James Bruce, physician, British Consul, explorer, adventurer, artist, astronomer, naturalist, geographer, historian, linguist, botanist, ornithologist, cartographer and author, discovered the source of the Nile in north-west Ethiopia on the 14th of November, 1770.
If ever a film was made about the life of James Bruce, it would be considered a work of Hollywood fiction in the tradition of the ‘Indiana Jones’ movies, ‘Romancing the Stone’ or Kipling’s ‘The Man who would be King. Come to think about it, the life of James Bruce should be made into a film, with the Scot being played by an Australian as per usual; someone like Hugh Jackman, probably. The list of Bruce’s accomplishments is a long one and reads like the curriculum vitae of a true adventurer. Indiana Jones’ academic expertise pales in comparison. He is famous for having reached and charted the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana, but his adventures in doing so make wonderful reading, either in his autobiographical tale, which he published in five volumes in 1790, or in an excellent, recent biography entitled ‘The Pale Abyssinian’ by Miles Bredin.
Bruce’s adventures began soon after he was replaced in his post as British Consul in Algiers, in 1768. He made many fine drawings of the ancient Roman ruins in Barbary and the Levant, many of which are now in the Royal Library in Windsor Castle. He visited Thebes, where he entered the tomb of Ramesses III, KV11, and he crossed the desert to Kosseir. By the time he set off for Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was then known) in search of the source of the Nile, he could speak eleven languages, including having become fluent in Arabic, and he had developed some skills as a geographer, astronomer, botanist, ornithologist and cartographer. Usefully, as would be apparent later, he also acquired a good enough knowledge of medicine to enable him to pass as a physician. He charted the Red Sea, and was shipwrecked near Bengazi and had to swim ashore. He became the first white man to get into Abyssinia since the Portuguese Jesuits had been thrown out in 1632, one hundred and thirty years previously. He was held hostage for two months but his diplomacy eventually secured his release and saved him and his followers from being hacked to death.
On his arrival at the Palace of the ruler, Bruce cured the Abyssinian Empress of smallpox and became feted for his healing powers. As a reward, the fifteen-years-old king, Tecia Haimanout II, made him a lord of the bedchamber and commander of his own cavalry, the Black Horse. He was also honoured by being granted him the lordship of Gishe and, assimilating himself with the customs and culture, he took the opportunity to learn the Ge'ez language. Bruce was a good horseman and a deadly shot, and those skills stood him in good stead when he became involved in a civil war in that country of medieval barbarity. The bloodthirsty dictator, Ras Michael, ruled in the name of the young King, and Bruce became one of his trusted Lieutenants. As if those dangers weren’t enough, Bruce also became the lover of Ozoro Esther, the wife of the tyrannical Ras Michael, but he survived that relationship, of which after his return, he was to write fondly. In May of 1771, the intermittent warring came to a head and the Battle of Serbraxos, which lasted several days, took place. Bruce, or Hakin Yagoube as he had become known, fought in that battle at the head of the Royal Cavalry, wearing a chain mail coat and a plumed helmet.
Of course, his sole purpose in heading off to Abyssinnia was to find the source of the Nile and despite having been distracted by livin’ lovin’ maids and making war in that savage yet thrilling country, he did indeed achieve his goal. On the 14th of November, 1770, he was able to locate and map the source of the Blue Nile at Gish Abay, which he described as the ‘Nile of the Ancients’ and far more worthy than the plain old White Nile. He reconciled the earlier discovery of the Jesuits by stating that his use of the latest navigational technology had enabled him to pinpoint on the map what the Portuguese merely saw. Eventually, he determined to make his way home as his discoveries had to be broadcast to the civilised world. That was easier said than done and his adventures on the way back were as demanding as those he’d already experienced. He was again imprisoned, in Al Qadarif, and only a show of force by his Ethiopian friends obtained his release. He contracted malaria and his leg played host to a man-eating guinea-worm. He crossed the dreaded Nubian Desert, encountered robbers, whirlwinds, blistering heat, terrible thirst and hunger, his camels died and some of his companions perished or they just went mad.
Six years after setting out, James Bruce returned to Britain. During his time in Abyssinia, he had found time to catalogue its flora and fauna. He had discovered a previously unknown kind of pigeon and a shrub with anti-dysentery properties, both of which were named in Bruce’s honour by the naturalist, Sir Joseph Banks. Bruce also brought back a collection of exquisite, Ethiopian manuscripts and he presented those, together with his Roman drawings, to King George III. In 1790 Bruce published his lengthy account of his travels. It became a best seller, but as his stories of Abyssinia were so amazing, many of his contemporaries, including in particular Samuel Johnson, considered it a work of fiction. It was only later, when subsequent explorers confirmed what Bruce had seen and done, that its authenticity was confirmed.
James Bruce was born on the 14th of December, 1730, at Kinnaird, in Stirlingshire. He was sent to London at the age of eight and when he was twelve, he went to public school at Harrow, where he acquired a knowledge of classic literature. In 1746, he studied French, arithmetic and geometry at an Academy and the following year, he returned to Kinnaird with the intention of becoming and Advocate. In 1746, he became a law student at the University of Edinburgh, but the profession didn’t suit him. He went back to London in 1753, fell in love, got married, became a partner in the wine trade, and in 1761, he lost his wife to consumption. He then embarked on the adventurous phase of his life. He learned Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic, travelled extensively through Europe, witnessed the Battle of Crevelt, inherited the Lairdship of Kinnaird on the death of his father and in 1762, set out for Algiers as the newly appointed British Consul. James Bruce died from a fall at his home on the 27th of April, 1794, and he was buried in the churchyard of his native parish of Larbert, where a monument indicates his last resting-place.