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James Bruce

James Bruce


One of the explorers seeking the source of the Nile, adventure-seeking James Bruce discovered the source of its tributary, the Blue Nile, instead. His accounts of African life caused outrage and scandal in genteel Georgian society.

Also astronomer, naturalist and linguist, James Bruce (nicknamed 'The Abyssian') was born in Kinnaird House of Stirlingshire, the eldest son of a wealthy landowner, was educated at Harrow School and studied law at Edinburgh University. In 1753 he married the daughter of a London wine-merchant and joined her family's business; but nine months later his pregnant wife died of consumption and Bruce launched himself on his travels.

Six foot four inches tall, red haired and arrogant, but also an excellent horseman and superb shot, he spent several years touring Europe and in 1762 was appointed British Consul in Algiers. In 1768 he set out on his famous journey in search of the source of the Nile, travelling from Cairo across the desert to the Red Sea then striking south from Massawa to Axum and Gondar, the principal city of Abyssinia (Ethopia). After a year at Gondar, during which he was invited to command a troop of the King's horses and managed to cure the Queen of smallpox, he traveled on to Lake Tana which he mistakenly took to be the Nile's source and where he drank a toast to King George III before returning to Gondar and becoming embroiled in a civil war. Leaving in December 1771 and heading westwards across the mountains and deserts of Sudan, it took him two years to complete his journey back to Cairo. He finally returned to Scotland in 1774.

So extraordinary were the tales he had to tell about his adventures, and in particular about the habits and customs of the people of Abyssinia, that he was dismissed by many, including Dr. Johnson, as a fraud. His Travels to Discover the Sources of the Nile were published in five volumes in 1790 but these were also universally disbelieved, although subsequent travelers have confirmed their authenticity. (Bruce's reputation was not helped by having a sequel to Baron Munchausen dedicated to him by Rudolph Raspe in 1792, although Bruce was not in fact Raspe's model). His use of a specially-designed portable camera obscura in North Africa was unique, producing many drawings of Roman antiquities now in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.

He married again in 1776 but his wife, 24 years his junior, died in 1788 at the age of 34. Bruce himself died after falling down the stairs at Kinnaird when he was 64. (Source Collins Encyclopedia)