James Bruce Explores the Blue Nile to Its Source and Rekindles Europeans' Fascination with the Nile

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James Bruce Explores the Blue Nile to Its Source and Rekindles Europeans' Fascination with the Nile


From ancient times, the existence and survival of Egypt has depended on the Nile River. About 4,000 miles (6,437 km) long, the Nile is the longest river in the world and consists of two main branches. The longer branch, often referred to as the White Nile, rises from the heart of central Africa and flows more than 3,000 miles (4,828 km) to the Sudan, where it is joined by the Blue Nile. At this junction, the two tributaries form the greater Nile, which then courses through Egypt and drains at the wide Nile Delta into the Mediterranean Sea.

The ancient Egyptians probably knew that the source of the Blue Nile was Lake Tana in Ethiopia, but the headwaters of the White Nile remained a mystery for centuries. In 457 b.c., the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-420 b.c.) attempted to locate the Nile's source and followed the river to Aswan, but he was unable to progress any farther. Six hundred years later, the great Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy (fl. a.d. 127-145) described the Nile as originating from two lakes near the Mountains of the Moon in central Africa and snaking northward to the Mediterranean Sea.

European interest in the Nile waned until the seventeenth century, when Portugal in particular became interested in Africa for both religious and commercial purposes. In 1618 a Jesuit priest, Father Pedro Paez (1564-1622), traveled from Arabia to Ethiopia; in the mountains south of Lake Tana he came upon some swampy soil and a spring that he correctly recognized as the source of the Blue Nile. His fellow missionary, Father Jeronymo Lobo, wrote about Paez's discovery; Sir Peter Wyche and Samuel Johnson of Britain later translated Father Lobo's work. A few Europeans continued to explore the Blue Nile, but no one reached its source again until 1770, when James Bruce (1730-1794) of Scotland declared that he was the first European to have discovered the primary source of the Nile. He was, of course, mistaken on both counts: he had only found the source of the Blue Nile, and he was not the first European to do so. Nonetheless, James Bruce's historical role is significant: his adventures rekindled Europe's fascination with the Nile and lured many nineteenth-century explorers to Africa in search of the river's mysterious source.


James Bruce was born in 1730 in Scotland. He lost his mother when he was only three years old, and grew from a delicate child into a strong man more than 6 feet (1.83 m) tall, with red hair and a deep, booming voice. An aristocrat who was the heir to his family estates at Kinnaird, Scotland, Bruce was educated at Harrow and later at Edinburgh University. At his father's insistence, Bruce studied law and eventually joined the East India Company in London, where he met and married a wealthy young woman. Within nine months, however, his wife died, and at 24 years old, James Bruce was a lonely, embittered young man. He turned to travel and the study of languages, and in 1762 he accepted the post of British consul in Algiers, where he continued to study Oriental languages and medicine.

In Algiers the Barbary pirates and the cruel Ali Pasha made life miserable for Bruce, and finally, in 1765, he was allowed to leave his post. He traveled to various archaeological sites in Greece, Syria, and modern Lebanon before arriving in Cairo in 1768 with a young Italian artist, Luigi Balugani. In Egypt James Bruce began to pursue his dream of locating the source of the Nile River.

Erroneously convinced that the Blue Nile was the larger of the two branches of the Nile, Bruce traveled from Cairo up the Nile to Aswan. When further progress along this route proved impossible, he chose instead to approach Ethiopia, or Abyssinia as it was then called, from its coast. Traveling inland from the Red Sea, Bruce and his party reached Gondar, then the capital of Ethiopia, in February 1770 and immediately became embroiled in the savagely brutal tribal warfare of Ethiopia. Bruce's very survival is almost miraculous and undoubtedly due to his knowledge of the native language and to his medical expertise, especially in treating smallpox.

Determined to find the source of the Nile, Bruce hiked about 70 miles (112.6 km) into the mountains on the southern edge of Lake Tana. On November 4, 1770, he and his party reached a swampy area that he mistakenly thought was the source of the great Nile River. He then proclaimed himself to be the first European to reach the spring, pointedly ignoring Father Lobo's record of Pedro Paez's presence at the same place in 1618. James Bruce was fanatically anti-Catholic and scoffed at any claims made by Paez and Lobo. Ironically, his refusal to acknowledge Paez's discovery was later a factor that caused others to mock Bruce's own great accomplishments.

