James Bruce

James Bruce

James Bruce (December 14, 1730 – April 27, 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 merchant resulted in his entering that business. His wife died in October 1754, within nine months of marriage, and Bruce thereafter travelled in Portugal and Spain. The examination of oriental manuscripts at the Escurial 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 Bengazi 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 September 19. He reached Gondar, then the capital of Ethiopia, on February 14 1770, where he was well received by the "IPA|nəgusä nägäst" Tekle Haymanot II, by Ras Mikael Sehul, the real ruler of the country, by Wozoro Esther, wife of the Ras, and by the Ethiopians generally. His fine presence (he was 6 ft. 4 in.. 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 a perfect picture of Ethiopian life. Determined to reach the source of the Blue Nile, and after recovering from malaria, in October 1770 he decides to set out again. This time he travelled with his own small party, which included Balugani (trustee of the King) and a Greek names Strates. Strates was from the Greek island of Cephalonia who was living in Ethiopia, maybe also born there. The party of James Bruce included porters as well carrying the quadrant as before. The final march was made on November 4, 1770, through charming country filled with flowering shrubs and tropical birds and with a view of vast mountains in the distance. Late in the afternoon, when they had climbed to 9,500 feet, they came on 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 Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. When they reached the lake, James Bruce determined to be merry, picked up a half coconut shell he used 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) just then was attacking the Turks in he 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. However, according to Moorehead´s Blue Nile, p.32-34 , it is suggested , that it is more appropriate to accept, that Strates the Greek was a European, who lived in Ethiopia before James Bruce, and he was the one who led James Bruce to the source of the Nile - and therefore Strates the Greek might be considered the first European to having discovered the source of the Blue Nile.

The Jesuit missionary Pedro Paez is regarded by most historians today, as the first European to discover the source of the Blue Nile on April 21, 1618 ( Sir Wallis Budge : A history of Ethiopia, p 397), and the small rustic church at the site , dedicated to St. Michael, was erected to commemorate this event; Bruce, however, disputed this claim and suggested that the relevant passage in Paez's memoirs could have been fabricated by Athanasius Kircher. Later the source of the Blue Nile was visited by Jeronimo Lobo , who in 1669 published the book " A Short Relation of the River Nile , of its source and current ..". James Bruce sought to discredit the writings of Jeronimo Lobo, but modern research has shown, that Lobo´s description of the source was perfectly correct in details ( R.E.Cheesman : Lake Tana and the Blue Nile ), furthermore Bruce only had an incorrect translation of the rest of Lobo´s writings - which today makes Bruces attempts to discredit him amusing reading , when you compare with the correct writings of Lobo ( Beckingham, Costa, Lockhart : The itenerario of Jeronimo Lobo , 1984) - 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 ( Bruces Travels, volume 4, page 326-331, 1805 ).

The Return

Setting out from Gondar in December 1771, Bruce made his way, in spite of enormous difficulties, by Sennar to Nubia, being the first to trace the Blue Nile to its confluence with the White Nile. On November 29 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 Abyssinian 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.

*Bruce was the first to ever use the word "Wonderland" thus predating Lewis Carroll.Fact|date=May 2007

*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.


* Major (afterwards Sir Francis) Head, editor of an abridgment of the "Travels", wrote the well-informed "Life of Bruce" (London, 1830).
*The best 19th Century account of Bruce's travels is contained in Sir R. Lambert Playfair's "Travels in the Footsteps of Bruce" (London, 1877), in which a selection of his drawings was published for the first time.
*Bredin, Miles (2001), "The Pale Abyssinian: A Life of James Bruce, African Explorer and Adventurer", Flamingo.


*Bruce, James, "Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, In the Years 1768, 1769,1770, 1771, 1772 and 1773". Five Volumes, G.G.J. and J. Robinson, London, 1790.
*Bruce, James, "Travels". Abridged edition. Horizon Press, New York, 1964.


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