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Explorer Sass Flóra – Florence Baker – part 4

Sam Baker being chased by an elephant

Explorer Sass Flóra – Florence Baker – part 4

Éva Wajda

On June 1,1862, they reached Khartoum.  They were happy to be back in a town with houses and luxuries they hadn’t seen in over a year. No matter that the streets were filthy and dusty, the smell of sewage indescribable, and the houses in poor repair, it was Khartoum with some 30,000 inhabitants.  The British consul Petherick and his wife had gone down the Nile to rescue John Hanning Speke and James Augustus Grant whose expedition, sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society, left the east coast of Africa on October 2, 1860, to confirm that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile.  This was Speke’s second attempt to put to rest all doubt of his earlier findings of July, 1858 when he discovered the lake.

The Pethericks were accompanied by a Scot, Dr. James Murie; an American, Dr. Clarence Brownell, who was interested in tropical botany; and a few other Europeans.  In their absence they had invited Florence and Sam to stay at the consulate. Word had come back that their boats were leaking and that they encountered abundant areas of papyrus, the beginning of the impenetrable swamp known as the sudd, much farther north than they had anticipated.  They abandoned the river and were continuing overland. No one could tell when the Pethericks would reach Gondokoro in the Sudan, a trading station on the White Nile 750 miles south of Khartoum, or if they would reach it at all. No one had heard of Speke and Grant. 

Florence and Sam were looking forward to be with other Europeans.  The city’s European population was less than one hundred and with the exception of Petherick, none had European wives, nearly all had African mistresses and clusters of half-caste children.  The most intriguing people they met were three remarkable Dutch explorers: the Baroness Adriana van Capellan; her sister Harriet Tinné; and Harriet’s daughter, Alexine, who was the driving force behind the expedition.  It was Harriet’s endless flow of money that made it possible. They were charged exorbitant prices, from the rented steamer for one thousand pounds, versus the forty pounds Sam paid for one. The French consul produced inflated receipts for everything, and they never suspected any irregularity. 

Harriet Tinné was astonished by Florence. She wrote in her diary: “A famous English couple have arrived. Samuel and Florence Baker are going up the White Nile to find Speke. They have been traveling in Ethiopia and I hear she had shot an elephant! She wears trousers and gaiters and a belt and a blouse.  She goes everywhere he goes.”

Khartoum bustled with Sudanese troops and a thriving trade in all the raw products of the region, but morally the worst and financially most desirable commodity was black slaves.  Dealers shipped kidnapped men, women and children up the Nile from farther south. They were chained, beaten, poorly fed and inhumanely housed; the ones who survived were sold. To be paid in slaves was customary for the Egyptian officers.  When Sam tried to hire men for his expedition, they expected to be paid in slaves. To produce new slaves, constant raiding was necessary and the tribes of the White Nile were very hostile to outsiders. White men were hated and distrusted. Sam was advised to travel with a military force of well armed men, but the viceroy in Alexandria refused Sam’s request for soldiers. Sam and Florence were not deterred and decided to form their own small army. By October 20, Sam hired 45 soldiers plus an additional 40 men to work as sailors, and 10 servants, a German carpenter, Johann Schmidt,  to be headman or vakeel, making a total of 98 expedition members, including himself and Florence. 

To transport this immense expedition, Sam engaged three vessels for their voyage: two sailing barges and a decked diahbiah, or paddle steamer with a comfortable cabin. The boats were loaded with provisions for four months, plus extra corn and supplies in case they met up with Speke and Grant.  They also planned to carry 21 donkeys and four camels on the boats so they wouldn’t have to hire porters along the way. While trading goods, uniforms and equipment were being assembled, Florence sewed clothing for herself and Sam, compiled and checked off lists of supplies, figured out what would be packed with what and collected information on the local tribes.  Sam designed uniforms for his men, but it was Florence who saw to it that they were properly made. Sam drilled his men daily to turn them into a military unit.

By early November, Sam and Florence were sick of the Europeans of Khartoum who  drank too much, had no intellect nor natural curiosity, but had a distasteful penchant for sly gossip and half truths.  All were into the slave trade, even if only buying slaves for their household.

In November, the Dutch ladies returned from Gondokoro.  Virtually everyone on their boat had fallen ill. They had seen neither Speke and Grant nor Petherick, but heard that the American doctor with Petherick, Clarence Brownell had died of fever on May 22nd.  He was buried on one of the only dry spots that could be found, a massive termite hill. His grave was marked with a brass plaque that had once graced his medical office in East Hartford, Connecticut.

By late November, an awesome quantity of medicines, tools, guns, ammunition, cloth, trading goods, and cooking and camping utensils had been assembled and carefully enumerated in Sam’s book.  Sam copied notes from Burton’s publications, including tribes they expected to encounter and useful information about rivers, lakes, and other water sources.

On December 2, Sam wrote his will, leaving money and goods to Florence, had it witnessed and had the acting British Consul put the official consular seal on the document.  Should anything happen to him, Florence would be provided for.

They left Khartoum by boat on December 18, 1862 with 96 followers, for the most part ruffians and cutthroats.  When they passed the Dutch ladies’ steamer – they were off to explore the Bahr el Ghazal – they waved merrily to one another.  Fever claimed the lives of nearly all the Europeans on the Dutch expedition: the two older ladies, their maid servants and two European men.  Only Alexine Tinné, the youngest, survived. She was killed by Tuaregs on a subsequent expedition through the Sahara desert.

A short time later, sailing south, John Schmidt the carpenter,  who had been ill for weeks with a fever, died and shortly thereafter one of the arms-bearers, a courageous Nubian was killed in a buffalo hunt, a wounded animal tossing and goring him to death.  Sam became melancholic, moody, only after Florence cheered and encouraged him did his melancholy end.  In January, his men lassoed a monstrous hippo who nearly destroyed their boat. Sam came to the rescue and killed it. 

The boats made fair progress until within fifty miles of Gondokoro, where  the river became shallower and in places the grass was so tall as to block the wind.  Mile after mile, the floating mass of plants grew denser. When they passed the mouth of the Bahr el Ghazal, Sam noticed the current died completely.  The fetid smell of stagnant water and decaying vegetation was stifling in the still air. The marshes were endless and the grass so tall they couldn’t see anything.  It was hot and humid, their clothes were soaking with sweat and their hair stiff with salt. The boats could not sail any longer, it was impossible to proceed. The men dragged the boats with long ropes which were attached to the reeds ahead and those on board could haul the boat along.  It made for very slow progress, it took several hours to proceed one mile.and this afforded Sam the opportunity to hunt hippos and crocodiles, converse with the natives and learn their manners and customs.


Eva Wajda is a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.


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