Captain William Balfour Baikie

William Balfour Baikie was yet another Victorian Surgeon and Naval Officer who served at Haslar and went forth as part of the global expansion of the Victorian era as explained by John Richardson son of Sir John Richardson famous surgeon, naturalist and explorer. John was brought up at Haslar from 1838-1855 and came to know of his father’s work including his placement of suitable staff for exploration and his recollection of Baikie is:

Very frequently my father was asked to recommend medical officers for special appointments of a scientific nature.  I know these selections gave him much anxious thought, but he certainly was often fortunate in his choice.  To name one – William Balfour Baikie; the explorer of the Niger and the Benue; who died all too early;

During his explorations Baikie founded many settlements and died in Sierra Leone in November 1864 Twenty two years after his death the land surrounding his Niger exploration was secured for Great Britain and became Nigeria.

I am grateful to Wendell Macconha for his short biography of William Balfour Baike’s. Wendell is in the process of completing a book based on Baikie’s life and yet to be published.

Eric C Birbeck MVO

By Wendall Macconha

William Balfour Baikie was born on August 27, 1825 at Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands.  William was born into one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the islands. His father, John Baike, was a successful businessman who held the rank of Captain and Commander having commanded Royal Naval flagships during the Napoleonic War.  William’s early education consisted of grammar school followed by tutoring.  As a boy he was described as someone “who was noted for his studious, hard-working, retiring disposition—a youth who kept to himself, while giving evidence of possessing good abilities, especially remarkable for perseverance and indefatigable application.” During his boyhood, Baikie developed his life-long interest as a naturalist. At the age of sixteen he began the study of medicine at the University of Edinburgh.  In 1846, while at university and at the age of nineteen, Baikie wrote A List of Books and Manuscripts Relating to Orkney and Zetland.  In his final year at university, he was appointed Clinical Clerk at the Royal Infirmary; a unique opportunity only offered to one resident each year.

Upon taking his degree in 1848, Baikie entered the Royal Navy as an assistant surgeon.  During his first year of service, he found time to write and publish Historia Naturalis Orcadensis: Zoology, Part I.  Baikie’s time in the Royal Navy was spent serving on a series of ships and a succession of naval hospitals from 1848 to 1851.  In 1851 he was posted to Haslar Hospital as an assistant surgeon.

Baikie became a skilled doctor and experienced seaman while serving in the Royal Navy yet his greatest interest was in collecting plant and animal specimens that peaked his curiosity. He would catalogue his finds, then have them shipped back to England where his discoveries were welcomed by various museums and botanical gardens.   In 1854, Baikie was offered a position that captured his attention.  He would be given a leave from his duties at Haslar to be seconded to an exploring voyage on the Niger River.  He was to serve as assistant surgeon and naturalist.  His medical responsibilities would be minimal, allowing him ample time to provide “graphic sketches of the regions watered by the lower Niger and Benue Rivers.”

Baikie sailed from Portsmouth on May 24, 1854 arriving at Fernando Po where the ship’s crew boarded the Pleiad for the exploration of the river.  The man originally selected to head the expedition died just prior to the outset of the voyage; the surgeon to whom Baikie was to report was transferred to serve in the Crimean War and a few days into the voyage, it became clear that the captain of the Pleiad was inept.  Thus, at 27 years of age, William Balfour Baikie assumed the roles of surgeon, naturalist, ship’s captain and director of the mission.

As a doctor, Baikie was aware that the use of quinine to treat malaria had become common practice.  However, he believed that taking quinine ahead of the exposure could prevent malaria.  Now, he was able to test his theory.  Starting several days ahead of the voyage, he gave those onboard a mixture of quinine and wine twice a day.  Over the next six weeks, the Pleiad navigated the delta region, sailed to the confluence of the Niger and Benue Rivers, and then proceeded up the Benue over 250 miles farther than any previous expedition; with Baikie collecting specimens throughout the journey.  In a time when similar voyages would have lost three-quarters of their crew to fever; Baikie accomplished this feat without the loss of a single life.

He returned to his position at Haslar in 1855 where, in addition to his medical duties, he worked to catalogue and distribute his collection from the voyage. In 1856, he published Narrative of an Exploring Voyage which included the discovery of the preventative use of quinine.  After spending an additional nine months working at Haslar, he was asked to lead a second voyage on the Niger.  In 1857, while early in his command, the ship was wrecked on a series of rapids.  Baikie successfully offloaded all of the crew and cargo and established a camp at the confluence of the two rivers.  He was able to keep the crew together and alive for over a year until they could be rescued.  When a ship arrived to take the crew back to England, Baikie alone elected to stay.  He lived alone, among the Igbo and Hausa people for the next seven years.  He developed a successful trading settlement near where he had spent the previous year.  While there he practiced medicine among the native peoples, built roads, wrote a series of publications on trade and the local population, compiled vocabularies of over 50 native languages and dialects and translated large parts of the Bible into the Hausa language.   While en route home to England to visit his ailing father, he died of fever at Sierra Leone on December 12, 1864. He was 40 years old.

William Balfour Baikie’s period of contact in Nigeria lasted only ten years.  Yet, 150 years later his name is still used to represent an entire classification of people.  Writing on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his death, Ernest Marwick noted that not only does the Igbo word Beke mean “white man,” but “England” became known as Ela Beke.  Marwick says, “Although thousands of white men have come and gone it is with cordial respect that the Niger River people remember William Balfour Baikie.”

William Balfour Baikie 1825-1864

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