William Balfour Baikie

The Scottish explorer William Balfour Baikie (1825-1864) proved in an expedition up the Niger and Benue rivers that Europeans could penetrate the in terior of tropical Africa and survive.

William Baikie was born on Aug. 27, 1825, at Kirkwall, in the Orkneys, the son of John Baikie, a Royal Navy captain. Young Baikie attended medical school in Edinburgh and in 1848 entered the Royal Navy as an assistant surgeon. During 1850-1851 he saw service with the fleet in the Mediterranean. He was a man of wide interests, which included literature, natural history, and foreign languages.

The third McGregor Laird trading expedition to the Niger River was formed in 1854. Its purpose was to explore the Benue River to the limit of navigation, open up trade with peoples on the banks of the river, collect objects of natural history, and inquire about the slave trade. Laird built a special vessel, the Pleiad, for this effort and put it under the command of Capt. John Beecroft. Baikie was appointed surgeon and naturalist, but when Beecroft died at Fernando Po before the expedtion left, the command fell to Baikie.

The venture proved highly successful. It was established that steamships could be taken up the Niger and Benue rivers, which was instrumental in opening up the interior to foreign commerce. Missionary stations were established, and over 250 miles of previously unexplored river (Benue) were explored and charted. No lives were lost to malaria due to the pioneering prophylactic use of quinine. Baikie's 118-day stay on the rivers proved that Europeans from temperate zones could penetrate the interior and survive there. Baikie described his 1854 expedition in his Narrative of an Exploring Voyage up the Rivers Kwora and Binue.

In 1857 he again set out for Africa on the fourth Niger expedition. This and another attempt in 1859 met the same fate: the steamer was wrecked shortly after starting up the river. Undaunted, Baikie decided not to return to England but established himself near the confluence of the Niger and Benue at Lokoja as an unofficial British consul and agent. He remained there until 1864, studying the country and its peoples. Most of his work from that 5-year period remains unpublished.

In 1864 Baikie finally left Lokoja to return home but died en route in Sierra Leone. In an age which called for daring and courage from explorers in Africa, Baikie was a match for other British explorers, but he differed from many in that he was an educated, scientific observer of the African scene, an intellectual rather than a daredevil.


Further Reading on William Balfour Baikie

Baikie's own account of the famous expedition of 1854 is Narrative of an Exploring Voyage up the Rivers Kwora and Binue (1856; repr. 1966). The Nigerian bishop Samuel Crowther was a member of the expedition and wrote his impressions in Journal of an Expedition up the Niger and Tshadda Rivers (1855).