Samuel White Baker. Born: London, June 8, 1821, one of seven siblings, including his brother James, founder of the town of Cranbrook B.C. Son of a savvy and successful businessman, most notably for wise investments in the sugar trade. Intelligent, adventurous, convivial with an unending passion for the hunt.
We pick up the thread of Sam’s life in 1861, already a much-travelled man of the world, most recently returned from a long stint in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to establish an English settlement at Nuwara Eliya.
Three children and a wife now dead, four daughters in the care of his sister Minnie, and, to the dismay of many friends and peers who have heard the rumours, a new lady at hand.
Her name is Florence, a daughter of Hungarian aristocracy forced into slavery while a child. She is rescued from a white-slave market in the Ottoman Empire by a smitten Samuel, stolen from the very clutches of the hopeful Ottoman of Vidin, conveyed to safety in Romania and on to England.
Florence is an independent, intelligent, good looking young lady who refuses to be daunted by those who view her as an improper choice for one such as Samuel Baker. She refuses to play the role of Victorian hausfrau while her husband seeks adventure. They are a deucedly good match and together they will travel into the history books as soul mates of the first order.
For a number of years Sam’s burning ambition has been to explore Africa, the Dark Continent that captured so much of the English imagination of the day, and so it was, in March, 1861, Sam and Flo journeyed to Cairo to begin their explorations.
Traveling up the Nile and later on land by camel and donkey with a small group of natives, battling weather, disease and malnutrition, they eventually reached Khartoum in June, 1862. Following complicated preparations they left Khartoum in December, sailing up the White Nile in three ships loaded with supplies, transport animals and 96 men, 45 of whom were armed soldiers, the entire expedition funded by Sam.
Their main purpose, aside from some serious big-game hunting along the way, was to discover the true source of the Nile, a burning question amongst explorers since the return from Lake Victoria of Richard Burton and John Speke in 1858. The intrepid pair had discovered and named the lake which they stated as the source of the river but had failed to ascertain if the lake itself was itself fed by yet another waterway. Speke and his new partner Grant were already once again up the Nile in an attempt to settle the matter. Sam and Flo were not far behind.
Speke and Grant, generally unsuccessful in their attempt, met the Baker party at Gondokoro, in February, 1863, where Sam turned his ships over to Speke for their journey back down the river. The Baker party struggled valiantly on, eventually arriving at a large body of water that Sam promptly named Lake Albert. In poor health at the time of their discovery there followed a lengthy period of sickness and near starvation far from civilization.
Sam and Flo finally made their way downriver to Gondokoro, then to Khartoum and on to Paris, where they were joined by his brother James. In October, 1865, they returned at last to England and much acclaim. Sam received the Royal Geographic Society Gold Medal, a must for every noted explorer of the day, and the following year was honoured with a knighthood (although Queen Victoria refused to yield to her moral indignation at the couple’s perceived pre-marital relations and would not receive Florence at court).
Sam returned again to Egypt in 1869, this time in the company of the Prince and Princess of Wales. During this visit Sir Sam was offered the position of governor-general (pasha) of the vague district of Equatoria. He accepted and was installed in April, 1869, his main task being to rid the White Nile of the slave trade. Promoted to Major-General of the Ottoman Army he (with Florence by his side) headed a large force that exerted much effort and saw some success in his task. Sam’s term as Governor of Khartoum ended in 1873 at which time Sam and Flo returned to England.
It was rough innings for the English in Africa: native uprisings, ambushes, battles, massacres, subterfuge, danger on all sides. Sam and Florence got out in time. Others did not. Charles Gordon, Sam’s successor as governor, died in 1885, along with his garrison of 7,000 soldiers and many civilians during the siege of Khartoum.
Sir Samuel and Lady Florence Baker lived out their final years at Sandford Orleigh in Devon, England. Sam died at home on Dec. 30, 1893. “How can I live, now that my all is taken from me?” Florence cried in grief, but live she did. She had Sam cremated according to his wishes, an uncommon practice in Britain at the time and yet another, and final, broadside against the old-school ways so flagrantly flaunted by the couple.
Florence continued to live and entertain at the estate until her death on March 11, 1916.
Global exploration, white-slavery, native uprisings, royal censure with a proper hint of scandal, a knighthood, international fame and glory; pretty hard to top that yet, hark, isn’t that Sam’s dashing young brother Valentine astride that white steed there in the distance …