James Bruce (14 December 1730 – 27 April 1794) was a Scottish traveller and travel writer who spent more than a dozen years in North Africa and Ethiopia, where he traced the origins of the Blue Nile.
James Bruce was born at the family seat of Kinnaird, Stirlingshire, and educated at Harrow School and Edinburgh University, and began to study for the bar, but his marriage to the daughter of a wine importer and merchant resulted in him entering that business instead. His wife died in October 1754, within nine months of marriage, and Bruce thereafter travelled in Portugal and Spain as part of the wine trade. The examination of oriental manuscripts at the Escurial in Spain led him to the study of Arabic and Ge’ez and determined his future career. In 1758 his father’s death placed him in possession of the estate of Kinnaird.
To North Africa
On the outbreak of war with Spain in 1762 he submitted to the British government a plan for an attack on Ferrol. His suggestion was not adopted, but it led to his selection by the 2nd Earl of Halifax for the post of British consul at Algiers, with a commission to study the ancient ruins in that country, in which interest had been excited by the descriptions sent home by Thomas Shaw (1694–1751), who was consular chaplain at Algiers. Having spent six months in Italy studying antiquities, Bruce reached Algiers in March 1763. The whole of his time was taken up with his consular duties at the piratical court of the dey, and he was kept without the assistance promised. But in August 1765, a successor in the consulate having arrived, Bruce began his exploration of the Roman ruins in Barbary. Having examined many ruins in eastern Algeria, he travelled by land from Tunis to Tripoli, and at Ptolemeta took passage for Candia; but was shipwrecked near Benghazi and had to swim ashore. He eventually reached Crete, and sailing thence to Sidon, travelled through Syria, visiting Palmyra and Baalbek. Throughout his journeyings in Barbary and the Levant, Bruce made careful drawings of the many ruins he examined. He also acquired a sufficient knowledge of medicine to enable him to pass in the East as a physician.
The Nile and Ethiopia
In June 1768 he arrived at Alexandria, having resolved to endeavour to discover the source of the Nile, which he believed to rise in Ethiopia. At Cairo he gained the support of the Mamluk ruler, Ali Bey. After visiting Thebes, where he entered the tomb of Ramesses III, KV11, he crossed the desert to Kosseir, where he embarked in the dress of a Turkish sailor. He reached Jidda in May 1769, and after a stay in Arabia he recrossed the Red Sea and landed at Massawa, then in possession of the Turks, on 19 September. He reached Gondar, then the capital of Ethiopia 14 February 1770, where he was well received by the nəgusä nägäst Tekle Haymanot II, by Ras Mikael Sehul, the real ruler of the country, by Wozoro Aster, wife of the Ras (whom Bruce calls “Esther”), and by the Ethiopians generally. His fine presence (he was 6 foot 4 inches high), his knowledge of Ge’ez, his excellence in sports, his courage, resource and self-esteem, all told in his favor among a people who were in general distrustful of all foreigners. He stayed in Ethiopia for two years, gaining knowledge which enabled him subsequently to present an accurate picture of Ethiopian life.
Determined to reach the source of the Blue Nile, and after recovering from malaria, in October 1770 Bruce decided to set out again. This time he travelled with his own small party, which included Balugani and a Greek named Strates. The final march was made on November 4, 1770. Late in the afternoon, after having climbed to 9,500 feet, Bruce’s party came upon a rustic church, and the guide, pointing beyond it, indicated a little swamp with a hillock rising from the centre. That, he declared, was the source of the Nile. On November 14, 1770 he reached Gish Abay, the source of the Lesser Abay. When they reached the springs at Gish, James Bruce determined to be merry, picked up a half coconut shell he used as a drinking cup. Filling it from the spring he oblidged Strates to drink a toast to “His Majesty King George III and a long line of princes” and another to “Catherine, Empress of all the Russians” – this last was a gesture to Strates’ Greek origin, since Catherine the Great was just then at war with the Turks in the Aegean Sea. More toasts followed. Though admitting that the White Nile was the larger stream, Bruce argued that the Blue Nile was the Nile of the ancients and thus he was the discoverer of its source.
The Jesuit missionary Pedro Paez is widely regarded by historians as having been the first European to reach the site; Bruce, however, disputed his claim and suggested that the relevant passage in Paez’s memoirs had been fabricated by Athanasius Kircher. Later the source of the Blue Nile was visited by Fr. Jeronimo Lobo; Bruce sought to discredit the writings of Fr. Lobo, but more recent research has shown that Lobo’s description of the source was perfectly correct in details. Bruce went as far as to claim (wrongly), that Lobo seemed to be able to sail on land and also denied the existence of a spitting cobra described by Lobo. The Greek Strates is arguably another European that reached the source of the Nile; however, in the eighteenth century, Greece was politically part of the Ottoman Empire, not Europe.
Setting out from Gondar in December 1771, Bruce made his way, in spite of enormous difficulties, by Sennar to Nubia, being the first European to trace the Blue Nile to its confluence with the White Nile. He was detained in Al Qadarif (which he calls “Teawa”) by its governor Fidele, until a combination of cunning, diplomacy and a show of force by his friend the Ethiopian governor of Ras el Fils induced Fidele to release him. Once in Sennar he found himself detained there, and on the night of 25 August the house he was staying in was attacked by thieves, whom Bruce for good reason suspected to be acting with the knowledge, if not on the orders of King Ismai’l. As he and his companions crossed the desert on the western side of the bend of the Nile, they came across the corpses of the caravan of the Muslim dignitary Mahomet Towash they had hoped to travel with; despite his status, they had been waylaid, robbed, and killed by the local tribesmen. On 29 November 1772 he reached Aswan, presently returning to the desert to recover his journals and his baggage, which had been abandoned in consequence of the death of all his camels. Cairo was reached in January 1773, and in March Bruce arrived in France, where he was welcomed by Buffon and other savants. He came to London in 1774, but, offended by the incredulity with which his story was received, retired to his home at Kinnaird. It was not until 1790 that, urged by his friend Daines Barrington, he published his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, In the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772 and 1773, but was assailed by other travellers as being unworthy of credence. The substantial accuracy of his Ethiopian travels has since been demonstrated, and it is considered that he made a real addition to the geographical knowledge of his day.
- Several of Bruce’s drawings were presented to King George III and are in the royal collection at Windsor Castle. According to Edward Ullendorff, “There is little doubt that those volumes contain the pick of Bruce’s work, and when they were shown, in 1862, by permission of Queen Victoria, to the Society of Antiquaries, all who saw them were greatly impressed.”
- Bruce also brought back to Europe a select collection of Ethiopian manuscripts. “They opened up entirely new vistas for the study of Ethiopian languages and placed this branch of Oriental scholarship on a much more secure basis,” writes Ullendorff. “It is not known how many MSS. reached Europe through his endeavours, but the present writer is aware of at least twenty-seven, all of which are exquisite examples of Ethiopian manuscript art. Bruce presented a fine and specially prepared copy of the Book of Enoch to Louis XV in Paris.” While most of these manuscripts are in Ge’ez, one notable exception is a version of the Song of Songs written in Gafat, a language which Ullendorff states “is known to us only from this manuscript.”
- Bruce’s travels and discoveries inspired the founders of the British African Association (1788) in their efforts to promote exploration to discover the course of the Niger and the city of Timbuktu.