Sunday 28th May 2017,
Frontiers Magazine

New paths to light

Howie Firth May 24, 2014 Spring Issue 2014, Summer Issue 2014
featured-image-_William-Balfour-Baikie

In north-central Nigeria, in the state of Kogi, two great rivers meet. One is the Niger, the other its main tributary, the Benué (once known as the Tchadda.

The Niger rises in ancient rocks in the Guinea Highlands, sweeps across West Africa in a great boomerang-shaped course through Mali and Niger, and floods out eventually into the Atlantic Ocean in a massive delta. The Benué comes from northern Cameron, and meets the Niger in a broad lake with numerous islets.

‘Two giant arms of water spread-eagled on an expanse of land dotted with green vegetation’ is the description by one modern Nigerian writer.

The people who live by the lake have their own word for a white man – a beke, and the name is the Orcadian ‘Baikie’. It was brought there by a man who died 150 years ago and whose remarkable character and ability made a deep impression.

William Balfour Baikie established the trading centre that has grown into the modern city of Lokoja, capital of Kogi state. He also opened up the Niger for navigation by steamship; studied the landscape and wildlife and plants; compiled vocabularies of the Hausa, Pulo, and Fula languages; and was doctor, minister, teacher, lawgiver and judge for the people of the area. And all this was done in a period of ten years, in a life that ended before he was 40.

An Orkney childhood

He was born in Kirkwall on 27 August 1825, the son of a naval captain who had served in the Napoleonic Wars. In peacetime Captain Baikie had become the first agent of the National Bank in the town. William went at age 16 to study medicine at Edinburgh University, where one of his lecturers was another Orcadian, Professor T.S Traill. From Traill – mineralogist as well as physician and editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica – he may well have acquired his love of natural history.

He used his summer holidays to explore Orkney with his friend Robert Heddle. Along with the Kirkwall bookseller W. Reid, they formed an Antiquarian and Natural History Society, with a museum in Mr Reid’s house.

Their knowledge of Orkney’s natural history grew rapidly. In 1848, in their early 20s, they published Part I of a natural history of Orkney, covering the islands’ mammals and birds.

But work was calling and later that same year, William Balfour Baikie, now a successful medical graduate, joined the Royal Navy as an assistant surgeon. He served on several ships, and saw some of the African coast, and the naturalist in him was thinking more and more about the possible wonders of an almost unknown land.

Then in 1854 the opportunity came – developing out of a chain of events covering more than twenty years.

Exploring the Niger

Back in 1832 the Scotsman Macgregor Laird had formed a company with some Liverpool merchants to open up the River Niger for trade. They sent two ships, one a paddle-steamer designed by Laird himself, the first iron-clad ship to make an ocean voyage. The expedition travelled up the Niger as far as the junction with the Benué, but lost many men to fever and had to turn back; and for the next two decades Laird concentrated on improving trade with West Africa, with the aim of thereby stopping the slave trade.

Then in 1854, with the support of the British government, he tried again, this time with an iron-screw vessel, the Pleaid, specially built for the task, with a cargo of trade goods aboard. The role of medical officer was combined with that of naturalist – and William Balfour Baikie appointed.

He soon was more than that. The leader of the expedition died and Baikie, next in line, had to take command. And the expedition went well. They explored more than 700 miles of river, and went 250 miles further up the Benué than any Westerners before. They gathered an immense amount of information and natural history specimens, and made contacts with local rulers and communities. And not one man was lost to illness.

We have discovered a navigable river, an available highway, conducting us into the very heart of a large continent,” wrote Baikie. “We have found these regions to be high favoured by nature, teeming with animal life, and with fertile soils bounding in valuable vegetable products … We have met on friendly terms with numerous tribes … ready and anxious to trade with us.”

