The Scottish explorer James Bruce (1730-1794) introduced Ethiopia to the Western world and confirmed the source of the Blue Nile. He was the first modern explorer of tropical Africa.
James Bruce was born on Dec. 14, 1730, near Larbert in Stirlingshire. His father, the laird of Kinnaird House and a descendant of the prominent Bruce family, sent young James to school in England partly because his mother was dead and partly to keep him away from Jacobite influences.
In 1747 Bruce enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study law, but after graduating he decided not to practice. In 1754 he married Adriana Allan, who died of consumption a year later.
Bruce visited Andalusia in 1757, where he became interested in the history of Moorish Spain and of the Arabs who had created it, and then toured northern Europe. On his father's death the following year, Bruce became the laird of Kinnaird. In 1760 the pit coal on his land was used by the inventor John Roebuck for a new steelmaking process. Although Bruce, a large, florid, quarrelsome man, argued incessantly with Roebuck, his immediate financial gain was considerable and, with Bruce's tastes for adventure and travel, liberating.
Bruce obtained the post of consul general in Algiers in 1762, but he took nearly a year to reach the city. He traveled through France and Italy, investigating and sketching Roman ruins and writing essays on classical civilization. As consul general in Algiers to 1765, the ever-querulous Bruce succeeded primarily in alienating both the local rulers and his British associates. However, he acquired a knowledge of Arabic, skill as a horseman, and experience in Oriental society. In 1765 he made two journeys among the Berber peoples of the interior and then traveled through North Africa, the Aegean, and the Levant.
From 1768 to 1772 Bruce was engaged in the adventures on which his fame depends. Traveling first up the Nile in 1769 and then along the Red Sea, he finally reached Massawa, the main port of what became the Eritrean province of Ethiopia. He spent the major portion of his Ethiopian period in and around Gondar, the imperial capital. This epoch coincided with political upheavals in the empire and the rise of provincial warlords, the chronicle of which is narrated at some length in Bruce's five-volume Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (1790). He also discussed Ethiopia's history, monuments, art, geography, and natural history.
Bruce gathered detailed and still significant orally derived accounts of the Ethiopian past and made observations on the state of the nation in the late 18th century. During the course of his stay in Ethiopia he also observed the flow of the Blue Nile from its source in Lake Tana. On his way home in 1772 he spent some months in the Funj kingdom of Sennar (now the Sudan), for which his published writings again constitute a valuable record.
Bruce returned to Britain in 1774 and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. His arrogance and temperament made him difficult to bear and his tales hard to credit. He retired to Kinnaird, in 1776 married Mary Dundas, who died in 1785, and only then began to write the account of his Ethiopian saga. Bruce was working on second edition when, on April 27, 1794, he fell down a flight of steps and died without regaining consciousness.
The most substantial account of Bruce and his work is still the second edition of the original Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, which was prepared and supplemented by Alexander Murray (8 vols., 1805); an abridged version, edited by Charles F. Beckingham (1964), contains an excellent introduction. The only modern, though racy, biography of Bruce is James Macarthur Reid, Traveller Extraordinary: The Life of James Bruce of Kinnaird (1968). □
When James Bruce returned to England in 1774 after years spent in the mysterious land of Ethiopia, his fantastic tales gained him a reputation as a liar. Yet modern research has confirmed the accuracy of Bruce's account, which he set down in writing in 1790.
Born in 1730 in Stirlingshire, Bruce was the son of an aristocratic family who owned an estate at Kinnaird House. His mother died when he was three years old, and his father later arranged for him to be taught by a private tutor in London. He went on to Harrow School and Edinburgh University, where his father expected him to study law; Bruce's interests, however, were in languages and art.
Bruce married in 1752, but his wife died in childbirth nine months later. To recover from his grief, he traveled around Europe, returning to London after the death of his father in 1758. During this time he became fascinated with Ethiopia, or Abyssinia as it was then called, and resolved to go there. In particular, he hoped to find the source of the Blue Nile, which together with the White Nile, a deeper river that flows northward from its source at Lake Victoria in Central Africa, forms the Nile proper at Khartoum in modern-day Sudan.
