Sir Samuel Baker - Victorian Explorer - 1821-1893 Jan - May 2005
In 1874 the renowned explorer Sir Samuel Baker purchased the estate of Sandford Orleigh, Newton Abbot, together with his wife Lady Baker. This was to remain their home for the rest of their lives. Samuel Baker discovered one of the sources of the Nile. It was said that the view of the Teign estuary from Sandford Orleigh reminded him of the great African river. Samuel Baker was descended from West Country sea rovers.
His father, Samuel, was a prosperous, merchant, and a Director of the Great Western Railway. As a young man, Samuel spent time on his father's plantation on Mauritius with his brother. This did not satisfy him, he went on to establish an English settlement in Ceylon, where he could fulfil his ambition of great game hunting.
The great lake Nyanja-Nyanja which they renamed Victoria, in 1862. They felt sure that there were probably two sources of the Nile. Disasters followed the Bakers, mutiny and then illness for both of them. They still doggedly journeyed on. Finally they reached their goal, described by Samuel to a friend: “At last the day arrived. Stretched beneath the mountains like a sea of silver, far away to the horizon lay my prize. I was ill and faint but i grew strong as I sat upon the cliff looking down, 1,500 feet below, at the glorious inland sea. With the help of my stick I tottered down the steep path until I reached the bank. I rushed to the water’s edge, bathed my face and shoulders, took a long draught from this great source of the Nile and thanked God fervently for having guided me to this success. I at once named the lake, The Albert Nyanja”
On his return to England, he was awarded the gold Media of the Royal Geographical Society, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in August, 1866, was given a Knighthood. The Ishmael Pasha (the Turkish Viceroy of Egypt) approached Samuel to ask if he would take on the task of suppressing the slave trade in the Gondokoro area of Africa. Samuel was created a Pasha and Governor General of the Equatorial Nile. It was after this expedition that the Baker’s found a permanent home at Sandford Orleigh. General Gordon succeeded Samuel and was a close friend; they corresponded regularly. Gordon spent his last night in England with the Baker’s at Sandford Orleigh, before being killed in the Sudan, much to the distress of Samuel and Florence. During their time in Devon, the Baker’s greatest delight was to create a garden and exotic conservatory. There was sign on the walls to keep out trespassers:
BEWARE OF THE HYMANTOPHOLUM!
In 1860 Samuel toured South-Eastern Europe and Asia Minor. During his time in Hungary he met Florence and rescued her from a life of white slavery. She became his second wife, his first wife having died in 1855.
Florence accompanied Samuel on all his expeditions “She was no screamer” Samuel proudly boasted, and called her “his good little officer”. She was very competent in arranging his entire domestic need while they were travelling.
In 1861 Samuel toured Central Africa to discover the sources of the Nile, with the hope of meeting the East African expedition under Captains Speeke and Grant somewhere about Victoria Lake. When they reached Berber, Baker decided to stay a year to learn Arabic. Speeke and Grant arrived, exhausted, at Gondokoro in 1863, and were astonished to find Samuel Baker there and then to be served tea by Florence.
With encouragement from Speeke, and directions and maps Florence and Samuel set out southwards, to find the other source of the Nile. Speeke and Grant had discovered It was a poisonous plant brought back from Samuel’s travels!
The staff remembers the Bakers as generous people, giving presents to the old people in the local almshouses. Samuel took a lively interest in local affairs and was the President of the Devonshire Association, and gave numerous talks to Newton and Exeter Societies, as well as enthralling the boys at Newton College speech days.
Samuel Baker died at the age of 72 in 1893. Lady Baker continued to live at Sandford Orleigh until 1916. They are both buried in the family vault at Grimley.