Bruce Explores Ethiopia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although James Bruce was not appreciated until the end of his life, his explorations in Ethiopia led to a scientific mapping of much of the Blue Nile. Bruce’s numerous naturalistic and scientific observations contributed to the growth of the natural sciences in the eighteenth century.

Summary of Event

As a youth at the private school at Harrow, England, James Bruce demonstrated a remarkable talent for Latin and Greek. After the death of his first wife, Bruce traveled in Europe for her family’s wine business and in his travels learned not only Spanish and Portuguese but also Arabic and Ge’ez, the classical language of Ethiopia, giving him the linguistic tools he needed for his future travels. [kw]Bruce Explores Ethiopia (Dec., 1768-Jan. 10, 1773) [kw]Ethiopia, Bruce Explores (Dec., 1768-Jan. 10, 1773) [kw]Explores Ethiopia, Bruce (Dec., 1768-Jan. 10, 1773) Ethiopia, exploration of Blue Nile River, Sudan Africa;exploration of Exploration;Ethiopia Nile River, Africa [g]Africa;Dec., 1768-Jan. 10, 1773: Bruce Explores Ethiopia[1910] [g]Ethiopia;Dec., 1768-Jan. 10, 1773: Bruce Explores Ethiopia[1910] [c]Exploration and discovery;Dec., 1768-Jan. 10, 1773: Bruce Explores Ethiopia[1910] [c]Science and technology;Dec., 1768-Jan. 10, 1773: Bruce Explores Ethiopia[1910] Bruce, James

Bruce’s African experience began when the second earl of Halifax appointed him British consul-general at Algiers in 1763. Bruce left this brutal posting with an assistant, Luigi Balugani, in 1765, and after exhausting explorations around North Africa, they crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Crete in January, 1767. Bruce was stricken with a fever in Crete but recovered and traveled to Beirut six months later. By the next year, he had reached Cairo and began to plan his expedition to Ethiopia.

In December, 1768, Bruce set out upon his journey. He embarked up the Nile from Cairo to the Egyptian port of Kosseir, crossed the Red Sea to the Arabian port of Jidda, and then sailed back across the Red Sea to Massawa, reaching this island gateway to Ethiopia in September, 1769. Bruce planned to make his way into central Ethiopia via the province of Tigré, but first he needed to get permission to leave Massawa from its murderous despot, known as the naybe. Bluffing with the help of letters from several authorities requesting his safe conduct, Bruce finally received the necessary permissions and departed Massawa in mid-November. His actions on the island had made him enemies, however, and he had to foil a plot to murder him by enduring a difficult journey across Mount Tarawa.

Bruce traveled on foot, leading a group of five donkeys and about twenty men, most of them porters who carried his heavy scientific equipment. The expedition’s first major layover came in Adowa, the capital of Tigré, where they were hosted by a Greek named Janni, the chief administrator of Michael Suhul, the powerful ras, or governor, of Tigré. Bruce soon discovered that civil war was consuming much of Ethiopia, with only Tigré remaining calm, thanks to Ras Michael, who in 1767 had defeated the rebel Galla tribe. Then, in 1769, Ras Michael murdered the king and placed on the throne a decrepit prince named Hannes. Dissatisfied with his puppet, Ras Michael soon poisoned Hannes and replaced him with Hannes’s son, Tecla Haimanout, a clever young man who carefully deferred to the ras. Made aware of these intrigues, Bruce quickly realized the challenges he faced in a country so chaotic and dangerous.

Bruce’s group left Adowa on January 17 and arrived in Gondar, the Ethiopian capital, almost a month later. Of the many accounts that strained his listeners’ credibility when he returned home, none were more difficult to accept than an incident he witnessed on this leg of his journey: Three herdsmen driving a cow threw the beast on her side and held her down while cutting two huge steaks from her rump. The flap over the wound was then secured by pins before being poulticed with river clay, and the movable feast was finally driven on to the next banquet site.

Bruce had earned a reputation as a doctor, and in Gondar he was summoned by a nephew of the iteghé, or queen, to the town of Koscam, where several of Ras Michael’s relatives were ill. Two of the sufferers died before his arrival, but Bruce helped save the others. His success in curing her children won him great favor with Ras Michael’s wife, Ozoro Esther, but this favor worked against him when she had the ras order the European healer not to leave Koscam.

Ras Michael and King Tecla Haimanout returned in March from campaigning against the Gallas, and the ras celebrated his victory by blinding twelve Galla prisoners and sending them off into the fields for hyenas to eat at night. The horrified Bruce saved two of the men and cared for them. Ras Michael conferred two titles on Bruce, allowed him complete freedom in his scientific studies, and overlooked an incident in which Bruce thrashed an insolent military commander. When his companion, Luigi Balugani, died of dysentery, the depressed Bruce despaired of ever being allowed to leave Gondar.

