Thursday, June 26, 2014

Samuel Baker: Globe Trotting Explorer And Hunter

Few people in the 1800's racked up more mileage on foot, trophies on the wall and achievements under their belts than English explorer Samuel Baker. Even for the time period when men made their livings by going to dangerous places and prodding some of the most deadly animals on land for fun, Baker stands out as one of the most seasoned, which is a major accomplishment.
One could almost consider Baker to be the English equivalent of our American Theodore Roosevelt. Baker explored and hunted in Sri Lanka, called Ceylon back in the day, India, Africa, Europe and North America all the while keeping an eye open for men of exceptional skill in the craft of hunting and singing their praises when he found them. In his many, many writings Baker goes out of his way to point out men who were capable of achieving great feats of all types all the way from the Hamran Arabs hunting elephants with swords on horseback to an American cowboy who outmaneuvered a bear into exhaustion from the saddle, exploits I will explore in more detail in other posts.

The number of hunting exploits Baker achieved himself are many and exhaustively covered in his books, but for now I'll cover the highlights.
One of his most famous styles he started in the Scottish Highlands and continued exercising on the island of Sri Lanka with wondrous effectiveness. What he did was have a pack of mixed-blood hounds that he trained himself to chase after stags of different types, and when the deer were brought to bay he would run the entire distance with a foot long knife. He would then grapple with the stags and drive his blade into the back or neck to sever the spine.

Quite a manly sport, what? The pack hounds he had under his command clearly held a great passion for the hunt equal to his own and he recalls each of his pack leaders fondly and with obvious love. One can vividly imagine the excitement he felt when he writes of rushing through the jungles listening to the baying of his hounds, seeing a stag standing at bay with its furry main bristling and waving its horns in a defensive manner.

These chases led through tangled jungles and over cold rivers. The rugged terrain required superb physical fitness in order to traverse while running at full tilt in order to reach his hounds in time. You can't help but respect a man like that and his dogs for that kind of hunting! I'd like to try something like that sometime, but I get the feeling PETA would throw a fit and call me all manner of horrible names.

The real danger for the dogs however came not from the stags at bay, but when they became lost in the jungle and were stalked by leopards. Baker laments how he lost many hounds to the claws and jaws of leopards that recognized the howls of lost dogs hoping to draw the attention of their master, only to be pounced on from above and slain.
One hound evened out the score though. Perhaps the best hound he ever had, Old Smut, which conjures quite different mental images today, was his oldest and most experienced dog, the grizzled canine equivalent of Lee Ermey. Baker tells us how from time to time Old Smut would go off into the jungle by himself and use himself as bait and then get into royally intense fights with leopards that attempted to eat him. Although Baker never saw any of the fights he heard some of them. I can only imagine what a huge hound fighting with a leopard would sound like!

Baker then recounts how Old Smut would return at night covered in lacerations and cuts but refuse any medical treatment or food, keeping to himself until he felt better. Good grief! That was one tough dog! Old Smut would often teach younger, less experienced hounds how to avoid being gored by stags and how to dart in at the right time, being smart as a whip in addition to being tougher than railroad tracks. So long did he survive in fact that near the end of his life almost all of his teeth were gone, having fallen out from age or being pulled out while dragging down prey. Baker often recalls how a brave stag at bay would fend off all of the other dogs only to be hit by the cunning Old Smut that saw an opening and brought victory to the pack.

The poor old boy met his end not while exacting revenge on a leopard or savaging a stag, but when the pack accidentally ran into a boar in thick jungle. Baker had a rifle at the time and heard the grunts of the pig, knowing how deadly they were but didn't dare fire. The jungle was so thick that even though he was often within a few feet of the animal, he couldn't see it and didn't wish to hit any of his dogs. Eventually the animal buggered off and the toothless Old Smut was cut wide open, having met his match in an intense fray and died shortly after.

Aside from this most impressive style of hunting Baker more often used smooth-bore muzzle loaders and rifles. Much of his writing on ballistics and hunting took place during the 1860's when rifling was being improved and cartridges were still being developed. At the time almost all bullets were of round lead balls, so much of his personal advice on their use is obsolete in the face of modern designs. For the time however this was cutting edge and offers a great insight to how weapons of the time were used.

