‘Abyssinian’ Bruce

While perusing Stuart Gordon’s The Book of Hoaxes I came across a rather remarkable fellow who, unlike most of the other people included in the book, actually did everything he claimed, only to be accused of lying about his adventures.

James Bruce (1730-1794) published Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in 1790. In this five volume work he described his travels in Abyssinia, posing first as a wandering fakir and then as a Syrian physician. In the Massawa province, on the Red Sea coast, after enduring physical hardships, and overcoming the difficulties of carrying technical instruments over rugged mountain terrain, Bruce witnessed the Abyssinian custom of eating raw beef steak cut from living beasts.


Bruce was only the second European to visit the isolated mountain kingdom of Abyssinia since the seventeenth century, and when he arrived in Gondor, the capital at that time, the kingdom was in turmoil, with warlords threating to overpower the emperor. In order to travel through Abyssinia, Bruce needed to establish good relations with Ras Michael, the political force behind the fifteen-year-old emperor Haimanout II. Bruce’s mastery of the Tigrinya and Amaharic languages, and his insistence, after dropping his physician disguise, that he was a protestant Christian not a hated Roman Catholic, won him the governorship of Ras-el-Fil on the Sudanese border.


En route to discover the source of the Nile, Bruce encountered Fasil of Damot, the rebellious warlord, and his Galla army, and so impressed Fasil with his marksmanship and by taming a wild horse that he sent Bruce on his way with a body guard. On 4 November 1770, Bruce’s party crossed the Little Abbai, arriving at the ‘Nile source’ at Gish.

It is easier to guess than describe the situation of my mind at that moment—standing in that spot which had baffled the genius, industry, and inquiry, of both ancients and moderns, for the course of nearly three thousand years. Kings had attempted this discovery at the head of armies, and each expedition was distinguished from the last, only by the difference of the numbers which had perished, and agreed alone in the disappointment which had uniformly and without exception followed them all…Though a mere private Briton, I triumphed here, in my own mind, over kings and their armies; and every comparison was leading nearer and nearer to presumption, when the place itself where I stood, the object of my vain-glory, suggested what depressed my short-lived triumphs. I was, however, but then half through my journey, and all the danger which I had already passed, awaited me again on my return. (Bruce, 3.597)

Bruce’s return home was fraught with danger. Upon his return to Gondor he found the capital in the midst of turmoil. Bruce joined Ras Michael’s forces to fight against the rebel warlords. However, after making little gain in a few battles Michael was deposed, and Bruce looked for an opportunity to leave the country. Laden with botanical specimens, journals and maps he set off towards Egypt across the Nubian Desert.


Bruce’s caravan soon ran out of food and water, and, after having eaten their last camel, he was forced to struggle on to Aswan on foot, having abandoned all specimens and journals. As soon as Bruce had recovered from his twenty day desert ordeal, he returned to the desert to recover his belongings. Plagued by severely swollen feet, guinea worm in his leg, and malaria, Bruce finally got back to England in 1774.

For a while Bruce stole the limelight from other recently returned Pacific explorers Captain Cook and Joseph Banks. However he was derided by Dr Samuel Johnson, who considered himself an Abyssinian expert, and who took a critical view of Bruce’s achievements.

Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile proved to be an instant success, its original edition selling out to booksellers within 32 hours. Despite such success, Bruce’s anecdotes of his travels were greeted with widespread incredulity. The worst insult came when a sequel to Baron Münchhausen’s travels was dedicated to him, based directly on his travels to Ethiopia.

Isabelle Chevallot
Assistant Librarian

Guildhall Library’s catalogue is available online: http://prism.talis.com/cityoflondon

A list of books about hoaxes can be viewed here: http://is.gd/hoaxes

A select list of our holdings of early travel books can be viewed here: http://is.gd/Gresham



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s