Building a base

The success of the expedition led to a second one in 1857, this time with the steamer Dayspring. They worked their way upriver to Jebba, but struck a hidden rock and were stranded for a year, with few provisions, until a relief steamer came for them. Baikie could have gone home, but instead set himself to the task of building up a permanent trading base on the Niger, at its meeting with the Benué.

The ruler of the area, the king of Núpe, sold him land, but there was tension between the king and local communities, so first of all Baikie had to undertake a series of careful negotiations between the various parties to defuse the situation.

By January 1860 they could start work. The first step was to clear a hundred acres of land – and the only workforce was Baikie himself, his zoological assistant John Dalton, and a dozen African followers. But they worked away steadily, and others came to see what was happening and were taken on, and as Ernest W. Marwick’s account relates, the project began to make progress.

Before the year was out, Lokoja had the appearance of a small, well-kept African town. Baikie built for himself a simple but commodious house, with a raised platform in front on which were placed, as symbols of authority, two short cannon. Houses for the people, stores, and a market-place were constructed close at hand. A little commonwealth grew up around him with a sober, industrious population, which had its numbers increased by a continuous flow of traders. Some of those who broke their journey at Lokoja came long distances. Over 2,000 traders did business at the settlement in less than three years.”

A total commitment

The rapid growth of Lokoja put a huge burden of responsibility on William Balfour Baikie. He was not only doctor, minister and teacher for the settlement, but the law as well – and head of defence in the event of any external threat. He had to make sure that the workers were fed, and he directed the work on their farmland and put in several hours a day there himself; and he had to keep up the supply of trading goods, even when there no ship from Britain for nearly two year. But whatever the shortfall, he would never take from others and was always hardest on himself.

I think I know from dear bought experience every edible leaf in the field, or fruit in the bush, and when I am rich enough to have a spoonful of palm oil, or a bit of dried fish or hippopotamus flesh to eat with my rice or Indian corn, I think myself extremely well off. The little soap I have I pay 3d a pound for, and as for tea, coffee, sugar, bread, wine, etc., I only remember their names.”

And amongst it all, he was somehow finding time to translate part of the Old and New Testaments into Nigerian dialects, and as Ernest Marwick recorded, to make a three-month journey on horseback further north.

He reached at last, after a ride of 600 miles, Kano, the principal market of northern Nigeria and one of the most civilised towns in central Africa. The land around was excellently cultivated; in the market could be seen fine silks and beautifully finished leathers, and, even more acceptable to the jaded explorer, delicious coffee and wheat rolls and butter.”

Putting it all in order

But by 1863 his health was beginning to suffer though he continued to drive himself hard, and then in August 1864 a naval ship arrived to take him to the coast and the onward voyage to England.

To those on board he seemed in reasonable health,” wrote Ernest Marwick, “although his hair and beard were grey and he confessed to having, at the age of thirty-nine, the feelings of an old man. He looked forward to putting in order his papers and specimens and to stating his case in London for more British aid to the countries of the Niger. With him he took twenty native children, for whose education he hoped to make provision at Sierra Leone.”

In Sierra Leone he was welcomed by a fellow-Orcadian, Charles Heddle, who had prospered in trade there. The plan was for Baikie to set off with the November mail steamer, and his brother had set off for England to meet him.

The explorer had decided, however, to stay a month longer to carry on with the arrangement of his manuscripts and natural history collections. This delay cost him his life. On the 10th December he became ill with a fever of the malignant type, and on the 12th he died. All the chief men in Sierra Leone attended the funeral, at which Mr Heddle was chief mourner, and the body was interred with military honours in the old burying ground.”

The memory and the achievement

A collection of objects from his travels was given to Stromness Museum by Baikie’s brother in 1865 and is on display in a case there today.

In 1868 a memorial to him was completed in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, designed by Sir Henry Dryden, its inscription listing the scale of his achievements as explorer, translator, and pioneer.

For Africa he opened new paths to light, wealth, and liberty – for Europe, new fields of science, enterprise, and beneficence.