During is time in Sri Lanka Baker killed more Asian elephants than perhaps any other man, and although I don't know his exact body count, I'm pretty sure it ranks to over a thousand of the animals. This is extremely impressive given the weapons he had available were all muzzle-loaders and that he hunted them heavily in thick jungle and lemon grass that grew above his head. Whether due to youthful bloodlust or simply trying to thin out the troublesome herds, Baker collected a very high body count. What seems unusual is just how many he would kill in a herd, even hitting young ones and females. This wasn't done for ivory, as they barely had any at all.

Like in Africa the local elephants caused all sorts of problems for villagers trying to grow crops and occasionally stepping on natives. So troublesome were they that the government actually put out bounties on the animals, so any villager with long gun might take a crack at the herds and thin them out. This was before the idea of conservation existed and anyone who killed a large number of elephants was seen as performing a service.

Perhaps Baker realized that the volume of killing he was doing was wrong as he grew older, as in some of his writing he seems to condemn large scale hunting and wasting herds. He definitely disliked men ambushing them and then not going after the rest, simply content with a successful surprise attack. He knew it was far more dangerous to go into the thick stuff after a herd that was aware you were coming and capable of hitting you from the sides in a rush from only a few yards away.
For his elephant hunting exploits I will let you read his writing and recommend you come to your own conclusions.

Baker had a great number of close calls though that make for hairy tales even today. One elephant almost evened the score with the Englishman when he was hunting in Sri Lanka. Baker had been in pursuit of a rogue near a thicket, a patch of brush that was so impenetrable that even when he was within a few feet of a massive Indian Elephant, he couldn't see it at all through the foliage! This was almost his undoing, as the animal charged from extremely close range and struck him in the leg with one of its tusks. The bruising he got after that was something to be remembered!

His most famous encounter however was with an Asian water buffalo. Often regarded as the most deadly of bovines is the African cape buffalo, and with good reason, owing to its absolutely unbelievable resistance to death when its adrenaline gets pumping. Its distant Asian cousin however seems to be capable of offering some competition, as we'll soon see.

In his very early twenties and in his early trekking within Sri Lanka, Samuel and his brother, who is unnamed, were trekking through the open park-like country with a large convoy that was carrying their things. Whether this was part of when he was building his Ceylon home or not I'm not sure, as Baker was not in the habit of listing his the dates of most of his adventures, so chronology can be very confusing.

Anyway, he and his brother were on horseback and came upon Minneria Lake with a hundred of massive, grand buffalo wallowing in the water and mud. Their mossy horns swept back from their heads like tree branches. Baker and his brother couldn't resist the temptation of having a go at a few of these great beasts. However, two things were amiss. They were only armed with smooth bore twelve gauge muzzle loaders with a few lead balls apiece. Part of their convoy had fallen behind, and it so happened that their heavy guns were with that portion of the group. Although they waited for some time, the other men still didn't arrive and the two Englishmen lost patience and decided to try their luck with the twelve gauges.

The other problem was noted most specifically by Baker in his book The Rifle and Hound in Ceylon, as he admitted that at this time he was ignorant of the behavior of buffalo. Although he had shot them before, he had done so under different circumstances, and distinctly notes that his near downfall came from assuming that the buffalo acted the same under most circumstances.

As he put it "Like most novices, however, I was guilty of one great fault. I despised the game, and gave no heed to the many tales of danger and hair-breadth escapes which attended the pursuit of wild animals. This carelessness on my part arose from my first debut having been extremely lucky; most shots had told well, and the animal had been killed with such apparent ease that I had learnt to place an implicit reliance on the rifle. The real fact was that I was like many others; I had slaughtered a number of animals without understanding their habits, and I was perfectly ignorant of the sport."

So it was with suffocating arrogance and an insufficient weapon that he and his brother tromped out into the shallow marsh to bag a few water buffalo. Things didn't go terribly well from the outset. The marsh where the buffalo were was devoid of any cover and the hunters were instantly spotted upon their approach. Most of the animals formed a single herd and began to trundle off, but a few bulls held their ground and appeared to be ready to put up a fight.

