On this day in 1864, the English explorer Samuel White Baker, along with his wife Florence, discovered one of the world’s great lakes lying between modern day Uganda and Congo, on an expedition searching for the source of the River Nile. He named the body of water Albert Nyanza or Lake Albert (nyanza meaning lake in Bantu)—after the recently deceased Prince Albert—and claimed that he had discovered the elusive source of the Nile.
European explorers have been searching for the definitive source of the Nile since the days of the Ancient Greeks. Considered the longest river in the world—although some now argue for the Amazon—the Nile and its two tributaries, the larger White Nile and the Blue Nile, manage even today to flummox explorers and scientists. The generally accepted source of the Nile is Lake Victoria, however, many argue that the true sources lie in the headwaters of the streams flowing into the great lake.
Baker’s expedition began in February 1863 and sought to discover the source using maps supplied by the great explorer and first European to reach Lake Victoria, John Hanning Speke. Speke, who died in a hunting accident in 1864 on a day on which he was to debate his claim of Lake Victoria as the Nile’s source, provided information that suggested Lake Albert’s whereabouts, northwest of Lake Victoria. That same year, Baker, like Speke, and numerous explorers before and since, claimed his discovery as the river’s source.
Baker’s life was one of considerable drama and excitement—as befitted an ambitious man of courage in the service of the British Empire. Born into a wealthy family in London, Baker went on to study civil engineering and after university set out on a life of travel. While voyaging across Eastern Europe with his friend Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, Baker entered a slave market in the Danube port town of Vidin. A European slave girl, bound for the harem of the local Ottoman Pasha, caught Baker’s eye. Baker, completely smitten as the story goes, bribed the girl’s attendants and the two fled for Bucharest. The girl eventually received a British passport under the name Florence Finnian.
Florence was an equal match for her intrepid partner, and joined him on his expedition to Lake Albert, along with many other dangerous adventures. The romantic pair were a hit amongst the Victorian society set, however, Queen Victoria did not approve. Perhaps as a consequence of Victoria’s reluctance to welcome Florence at court, Baker’s name is not often remembered amongst his celebrated contemporary explorers. Nonetheless, his story is one worth knowing and his contribution to the exploration of the Nile was significant.