Explorer Sass Flora – Florence Baker – part 5

Éva Wajda

Owing to the obstacles which intervened, it was the first of February, 1863, when Florence and Sam Baker reached Gondokoro.  From here the boats could go no further and they would need to travel by land.  On the surface it was a perfectly legal ivory-trading station, but closely connected to the slave trade.  One could hardly exist without the other.  The only three items linked to this region were ivory, slaves, and cattle.  Ivory could be obtained in trade only for slaves or cattle, but all three could be obtained by a raid on a village or villages.

Gondokoro was a wretched place, the population was composed of the most vicious elements – hostile traders drinking, fighting one another, the brawls so continuous that the sound of gunfire was considered ordinary, bullets buzzing through the air, barely missing bystanders, and once even killing a child.  There were miserable little grass huts and the ruins of an abandoned Austrian Mission that had to serve as shelter for Sam and Florence.

While waiting for the trader whom they hoped to join on his return trip to Faloro, a 12–15 days’ march south of Gondokoro, they spent their time riding through the region and learning about the local tribe, the Bari.  They had dark skins, thick lips and flat noses.  Both men and women rubbed a paste of red ochre and fat over their bodies and for beauty  reasons, elaborate cuts were made in the skin and then rubbed with ash to raise the scars.  They were excellent bowmen and shot strangers on sight if they were alone.  They tipped their arrows with poison, the juice of a euphorbia tree.  When struck, the skin swelled rapidly, then muscle, skin and flesh rotted, and the affected part of the body dropped off.  There was no antidote.  This ferocious tribe accepted Florence and Sam when they learned that their aim was exploration, not exploitation.  Because of their close proximity to Gondokoro, they were raided incessantly by the traders who stole their tusks, cattle and people.  Any archer the traders captured was bound hand and foot and thrown down a cliff into the river and was devoured by crocodiles.  They told Florence and Sam that the traders were hiding huge numbers of slaves inland until they left Gondokoro. 

The English were known to be outspoken opponents of slavery, and Sam and Florence were regarded with deep suspicion as being spies.  Their reception was most unfavorable.  The traders did not want the Englishman looking into their business and then try to get the anti-slavery laws enforced.  After a few days of mingling with the blackguards at the traders’ camps, their men became disrespectful, unruly and quarrelsome.  Sam had explained to each man when hired that raiding for cattle, ivory, and slaves would not be permitted.  Now his men demanded they be allowed to conduct raids, and if refused, they would desert.  Sam assembled the men on the deck of their diabilah the next morning to punish the ringleader of the mutiny for his disobedience and troublemaking, and ordered he be given 25 lashes.  The men grumbled sullenly and threateningly.  Outnumbered forty to one, Sam approached the ringleader and with a well-placed punch knocked him to the ground, and a few more blows followed.  Sam ordered his vakeel to bring a rope to tie him up.  The mutineers were still threatening and closing in.  Florence, feverish in the cabin below, heard the commotion and immediately responded and very calmly, in her diplomatic way, turned the situation around, knowing that Sam’s authority was in the balance.  “Heart of a lion”, Sam thought, recognizing that Florence had saved him from a bad mistake and possibly his life.  Sam knew now that the men could not be trusted and would mutiny again.

There was great excitement when on February 15th, 1863, deBono’s ivory porters arrived.  Sam’s men came running to report that there were two white men with them.

Speke and Grant staggered weakly toward the river where the boats were pulled up, and they were delighted to see that one boat flew the Union Jack.  They saw a burly, bearded white man run towards them.  Speke thought it was Petherrick who was to meet them here even though they were several months late, but it was Sam, not only unexpected, but bearded and ten years older than when he last met Speke.  Sam explained he was here to rescue them, walked them toward his boat and invited them for tea and some food, a wash and a rest.  For a moment Speke thought his eyes had failed him.  There was a beautiful, young white woman on the boat, smiling as she stood beside a table spread with more food than Speke had seen in months and set with cloth napkins, silverware, and a pretty china teapot.  Speke and Grant began to eat as they were half starved.  After they had eaten they could hardly sit upright.  Sam ordered water for their baths, tents to be erected for them and beds to be made, new clothes were laid out for them.

The next day, they shared a great deal of information of the utmost value.  Sam congratulated them in proving that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile.  Using a map of their route, Speke and Grant pointed to a lake, the Luta N’zigé, reported to them by natives but which they had been unable to visit.  It was their belief that the Nile flowed from Lake Victoria into the Luta N’zigé and out again, which would make this lake a source of the Nile second in importance only to Lake Victoria itself.  Speke suggested that Sam should undertake the journey to the lake to clarify the point, to which Sam replied that it would be an honor exploring and mapping the Luta N’zigé as he and Florence had come fully prepared for such an undertaking.  Speke was astonished that Sam would take Florence on such a long and dangerous journey which would take months, even years, and tried to dissuade him, but to no avail.  Sam explained proudly that Florence had traveled with him everywhere, that she could shoot and ride as well as any man and spoke better Arabic than he.  She is fearless, and he (Speke) should see how well she manages the men.  Some positively worship her.

Speke very generously shared information with Sam, wrote detailed directions and advice:  what translators Sam would need, how many days’ march to a village that would trade for food and what chief ruled where, what information to gather or confirm.  Speke and Grant showed Sam the use of surveying instruments, to calculate latitude, longitude, and altitude, when and how to take readings from the sun and the stars with the sextant and so on, to make sure his observations would be compatible with theirs.  Florence paid close attention in case she would need to make observations herself.  Speke did not consider Florence capable of carrying out such a technical task; he also underestimated her intelligence.

When Speke and Grant were ready to leave, Sam put at their disposal one of his boats for their return home to England. 

Note: The Royal Geographic Society had sponsored Speke’s expeditions, the first one with Burton, the second with Grant.  Speke had discovered Lake Victoria in 1858, but was unable to confirm that it was the source of the Nile due to hostile tribes which threatened his and Burton’s lives.  Together with Grant, Speke then left London on April 27th, 1860, for Africa to confirm his earlier discovery.

to be continued

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