He won for Britain new honour and influence, and for himself the respect, affection, and confidence of the chiefs and people.

He earned the love of those whom he commanded, and the thanks of those whom he served, and left to all a brave example of humanity, perseverance, and self-sacrifice to duty.

But the climate, from which his care, skill, and kindness, shielded so many, was fatal to himself, and when, relieved at last though too late, he sought to restore his failing health by rest and home, he found them both only in the grave.”

A life to remember

William Balfour Baikie lived at a time when the global economy was changing. For more than two centuries, profits had been made in the developed world from the use of slaves as cheap labour, but the Industrial Revolution reduced demand for labour – and increased demand for raw materials, and that meant an interest by investors in opening up new areas for trade.

He stood out strongly against slavery, and the book he wrote of his first expedition in 1854 rounds off with a passionate and powerful denunciation of the slave trade and a call for slave ships to be classed as pirates and apprehended by the Navy on the high seas. The British role in Africa, he says, should not be to seek to acquire territory but to visit and build friendship and trade to mutual benefit.

And he speaks with equal warmth and passion of the qualities of the people of Africa as fellow-humans with intellect and ability to be respected.

Whatever fine folks may think to the contrary, colour of skin constitutes no real difference. Under it is the same flesh and blood, a similar brain works, and a like heart beats.”

It is worth noting by contrast that only two years before, the philosopher Herbert Spencer – the man who coined the phrase ‘the survival of the fittest’ and who went on through his close friendship with Thomas Huxley to have a dominant influence on areas of 19th-century science – had come out with the claim that British people had larger brains than those elsewhere who lived in ‘the savage state’. The ‘enlargement of the nervous centres’ was, he maintained, the outcome of competition due to increase of population numbers. Spencer’s ideas that ‘those in whom the power of self-preservation is the greatest are the select of their generation’ were used to justify some of the extremes of colonialism and Victorian industrial practice.

William Balfour Baikie’s language and approach was very different and indeed a model that we can appreciate today. The people of Africa, he said, were brothers, and the humblest of them was in the eye of God as of much value ‘as the proudest peer or the mightiest warrior of our land’.

In the years after his death, tTrade continued to develop, and in 1879 Sir George Goldie proposed that the several British companies trading in West Africa amalgamate into a single company with a state monopoly, the United African Company, rather like the East India Company, or indeed the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada.

In 1900 the company-controlled territories became the Southern Nigerian Protectorate, and this in turn was joined with the Northern Nigeria Protectorate in 1914 to form the country that became independent in 1960 as modern Nigeria.

So this year is the centenary of the birth of modern Nigeria and the 150th anniversary of the death of a man who, while others looked to Africa for wealth or personal ambition, put his priority as serving the people who lived there and treating them with integrity and respect, and in whose life medicine, education and science came together in a spirit of exploration and commitment to others. And in a world today in which those qualities are more than ever needed all around us, he can be remembered with honour.

The life and work of William Balfour Baikie were featured in the 2014 Orkney International Science Festival in an afternoon at Skaill House, with Sheila Garson and Tom Muir telling of his life and travels and Theophilus Oghemhe and Dr Reg Agu giving a Nigerian perspective, followed by a Victorian afternoon tea with a Nigerian flavour by Liz Ashworth.

The account of William Balfour Baikie’s life quoted from here can be found in Volume Two of the selected works of Ernest W. Marwick, An Orkney Anthology, edited by John D. M. Robertson, James M. Irvine and Marie E. Sutherland and published by The Orcadian (Kirkwall Press) in 2012. It has numerous other accounts of famous Orcadians – explorers and seamen, poets and artists – and essays on Orkney words and expressions, on the seasons and on ways of life, and is available from The Orcadian Bookshop.

Like this Article? Share it!

About The Author

Howie Firth

Dr Howie Firth is a writer and physicist from Orkney, with a deep interest in history and philosophy. He is director of Orkney International Science Festival.