(John) Thomas Baines (1820–1875) – was an English artist and explorer of British colonial southern Africa and Australia. He was most famous for his beautiful paintings – especially of ‘Baines Baobabs’ and the mighty Falls, Mosi oa Tunya.
Apprenticed to a coach painter at an early age, he left England aged 22 for South Africa aboard the ‘Olivia,’ captained by a family friend. He worked for a while in Cape Town as a scenic and portrait artist, then as an official war artist for the British Army during the so-called Eighth Frontier War against the Xhosas.
In 1858 Baines accompanied the maniac David Livingstone on a disastrous trip along the Zambezi River, from which he was dismissed by the irrational Livingstone after a disagreement with Livingstone’s brother.
From 1861 to 1862 Baines and ivory trader James Chapman undertook an epic expedition to South West Africa. Starting in ‘Walvisch Bay,’ they crossed the Namib Desert, then the Kalahari to Lake Ngami, over the Boteti and Tamalakhane rivers, and then on eastwards to the Zambezi river, on which they were paddled downstream by local boatman to where they could view the falls. If you tried that with even the best 4X4 today without using any roads you would have an epic journey and it would be an amazing achievement. As always – and as still – they were guided by locals:
This was the first expedition during which extensive use was made of both photography and painting, and in addition both men kept journals in which, amongst other things, they commented on their own and each other’s practice. This makes their accounts, Chapman’s Travels in the Interior of South Africa (1868) and Baines’ Explorations in South-West Africa. Being an account of a journey in the years 1861 and 1862 from Walvisch bay, on the western coast, to lake Ngami and the Victoria falls (1864), especially interesting. They provide a rare account of different perspectives on the same trip.
On the way they camped under the now famous ‘Baines Baobabs’ on Nxai Pan in Botswana:
Baines gives a delightful description of the tribulations of the artist at his easel in Africa: ‘Another hindrance is the annoyance caused to the painter by the incessant persecutions of the tsetse (fly). At the moment perhaps when one requires the utmost steadiness and delicacy of hand, a dozen of these little pests take advantage of his stillness, and simultaneously plunge their predatory lancets into the neck, wrists and the tenderest parts of the body.’
In 1869 Baines led one of the first gold prospecting expeditions to Mashonaland between the Gweru and Hunyani rivers. He was given permission by King Lobengula, leader of the Matabele nation in what became Rhodesia, then Zimbabwe. He later traveled in Natal and witnessed the coronation of Cetshwayo.
Thomas Baines never achieved financial security. He died in poverty in Durban in 1875 of dysentery, at the age of 55 while writing up his latest expeditions. He is buried in West Street Cemetery. A generous eulogy was read in London at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society by its President, Sir Henry Rawlinson.
Baines wrote another book in 1871: Shifts and Expedients of Camp Life, Travel & Exploration by Baines and Lord. My kind of book! I’ll blog about it separately, as I’m pleased to see he acknowledges a prior book which I could not resist buying: Galton’s book – 1st edition 1855