Sir Samuel White Baker

Sir Samuel White Baker, (1821–1893), was born on 8 June 1821 in London. His father was a wealthy ship owner who had sugar plantations in Mauritius and Jamaica and had served as a director of the Great Western Railway and chairman of the Gloucester Bank. His elder brother died in childhood and Baker eventually inherited his father's wealth.

Samuel Baker discovered one of the sources of the Nile.
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.  It is said, that the Bakers purchased the estate as the view of the Teign estuary from Sandford Orleigh, Newton Abbot reminded Sir Samuel of the great African river.

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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, and fulfilled his ambition of great game hunting.  

In his nine years in Ceylon, Baker explored much of the island and established an impressive reputation as a big game hunter. During his many elephant- and stag-hunting expeditions, he experimented with new rifles, stalking methods, and ballistic techniques. After the unexpected death of his wife from typhus fever on 29 December 1855 at Bagnères-de-Bigorre, France. Baker spent time hunting in the Balkans. Afterwards, he contemplated becoming an unofficial spy to report on Russian military designs against India.

Samuel toured South-Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, during this time in Hungary he met Florence, his second wife.  In November 1858, Baker decided to embark on a hunting trip down the Danube River with Maharaja Duleep Singh, the hereditary ruler of the Punjab, who had been living in England since his dispossession.  Baker and the Maharaja took refuge in the Danube town of Widden. While in the town they attended a slave auction where Baker unexpectedly bought a young woman named Florence Barbara Maria Finnian von Sass (1841–1916). She was the sole survivor of an attack on her home in which the rest of her family died during the disturbances of 1848. Baker and Florence journeyed through Asia Minor, spending several months hunting.  They were married for the second time on 4 November 1865, soon after they arrived in England, at St James's Church, Piccadilly,London.  Despite its unusual beginning, theirs was to be a very happy partnership.

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!”   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 needs while they were travelling.

When they reached Berber, Baker decided to stay for 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.

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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 the great lake Nyanja-N’yanja 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 Medal 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. General 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.

Baker regularly wrote books and newspaper and magazine articles about a variety of political and sporting subjects. Additionally, he was elected president of the Devonshire Association, and served as a Town Councillor in Newton Abbot.

Florence was renowned for her kindness and welcoming home, many of the descendants of her servants talk of her with much fondness even today.

Baker died of a heart attack at Sandford Orleigh on 30 December 1893. His body was cremated and his ashes buried at Grimley, near Worcester, on 5 January 1894. Baker's reputation as one of the most important British explorers of the nineteenth century is assured.

After Sir Samuel's death in 1893 Florence was at first inconsolable, but she mustered her courage to live on cheerfully until her death at Sandford Orleigh on 11 March 1916. She was buried with her husband in the family vault at Grimley, near Worcester.