "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 us the grand expanse of water, a boundless sea-horizon on the south and south-west, glittering in the noonday sun, while at sixty miles' distance, blue mountains rose from the lake to a height of about seven thousand feet above its level. It is impossible to describe the triumph of that moment; here was the reward for all our labour! England had won the sources of the Nile! I looked from the steep granite cliff upon those welcome waters, upon that vast reservoir which nourished Egypt, upon that great source so long hidden from mankind, and I determined to honour it with a great name. As an imperishable memorial of one loved and mourned by our gracious Queen, I called this great lake 'the Albert Nyanza.' The Victoria and the Albert Lakes are the two sources of the Nile."

Weak and spent with fever, the Bakers descended tottering to the water's edge. "The waves were rolling upon a white pebbly beach. I rushed into the lake and, thirsty with heat and fatigue, I drank deeply from the sources of the Nile. My wife, who had followed me so devotedly, stood by my side pale and exhausted—a wreck upon the shores of the great Albert Lake that we had long striven to reach. No European foot had ever trod upon its sand, nor had the eyes of a white man ever scanned its vast expanse of water."


Baker's boat in a storm on Lake Albert Nyanza.

After some long delay, the Bakers procured canoes, "merely single trees neatly hollowed out," and paddled along the shores of the newly found lake. The water was calm, the views most lovely. Hippopotami sported in the water; crocodiles were numerous. Day after day they paddled north, sometimes using a large Scotch plaid as sail. It was dangerous work. Once a great storm nearly swamped them. The little canoe shipped heavy seas; terrific bursts of thunder and vivid lightning broke over the lake, hiding everything from view. Then down came the rain in torrents, swept along by a terrific wind. They reached the shore in safety, but the discomforts of the voyage were great, and poor Mrs. Baker suffered severely. On the thirteenth day they found themselves at the end of the lake voyage, and carefully examined the exit of the Nile from the lake. They now followed the river in their canoe for some eighteen miles, when they suddenly heard a roar of water, and, rounding a corner, "a magnificent sight suddenly burst upon us. On either side of the river were beautifully wooded cliffs rising abruptly to a height of three hundred feet and rushing through a gap that cleft the rock. The river pent up in a narrow gorge roared furiously through the rock-bound pass, till it plunged in one leap of about one hundred and twenty feet into a dark abyss below. This was the greatest waterfall of the Nile, and in honour of the distinguished President of the Royal Geographical Society I named it the Murchison Falls." Further navigation was impossible, and with oxen and porters they proceeded by land. Mrs. Baker was still carried in a litter, while Baker walked by her side. Both were soon attacked again with fever, and when night came they threw themselves down in a wretched hut. A violent thunderstorm broke over them, and they lay there utterly helpless, and worn out till sunrise. Worse was to come. The natives now deserted them, and they were alone and helpless, with a wilderness of rank grass hemming them in on every side. Their meals consisted of a mess of black porridge of bitter mouldy flour "that no English pig would notice" and a dish of spinach. For nearly two months they existed here, until they became perfect skeletons.

"We had given up all hope of Gondokoro," says Baker, "and I had told my headman to deliver my map and papers to the English Consul at Khartum."

But they were not to die here. The king, Kamrasi, having heard of their wretched condition, sent for them, treated them kindly, and enabled them to reach Gondokoro, which they did on 23rd March 1865, after an absence of two years. They had long since been given up as lost, and it was an immense joy to reach Cairo at last and to find that, in the words of Baker, "the Royal Geographical Society had awarded me the Victoria Gold Medal at a time when they were unaware whether I was alive or dead and when the success of my expedition was unknown."