The Scottish islander who inspired the word for "white man" in Nigeria - THE SCOTMAN

OCTOBER 22, 2019

Dr William Balfour Baikie, of Kirkwall in Orkney, made an impact on the Igbo people of the River Niger (right) after becoming shipwrecked in the area in the mid 19th Century. PIC: Creative Commons.

BY  Alison Campsie


He came from a well-off Orkney family - and then made his mark on the tribes of Nigeria and West Africa.

After the explorer's ship wrecked during a voyage on the River Niger, he waited with his men for a year to be rescued.


When the boats came, Dr William Balfour Baikie decided to stay back alone and settled with the local community.

He made a powerful impact by practising medicine, organising road building and creating a market to trade goods on the river for the first time.

Such was his affect, his name inspired the word for 'white man' among the Igbo people.

The white man became known as 'beke' in the Ibo language with the word for England becoming known as Ela Beke.

Today, a monument can be found to Dr William Balfour Baikie in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.

Dr Baikie was born into one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the islands.

His father, John, was a successful businessman who led as Captain and Commander on Royal Naval flagships during the Napoleonic War.

By 16, William was off to Edinburgh University to study medicine and graduated in 1848, before taking as assistant surgeon role with the Royal Navy. He was posted to Haslar Hospital in Portsmouth three years later.

Although caring for the human body was his profession, he remained fascinated by collecting plant and animal specimens from his travels with his discoveries sent to botanical gardens around the country.

In 1854, he was invited to join an exploring voyage on the Niger River with his main task to sketch the lands around the low lying lands surrounding the waterway, as well as the Benue River.


After arriving at the island of Bioko off the west coast of Cameroon, a personnel crisis afflicted the exploration team.

Ravenscraig in Motherwell was demolished in 1996.

The top surgeon on the exploration ship Pleiad was dispatched to serve during the Crimean War with the captain of the ship then struggling to cope with his responsibilities.

Dr William Balfour Baikie was then appointed surgeon, naturalist, ship’s captain and director of the mission. He was aged 27.

He took the voyage 250 miles further up the River Benue than any other expedition that had done before.

"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," wrote biographer Wendell Macconha.


A second voyage on the Niger left in 1857, although a shipwreck blighted the expedition.

Dr Baikie successfully offloaded all of the crew and cargo and established a camp at the confluence of the two rivers.

He trialled the preventive use of quinine to fight off Malaria and 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," Macconha wrote.

He bought a piece of land at Lojoka and founded an African settlement, where he lived along with the Igbo and Hausa people for the next seven years.

After negotiating with a local noble to start a road building project, he then founded a market place which opened up trading on the river.

"This hugely practical bit of Empire building was accomplished by a real interest in the physical and moral welfare of the Africans who flocked to this new town from many neighbouring regions," according to an account in the Orkney Herald.

Dr Baikie also translated the Bible into the Hausa language.

While journeying home to England to visit his father, he died from fever in Sierra Leone on December 12, 1864, aged just 40.

Lojoka was later selected for the first British imperial outpost in the Nigerian interior with the consulate setting up there in 1860.

The town then became the military headquarters for Sir George Goldie’s Royal Niger Company, the British mercantile company that controlled trade on the river.

By the end of the 19th Century, the Igbo people in the south at Biafra were resisting the growing British presence with the Ekumeku Movement fighting the colonial settlers for 31 years.

According to accounts, the Igbo people had welcomed the opportunity brought by British commercial activities on the River Niger.

However, the religious imperialism and the spread of Christianity was far from welcomed by all.


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