Bruce returned from his mountain trek to an ugly civil war in Gondar and was unable to leave Ethiopia. He remained there and devoted his energy to writing a history of the local kings and to assembling a collection of manuscripts and indigenous flora. He recorded in gruesome detail the bloody battles and the frequently licentious customs of the Christian people of Gondar before being allowed to leave Ethiopia in December 1771.

Bruce and his party chose to return to Cairo by land and reached the Moslem city of Sennar in April 1772, where he remained for four months before traveling to Khartoum, the point where the two Nile rivers join. No record exists, however, that Bruce even acknowledged what he must have so clearly observed at Khartoum: that the White Nile was obviously the larger of the two tributaries and that Lake Tana and the nearby spring could not, therefore, be the primary source of the Nile River.

Bruce was ill by this time with guinea worm, a flesh-eating parasite. Nevertheless, he pushed on and finally joined a caravan headed for Cairo. His party reached Aswan on November 28, 1772, and Cairo thirty days later. After two months, he left Egypt and sailed for Marseilles, France, where he remained for a month, seeking medical treatment for his leg, traveling and being received by King Louis XVI. From France he journeyed on to Italy, again in search of medical care. At last, in June 1774, he returned to London, but not to the reception he had eagerly anticipated. King George III as well as the educated elite rebuffed Bruce's account of his years in Ethiopia, often believing he had fabricated his fascinating tales of butchery and barbarism. Additionally, Bruce was condemned because he had repudiated the words of the Portuguese priest, Father Lobo, and continued to maintain that he was the first European to reach the Nile's source above Lake Tana.

Spurned by much of London society and intelligentsia, Bruce returned to his native Scotland, where he was more appropriately welcomed. He married Mary Dundas, who bore him several children but tragically died in 1788, 14 years after they had wed.

After his wife's death, Bruce yielded to friends' urgings to publish his journals, working in London with B. H. Latrobe for a year to transcribe his writings into five volumes. Travels to Discover the Sources of the Nile, in the Years 1768, 1769, 1771, 1772, and 1773 was published in 1790, but Bruce refused to pay Latrobe for his efforts. Likewise, he refused to credit the Italian artist, Balugani, who had died in Ethiopia, for his many superb drawings. In fact, Bruce took personal credit for the Italian's drawings. The book's reception was dismal. Critics lampooned his stories of what he had observed in Ethiopia; most of the book was regarded as mere fiction and became the subject of many jokes.

Angry and dejected, James Bruce returned to his family in Scotland. At the age of 64, he accidentally fell on the staircase in his home and was knocked unconscious. He died the next day, on April 27, 1794.


Although James Bruce and his book were reviled in England, the French regarded his contribution as serious. Indeed, the work of James Bruce was most influential in leading the French to Africa, especially to the Nile. Napoleon's Egyptian campaign in 1798 resulted in the brief French occupation of that country, further exploration of the Nile, and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

The primary source of the Nile, however, remained a mystery until the mid-nineteenth century, when British explorers Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890) and Captain John Speke (1827-1864) set out from Zanzibar toward central Africa. Speke eventually located a large lake in 1858, which he named Lake Victoria in honor of the British sovereign, and realized it was the source of the Nile. In 1875 Sir Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) was the first to sail completely around Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world, and saw the snow-capped Ruwenzori mountain range, Ptolemy's "Mountains of the Moon."

Even though James Bruce had erred in thinking that an Ethiopian swamp high above sea level was the primary source of the Nile, and despite the fact that he inflated his role in the exploration of the Nile River, his contribution to the history of the continent of Africa is important. Not only was he the first European to follow the Blue Nile to where it converged with the White Nile, but his accounts of his travels and the years he spent in Ethiopia are still regarded today as epic. Not until 1960 were the headwaters of the Blue Nile fully charted, almost 200 years after James Bruce climbed more than 6,000 feet (1,829 m) to a swampy spot in the Ethiopian highlands.


Further Reading

Morehead, Alan. The Blue Nile. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

Reid, J.M. Traveller Extraordinary. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1968.

Udal, John O. The Nile in Darkness: Conquest and Exploration 1504-1862. Michael Russell, 1998.

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James Bruce Explores the Blue Nile to Its Source and Rekindles Europeans' Fascination with the Nile

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