In May, 1770, however, Ras Michael left Gondar to engage a rebel army of Gallas, and Bruce followed him, arriving at the great cataract of the Blue Nile—Tisisat Falls—on May 22. Back in Gondar in June, Bruce witnessed several months of intrigues before traveling to Lake Tsana, where he confronted the Galla leader, Fasil, who assigned seven of his men to accompany him to the village of Geesh. There, on a grassy island, on November 4, 1770, Bruce gazed on the two fountains from which the Blue Nile began its way north to join the White Nile. White Nile River, Sudan

In December, 1771, Bruce left Gondar on his way north to Sennaar, following an inland route to Egypt, a journey made dangerous by oppressive heat and villainous chieftains. For example, Sheikh Fidele of Atbara accused Bruce of carrying gold in the chests that contained his scientific instruments, and he detained him for three weeks until a powerful Muslim Ethiopian friend of Bruce named Yasine threatened to destroy Atbara if any harm came to Bruce.

The desert crossing to Sennaar, which Bruce reached on April 29, 1772, was grueling, and temperatures in the city could reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Once again, Bruce was detained by a rogue ruler, this time King Ismāՙīl, who insisted he treat several of his ill wives. Virtually held captive, Bruce did not escape Sennaar until September, when he began the awful, seven-hundred-mile desert journey to Cairo. After a mid-October stopover in Shendi, Bruce pushed on to his worst ordeal yet, as sandstorms punished his group and they experienced great discomfort from the blistering days and cool nights. On November 29, twelve weeks after leaving Sennaar, the near-dead travelers collapsed in Aswan, where they drank their fill of the Nile.

On December 11, 1772, Bruce boarded a Nile riverboat, and on January 10, 1773, he disembarked in Cairo, ragged, mustachioed, and unkempt, with two English pistols stuck in one side of his girdle and a crooked knife in the other. The foul water at Sennaar had given him a guinea worm that had burrowed deep into his leg, and before this repulsive five-foot parasite could be extracted it broke off and left a virulent infection that was cured only after thirty-five agonizing days in a Marseilles hospital. Thus ended Bruce’s fantastic African adventure.


After such a courageous and dangerous penetration into one of the darkest areas of the globe, Bruce was embittered by the skepticism of such Londoners as the eminent Samuel Johnson, who had published a translation of the Jesuit missionary Jerome Lobo’s account of his 1620’s exploration of Ethiopia. Determined to convince his critics, Bruce began in May, 1788, to dictate his story to a secretary named Latrobe. Relying on his copious journals and essays that he had written long before, Bruce finished the job in June, 1789, and in 1790, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile was published.

Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile was an uneven work—eccentrically organized, riddled with slips, stuffed with long, scholarly passages that were tedious to most readers, and embarrassingly overwritten in many places—but still a compulsively readable masterpiece of travel writing. One of Bruce’s editors, C. F. Beckingham, explained that “the Travels really comprise three books which might well have been published separately, the story of his own travels, a history of Ethiopia from the earliest times to 1769, and a number of essays on very varied topics, such as polygamy, the origin of civilisation, the untruthfulness of Portuguese writers on Ethiopia, and the effect of the Nile on the level of the land in Ethiopia.”

Bruce was not the first person to reach the source of the Blue Nile, but he brought back useful drawings of buildings, plants, animals, and birds. He collected seeds, kept meteorological and astronomical records, and purchased copies of valuable manuscripts. He provided other men a powerful stimulus to action, especially in France, where Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile was always taken seriously. Alan Moorehead sums up Bruce’s influence by calling him the “dominant figure” who gave “direction and force” to the interest in Africa mounting in France. Bruce’s death was a sad end to a life of such intense action: Hurrying to say goodbye to a visitor, he fell down the stairs of his home and died before morning. The praise on his tombstone includes these fitting remarks:

His life was spent in performing Useful and splendid actions. He explored many distant regions, He discovered the source of the nile. He traversed the deserts of Nubia.
Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bruce, James. Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile. Edited by C. F. Beckingham. New York: Horizon Press, 1964. The original was published in 1790 in five volumes. This is an abridgment of the second edition, Edinburgh, 1804-1805.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moorehead, Alan. The Blue Nile. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. Chapters 2 and 3 summarize Bruce’s travels.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reid, J. M. Traveller Extraordinary. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968. Pursues the drama of Bruce’s life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Silverberg, Robert. Bruce of the Blue Nile. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969. Popular account of Bruce’s life and adventures.

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