Sir Samuel White Baker

Sir Samuel White Baker (1821-1893) was an English explorer, author, and administrator who explored the Upper Nile and discovered Lake Albert. He also sought to suppress the slave trade in the southern Sudan.

Samuel Baker was born in London on June 8, 1821. He was a large man with prodigious energy and great bravery and determination. A firm believer in the economic potential of the tropics, he went to manage his family's plantations in Mauritius in 1844 and later established his own estates in Ceylon. The plantations in Ceylon prospered, and he returned to England with his family. After his first wife, Henrietta, died in 1855, Baker traveled in the Crimea, Asia Minor, and the Balkans. In 1860 he married Florence Ninian von Sass, a young and beautiful Hungarian, and the following year he arrived in Cairo determined to seek the source of the River Nile.

Traveling up the Nile to Berber, Baker spent a year wandering along the Atbara River and the Blue Nile, hunting and learning Arabic before returning to Khartoum, from which he and his wife launched an expedition up the White Nile in December 1862. Arriving at Gondokoro, the Bakers met the British explorers John Hanning Speke and James Augustus Grant, who had reached Lake Victoria and the Nile from the East African coast. In 1863-1864 Baker and his wife discovered and explored the eastern shore of Lake Albert, visited Kamrasi, the ruler of Bunyoro, and after many delays returned to London, where Baker wrote an extremely popular book about his explorations and the horrors of the Sudanese slave trade.

In the spring of 1869 Baker was approached by Ismail, the khedive of Egypt, to lead an Egyptian expedition to the Upper Nile to extend Egyptian control to Lake Victoria, to claim the territory for Egypt, and to end the slave trade. Baker was consequently appointed governor general of Equatoria Province and sailed up the Nile with a large expedition of 1200 troops, the most expensive expedition to penetrate Africa.

Baker had agreed to serve for 4 years. Unfortunately, the first year was wasted breaking through the great swamps of the Nile, whose sudd formations provide an almost impenetrable barrier to navigation. Baker reached Gondokoro in 1870 and spent the second year organizing his men and establishing stations in Equatoria.

Frustrated at every turn, he began to employ increasing force to pacify the people and acquire supplies for his troops and followers. Although these raids alienated important tribes, Baker continued to push south into Bunyoro in 1872, where he was again forced to fight, this time against Kabarega, who had succeeded Kamrasi as ruler. Like most African leaders who had to deal with Baker and his forces, Kabarega refused to trust the intruders, and Baker possessed neither the tact nor the tolerance to allay his fears.

Nevertheless, when Baker retired to England and fame and fortune in 1873, he had struck the first blow against the Nilotic slave trade and had laid the foundations for colonial rule in the southern Sudan. He died in Devonshire on Dec. 30, 1893.


Further Reading on Sir Samuel White Baker

Dorothy Middleton, Baker of the Nile (1949), is a full-length biography. Also useful for information on Baker are Emile Ludwig, The Nile: The Life-Story of a River (1935; trans. 1937), and Alan Moorehead, The White Nile (1961).