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James Bruce, proud discoverer of the Blue Nile

Posted in Discoveries, Exploration, Geography, Historical articles, Travel on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

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This edited article about James Bruce and African exploration originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1048 published on 10 April 1982.

James Bruce, picture, image, illustration

When James Bruce visited the Sudanese kingdom of Fung,  the Royal bodyguard wore accoutrements used by the Saracens in the Middle Ages, by Angus McBride

In an age of tall men, James Bruce was considered something of a giant. He was an imposing two metres tall, with red hair and a loud, fierce voice. He admitted to having a “passionate disposition”, and it was obvious that he would never be content to lead a quiet life.

Many such men are unhappy because they cannot find the right outlet for their energy. But Scotsman Bruce was lucky. He had a goal in life. He was determined to locate the source of the River Nile.

For more than two thousand years mankind had been baffled as to where the river actually began. Bruce said that it was “a defiance of all travellers, and an opprobrium (disgrace) to geography.” He felt it his duty to put the source of the Nile on the map. Today we know that the two Niles, the White and the Blue, meet at Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. But in 1730, when Bruce was born, the map of Africa was not so clearly marked. Until Bruce discovered it, there was no Blue Nile. And this geographical vagueness played a strange part in Bruce’s career as an explorer.

This career did not start until 1768, when Bruce was 38. By then he had already led a life with enough adventure in it to satisfy most men, especially one who had been delicate in youth. He went to Edinburgh University, and by the time he was 24 he had fought a duel in Brussels, sailed down the Rhine, and travelled through Spain and Portugal.

In 1762, this varied experience led George III’s government to appoint Bruce British consul in Algiers. This meant a port among the infamous Barbary pirates, but Bruce’s reaction was simple. Algiers was on the way to Central Africa and the source of the Nile, so to Algiers he would go.

The next two years were a nightmare. Ali Pasha, the cruel Bey of Algiers, became enraged with the British and the French for seizing one of his ships. He had the French consul clapped in chains and imprisoned. His soldiers threatened Bruce’s assistant with “a thousand bastinadoes” (sticks for beating the soles of the feet), and the poor man fled in fear of his life.

Even Bruce was cautious about leaving his quarters. Eventually the Bey’s savagery became too much for him, and he went in person to protest. But the ruler’s anger had not diminished, and to show his displeasure he had a court official strangled before Bruce’s eyes!

After this atrocity, Bruce asked permission to quit Algiers. Apart from his disenchantment with his post, his hankering to reach the source of the Nile was now stronger than ever. So he travelled to Ethiopia, and immediately headed into the unknown and dangerous interior.

He succeeded in tracking down the court of the young King, Tecla Haimanout, which consisted of tents which were moved restlessly across the plateau of Ethiopia (Abyssinia, as it was then known). Here Bruce’s training as a diplomat stood him in good stead, and won him the friendship of the vizier (prime minister) Ras Michael, who was the real power behind the Abyssinian throne.

Bruce then journeyed to what he called “one of the most magnificent, stupendous sights in the Creation” – the cataract at the Tisisat Falls.

“The river had been considerably increased by rains, and fell in one sheet of water, without any interval, above half an English mile in breadth, with a force and noise that was truly terrible, and which stunned, and made me, for a time, perfectly dizzy. It was a magnificent sight that ages, added to the greatest length of human life, would not efface from my memory.”

It was not until 4th November, 1770, that he finally fought his way 9,500 feet (2,900 m) up the Ghish Mountain, where he came across a church, a swamp, and a small, cold brook. The discovery of this brook was his supreme moment. This, he said triumphantly, was the source of the River Nile.

The fact that he was on the wrong river, 1,600 km from Lake Victoria, the real source of the Nile, did not lessen his achievement. Without knowing it, Bruce had found the beginning of the Blue Nile. And it was for this that his name would appear in the history books of the world.

For a moment he stood looking at the unimpressive swamp, with its thin trickles of water. Then he went a little crazy with delight.

“Throwing my shoes off,” he says, “I ran down the hill, towards the little island of green sods, which was about two hundred yards distant.

“The whole side of the hill was thick overgrown with flowers, the large bulbous roots of which, appearing over the surface of the ground, and their skins coming off on treading upon them, occasioned me two very severe falls before I reached the brink of the marsh.

“I after this came to the island of green turf, which was in the form of an altar . . . and I stood in rapture . . .

“Though a mere private Briton, I triumphed here, in my own mind, over kings and their armies.” Next he must return to London and make known the news of his feat. But, as he set out for home, he began to sense the disbelief and discouragement that was awaiting him.

“I found,” he wrote, “a despondency gaining ground fast upon me, and blasting the crown of laurels I had woven for myself.”

Four years later, after a number of other travels, during which he lived on a diet of raw meat and honey, the explorer was relating his exploits in the fashionable salons of London. But his stories were scoffed at.

Deeply hurt by this scepticism, Bruce retired to his estates at Kinnaird, in Scotland. There he married and started writing his famous book, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile. This was strongly attacked, on its publication in 1790, as being “dull” and quite unbelievable.

Forty years after his death in 1794 the book was still regarded as romantic fiction. But gradually the Blue Nile flowed more and more into world events. Time and fresh knowledge showed that all of Bruce’s fantastic stories were true, and that the source of the Blue Nile was indeed a swamp high in the Ghish Mountain.

Bruce, of course, knew nothing of this. To the end of his life he was still defending his reputation.

On one occasion a guest at a country house-party said it was impossible for anyone, Ethiopians included, to eat raw meat. The explorer answered this by rushing into the kitchen and returning with a piece of uncooked beef, peppered and salted, Ethiopian-style.

“You will either eat that, sir,” Bruce thundered, holding out the meat, “or fight me!”

Without further protest, the man ate it. After all, James Bruce was a very big man.

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