One of these charged, but at a point it turned aside and for his trouble got a pair of lead balls in his shoulder, breaking the bone and hobbling him. He kept up his retreat in spite of the wound when something quite shocking happened. Seemingly out of spite, another bull even larger than the first, charged his wounded companion and struck him with such force that the already injured animal was thrown on his side and unable to regain his feet, while his assailant swaggered off across the muddy marsh.

This particular bull must have had a consistently foul mood, for as Samuel took after him, leaving his brother to finish off the initial victim, the animal would gain a hundred yards and then pause, watching Samuel slog through the water until he was almost within shooting range before taking off again. It was almost like the animal was taunting him out of disdain and it certainly worked. I've had a little bit of experience in wading through muddy water, and boy is it a hassle. There's a reason why people use boats when around water. So you can imagine Samuel running forth while carrying a heavy gun with the sun high in the sky and dressing in Victorian clothing might not make for ideal waterpark gear.

This continued for about a mile. So infuriated did the hunter get at this that he fired a frustrated shot, which of course missed, and reloaded his last lead ball. Cutting a corner around a creek however Baker managed to get ahead of the bull, which snorted in confusion when it saw its pursuer somehow in front of it at close quarters. Only fifteen yards away, Baker was almost drunk on smug self-confidence, aimed and plugged the bull in the chest with one barrel, fully expecting the animal to fall right over and give up the ghost.

That is when things really started to go bad. The bull didn't even blink as the chunk of metal pierced his chest. Instead his eyes shifted from cantankerous and sullen into blazing with righteous anger. Baker's confidence began to waver a bit at this point, as most animals and people tend to feel a wee bit under the weather when shot with a twelve gauge. Deciding to play it safe Samuel then fed him the other barrel at the same spot. Although blood freely poured from the twin wounds, the animal literally didn't even flinch. Instead it looked at him as if Baker had insulted his mother and began working itself up for a suitable retort.

Sammy was completely out of ammo by this point and realized that this could likely turn very nasty very quickly. He didn't retreat, as he knew that doing so would instantly bring a charge, and the animal would outrun him anyway.  A short plunge from the bull brought it to within ten yards and then stopped, perhaps mustering more rage before delivering the final blow. With little other form of defense he pulled out his hunting knife, which of course wasn't going to help all that much under those circumstances. The idea sprang to his head to alert his brother. He then gave a long, sharp whistle which he knew would summon his brother.

Now all he had to do was survive long enough for him to show up. The buffalo didn't appreciate his sounds though and further lessened the distance between them. He pawed the bloody water, bringing his rage to a fitful boil. Then a desperate idea popped into Samuel's head. Although he had no lead balls left, he did have some spare change! I am quite serious. After dumping a double powder charge down one of the barrels he took a handful of metal coins, wrapped them in a piece of torn shirt and rammed it all home. Again the bull rushed towards him, and he dropped his ramrod into the water, aiming his gun at its forehead and waiting until the last moment before firing.

It was then that his brother arrived at an angle and announced that he had sprinted the entire way after hearing Samuel's whistle, but only had one bullet left. Samuel then instructed his brother to hold his fire until the last moment and to aim for the brute's head, hoping that the combination of fire would convince the animal to quit kicking. As soon as this was said the bull charged. Both men fired, Samuel only pulling the trigger when the barrels of his gun were practically touching its forehead!

Down it went in a spray of foul water, having received an epic pounding to the skull.
Not waiting a moment to see if it was ready to throw in the towel the brothers turned tail and ran for all they were worth. All of that smugness that Baker had been filled with before had been deflated like a balloon. When they had gone a distance the paused to see if the animal was done. Nope! The bull was up again and slowly staggering after them, but clearly disoriented beyond all comprehension. I don't envy the headache he must have had!

In Baker's most amusing version of the event he said "On he came, but fortunately so stunned by the collision with her Majesty's features upon the coin which he had dared to oppose that he could only reel forward at a slow canter."
Don't you just love his patriotism?

Eventually the two found sanctuary in the branches of a dead tree that was in the middle of the lake and when darkness fell the two slipped away. The very next day Baker was back at Minneria Lake, now toting his trusted four ounce gun and ready to wrap things up. In a staggering testament to the animal's endurance, he could find no trace of it! Although it had collapsed repeatedly from exhaustion the day before it was now nowhere to be seen, and he never did catch up with that bull.

