Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Thomas Baines (1820 – 1875)

Self Portrait, 1858

Thomas Baines sailed for South Africa at the age of 22 to seek adventure and fortune, leaving Kings Lynn and life as an apprentice to a Coach Painter. It was the start of Queen Victoria’s reign and the energy and enthusiasm of the Industrial Revolution was reaching every corner of the United Kingdom. Today, Australia has a Mt. Baines and the Baines River, South Africa has a Thomas Baines Game Reserve and a genus of beetle bears his name - lasting legacies to his life as an explorer.

Alligator, Victoria River, Tom Tough aground

He arrived in Cape Town and lived as an artist selling seascapes and views of Table Mountain but soon made plans to start exploring the South African interior. The Boers has only recently left the Cape Peninsular on the Great Trek of 1837 and travel in such vast, unexplored space would have been very challenging especially for Baines whose resources were limited. He wrote and illustrated a detailed diary of travels from 1846-52 through the Eastern Cape, Transvaal and Botswana and these journals were the start of a remarkable contribution to the history of Geography.

Klaass Smit's River, with a broken down wagon,
crossing the Drift, South Africa, 1852

After returning to Kings Lynn in 1852 Baines started to make connections with the RGS and Kew Gardens. It was a time when the world was opening up and there was great interest in his detailed record of travels in South Africa. In 1855 Baines was employed on the RGS sponsored exploration of the Australian interior (1855-1857) organised by Augustus Gregory. He was given responsibility for the stores which included taking an open boat from Northern Australia to Java and Timor to get fresh supplies.

A Malay native from Batavia, Coepang
© Royal Geographical Society with IBG

The success of the Australian trip led to a recommendation to join the next African adventure of Dr Livingstone along the Zambezi (1858-9). This relationship ended in acrimony when Baines was accused of stealing from the expedition stores. Livingstone had influential connections and the false accusations ended Baines career but did not prevent Livingstone from using his illustrations without attribution.

Journal of a journey into South African gold fields,
Transvaal and Matabeleland, 1869–1870

Baines returned to the Cape and was persuaded to join a privately arranged expedition to the Victoria Falls with his friend, the ivory trader Thomas Chapman. A record of this trip was published and a popular series of coloured lithographs of the Falls provided much needed income.

Victoria Falls by Sunrise

Baines lived the rest of his life scraping a living selling paintings and operating gold mining concessions. His mother was an enthusiastic promoter of his work and she organised exhibitions in Kings Lynn and sent samples to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales at Sandringham.

The British Settlers of 1820 Landing in Algoa Bay

Thomas Baines died of dysentery at the age of 55 in South Africa. He was highly regarded for the accuracy of his recording and there are archives of his work at Kew, RGS, South Africa and Australia. He painted what he saw at a time when so much was new and many of his works are the first record of species.

The President of the RGS said of him the following year:
“...He was a man of marked individuality of character,
a born artist and explorer,
a lover of wild life,
and skilled in all the shifts and resources
of an explorer's career.”


for my son,
who is 20 today
and will shortly set off
on his own South African adventure.

Inspired by the recent exhibition at the RGS
Hidden Histories of Exploration

John Thomas Baines
by Raymond John Howgego (2006)

Thomas Baines:
Artist-Explorer of Australia and Southern Africa
by Jane Carruthers (2005)


  1. I'm sighing.

    Oh, and, I'm wishing him a Happy Day.

  2. Happy b-day, o young explorer...

    (Is it my imagination, or is this the second time you've begun a tribute to Master M with a picture of a bushy-bearded person? What can it all mean??)

  3. Happy birthday master magpie.

  4. Happy Birthday MrM-son (can't really call him MasterM any more, can we?)


  5. Happy birthday MasterM - your 21st will see your first year of South African studies under your belt - Enjoy!

  6. Oh dear - that will teach me to check who else is logged onto the computer - I'll say it again from me this time - Happy birthday MasterM - your 21st will see your first year of South African studies under your belt - Enjoy!

  7. Happy Birthday Master M and may you have a wonderful time studying in South Africa.

  8. A big Happy Birthday to Master M (who is so much better looking than Thomas Baines!)! K x

  9. Gelukkige Verjaarsdag Master M. Ons wens jou 'n veilige reis.

  10. "His mother was an enthusiastic promoter of his work and she organised exhibitions in Kings Lynn and sent samples to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales at Sandringham."

    This parenting lark never bloody ends, does it?

  11. happy birthday Master M, I hope you have truly wonderful adventures xox

  12. Happy Birthday Master M! (N spent her 20th last week in the wilds of Novgorod.)

  13. Happy Birthday Master M!
    I'm green with envy at the adventure that is about to unfold!

  14. TWENTY! it sounds so very grown up. happy birthday and happy travels.


Thank you! I love reading your comments and even though I don't always have time to reply I am really grateful to every one who joins in the conversation.