Baker’s goal of discovering the lake that he named ‘Albert N’yanza’ was finally reached 14 March 1863. He and his wife had both been extremely sick on the way, and could hardly walk. Their horses, donkeys and camels had all died (probably tsetse fly, from his description of the symptoms) and they were therefore reduced to riding cows.
His description of the discovery of the lake contains all of the Victorian notions of romantic discovery encased in ‘high’ British Imperialism; as Baker says in the Introduction to the book, by way of explaining imperial expansion:
… The primary object of geographical exploration is the opening to general intercourse such portions of the earth as may become serviceable to the human race. The explorer is the precursor of the colonist; and the colonist is the human instrument by which the great work must be constructed–that greatest and most difficult of all undertakings–the civilization of the world.
The progress of civilization depends upon geographical position. The surface of the earth presents certain facilities and obstacles to general access; those points that are easily attainable must always enjoy a superior civilization to those that are remote from association with the world….
Baker – The Albert N’Yanza, Great Basin of the Nile, 1866
The sun had not risen when I was spurring my ox after the guide, who, having been promised a double handful of beads on arrival at the lake, had caught the enthusiasm of the moment. The day broke beautifully clear, and having crossed a deep valley between the hills, we toiled up the opposite slope.
I hurried to the summit. The glory of our prize burst suddenly upon me! There, like a sea of quicksilver, lay far beneath the grand expanse of water,–a boundless sea horizon on the south and southwest, glittering in the noonday sun; and on the west, at fifty or sixty miles’ distance, blue mountains rose from the bosom of the lake to a height of about 7,000 feet above its level.
It is impossible to describe the triumph of that moment;–here was the reward for all our labour–for the years of tenacity with which we had toiled through Africa.
England had won the sources of the Nile! Long before I reached this spot, I had arranged to give three cheers with all our men in English style in honour of the discovery, but now that I looked down upon the great inland sea lying nestled in the very heart of Africa, and thought how vainly mankind had sought these sources throughout so many ages, and reflected that I had been the humble instrument permitted to unravel this portion of the great mystery when so many greater than I had failed, I felt too serious to vent my feelings in vain cheers for victory, and I sincerely thanked God for having guided and supported us through all dangers to the good end.
I was about 1,500 feet above the lake, and I looked down from the steep granite cliff upon those welcome waters–upon that vast reservoir which nourished Egypt and brought fertility where all was wilderness– upon that great source so long hidden from mankind; that source of bounty and of blessings to millions of human beings; and as one of the greatest objects in nature, I determined to honour it with a great name.
As an imperishable memorial of one loved and mourned by our gracious Queen and deplored by every Englishman, I called this great lake “the Albert N’Yanza.” The Victoria and the Albert lakes are the two Sources of the Nile.
The zigzag path to descend to the lake was so steep and dangerous that we were forced to leave our oxen with a guide, who was to take them to Magungo and wait for our arrival. We commenced the descent of the steep pass on foot. I led the way, grasping a stout bamboo. My wife in extreme weakness tottered down the pass, supporting herself upon my shoulder, and stopping to rest every twenty paces.
After a toilsome descent of about two hours, weak with years of fever, but for the moment strengthened by success, we gained the level plain below the cliff. A walk of about a mile through flat sandy meadows of fine turf interspersed with trees and bush, brought us to the water’s edge.
The waves were rolling upon a white pebbly beach: I rushed into the lake, and thirsty with heat and fatigue, with a heart full of gratitude, I drank deeply from the Sources of the Nile. …
… It was with extreme emotion that I enjoyed this glorious scene. My wife, who had followed me so devotedly, stood by my side pale and exhausted–a wreck upon the shores of the great Albert Lake that we had so long striven to reach. No European foot had ever trod upon its sand, nor had the eyes of a white man ever scanned its vast expanse of water.
We were the first; and this was the key to the great secret that even Julius Caesar yearned to unravel, but in vain. Here was the great basin of the Nile that received EVERY DROP OF WATER, even from the passing shower to the roaring mountain torrent that drained from Central Africa towards the north. This was the great reservoir of the Nile!
… Within a quarter of a mile of the lake was a fishing village named Vacovia, in which we now established ourselves. …
- Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure by Tim Jeal: review (telegraph.co.uk)
- Explorers of the Nile by Tim Jeal – review (guardian.co.uk)