One of his greatest achievements of course was helping to discover the source of the Nile in Africa, which proved one of his most difficult tasks by far. He undertook his expedition in 1861 with his wife, Florence, although they weren't married at the time. I must take a moment to comment on Florence, as her relationship and history with Samuel is controversial and fascinating. According to them, Florence the daughter of a European of some importance, although I confess the intricacies of her origin leave me baffled, and I encourage those who are interested to click on the Wikipedia link below.

Anyway, supposedly she was kidnapped at some point and put on the slave market in Bulgaria. It is interesting to note that at this point in time England had made an amazing 180 degree turn on their slavery stance and began a campaign to stamp it out amongst most of the world, but had not yet influenced most of their fellow Europeans. It is said that while touring a slave market to amuse a Maharaja that Baker encountered Florence and sought to liberate her, which he did, and shortly after had a crude marriage outside of England. The legalities here are somewhat sketchy, giving the impression that the two had intimate contact before being wed in England in 1865, which made him a most controversial character in the area of nobility.

Some people are quite suspicious as to whether he did in fact actually liberate her in the way they indicated, and it's easy to see why. At the time the idea of a dashing English hero rescuing a white damsel from a life of slavery by Ottomans or other members of the Middle East was a most epic story, and he may have fabricated portions in order to make himself seem more heroic. I personally ride the fence on this particular subject. On one hand, Baker is certainly not one to have told lies, as he is often brutally honest in his books when detailing his personal opinions and adventures. At the same time this may have been one occasion where he switched a few things around to save face or some other reason.

I still scratch my head over this issue, and will leave it up to my readers to come to their own conclusions. It is known however that due to their close contact while gallivanting about many persons of power in England, including Queen Victoria, who believed that they had participated in sexual relations before official marriage, and refused to grant the two greater honors or attention as a result. Even so, Florence was of no weak spirit. She accompanied Baker on his entire trip through Africa and every other adventure he went on, enduring astounding physical hardships that would have tried the wills of most men.

Indeed, she spoke a variety of languages and Baker directly attributes her shrewd intelligence for their success in their exploration of the Nile. The adventure there is far too large to discuss even a tenth of his exploits in this article. Suffice it to say that if someone wants a real, true and gritty story of someone entering the heart of Africa, they should read about it in several of his books in the links below. However, if you're someone who can't eat breakfast without thinking something is racist, you'd best refrain, as you'll be horribly offended by the writings of this abolitionist. Some of his comments are certainly controversial, but in his time he was a knight in frigging shining armor, for he believed heavily in abolition, and most of his annoyance stems from the fact that the Africans fought him every step of the way to preserve slavery in their countries. So it is not for the faint of heart.

I also find it interesting to note that at the same time he was travelling through the savannah on his quest the American Civil War was taking place over slavery as well. He makes no comments on this, but as it has no bearing on his trek, it makes sense that he'd have left it out. Not to mention that his location made it rather hard to read up on news from across the Atlantic. Although he made no move to squelch the slavery on his journey, adhering strictly to exploration, which absolutely baffled the natives, the tribes and Arabs viewed him as a spy sent to scout out things in the interior which would then lead to English soldiers coming in to stop the slave caravans.

After his expedition he did in fact later on lead a military group into the interior with the mission of suppressing the slave trade. Perhaps the native suspicions were warranted after all!

His writing style is fairly typical of the era from adventurers, most often very factual and not meant as action stories. Some of his hunting stories get repetitive, especially when speaking of hunting Indian elephant, although some of his tales about hunting from the howdah are quite interesting. If you read his stuff you may feel inclined to skip portions, which is quite understandable as it can drag on at times.

Overall Samuel Baker led an extraordinarily colorful life, exploring and hunting on multiple continents while seeking to bring the skills and knowledge of others to civilized society. He was a sportsman that was nothing short of a legend in his own time and is well worth remembering.

I hope that you all found this article informative and entertaining. Be sure to check out the links below for Samuel Baker's writings, which you can download on the Kindle for free.
Happy hunting!

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