Appointed British consul-general to Algiers in 1762, Bruce served in that position for two years, then spent considerable time traveling throughout North Africa, devoting himself to learning languages. By 1768 he had wound up in Cairo, accompanied by an Italian assistant named Luigi Balugani. He ultimately made contact with the patriarch of Ethiopia, a leading church official in that land, which was Christianized during the fourth century a.d.
Taking with him a letter of introduction from the patriarch, Bruce endeavored by a number of means to reach Ethiopia. Stopped by war from going in via the Nile, he used a circuitous route that took him across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula, and back again to the ancient city of Aksum. Finally, he arrived in Gondar, then the capital, in 1770, and ultimately met Ras Michael of Tigre, ruler of the Abyssinian Empire.
Ras Michael invited Bruce on an expedition up the Little Abbai River, thought to be the source of Blue Nile, but constant fighting between Ethiopia and its neighbors forced them to turn back. Late in 1770, Bruce and Balugani made a second expedition up the Little Abbai, reaching its source on November 4. Unbeknownst to them, the explorer Pedro Paez (1564-1622) had already been there in 1618.
In the months that followed, Bruce collected extensive knowledge about Ethiopia. Balugani died of dysentery, and Bruce left Ethiopia in December 1771. He spent time in Sennar, a Muslim town in what is now Sudan, studying the life of the people there before taking the Nile north to Cairo, where he arrived in 1773.
Bruce returned to a number of disappointments in Europe. Before leaving, he had become engaged to a woman, and later, thinking him long dead, she had married an Italian noble. In Paris, a cartographer informed him of Paez's earlier journey to the source of the Blue Nile; and finally, after an initially warm reception in England, the explorer soon gained a reputation as a spinner of tales.
Licking his wounds, Bruce retired to Kinnaird House, married a much younger woman, and lived happily until 1788, when she died suddenly. Once more seeking to assuage his loss, he set out to write of his adventures, and published a book in 1790. It was received with no more credulity than his earlier verbal accounts of his journeys—even though modern scholarship has confirmed most of his findings. Bruce died in 1794 after he fell down a flight of stairs on his way to escort a lady to her carriage.
(b. Stirlingshire, Scotland, 14 December 1730; d. Stirlingshire, 27 April 1794)
Bruce was the second son of David Bruce of Kinnaird and Marion Graham of Airth. Born into a wealthy landowning family, he entertained the idea of becoming a Church of England clergyman. He then decided instead to read for the Scottish bar, but later gave up legal studies also. Bruce served as consulgeneral at Algiers from March 1763 until the summer of 1765. He remained in Africa until March 1773, and then spent over a year in France, where he met the naturalist Buffon, and Italy before returning to London in June 1774.
Bruce’s most notable journey began in Alexandria in June 1768. He traveled extensively in Ethiopia and claimed to have been the first European to find the source of the Nile (on 4 November 1770); he did know that the Portuguese Jesuit missionary Pedro Páez had been there more than a century earlier. Bruce actually had found the source of the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the White Nile, which it joins below Khartoum. He knew of the White Nile, although he denied that it was the major branch.
James Bruce is justly considered an explorer rather than an adventurer because of his scientific approach. Before setting out, he learned as much as was known about the geography, customs, and languages of the area. Bruce brought back drawings of buildings, fauna, and flora; collected seeds; and kept precise meteorological and astronomical records. His writings are generally accurate, and their embellishment in personal details is easily recognized. His Travels, which were not composed for more than twelve years after he left Africa, were written for a general rather than an academic audience; yet the grotesque and exotic material combined with his difficult and vain personality to arouse an adverse public reaction verging on disbelief. He retired to his estate during his last years and died at Kinnaird House.
Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773, 5 vols. (Edinburgh–London, 1790), was promptly translated into French and German. The second and third editions (8 vols., Edinburgh, 1804–1805; 1813) contain material from Bruce’s notes that was added by Alexander Murray. There is a modern abridgment, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile by James Bruce, C. F. Beckingham, ed. (Edinburgh, 1964), which offers a scholarly biographical introduction.