The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

The Return Journey

Nubian Desert

Photograph of the Nubian Desert 8km NE of Wadi Halfa Market, Sudan, in 2008



“…These were all to be thrown away, with other not less valuable papers, and, with my quadrant, telescopes, and time-keeper, abandoned to the rude and ignorant hands of robbers, or to be buried in the sands. Every memorandum, every description, sketch, or observation since I departed from Badjoura and passed the desert to Coffeir, till I reached the present spot, were left in an undigested heap, with our carrion-camels, at Saffieha, while there remained with me, in lieu of all my memoranda, but this mournful consideration, that I was now to maintain the reality of these my tedious perils, with those who either did, or might affect, from malice and envy, to doubt my varacity upon my ipse dixit alone, or abandon the reputation of the travels which I had made with so much courage, labour, danger, and difficulty, and which had been considered as desperate and impracticable to accomplish for more than 2000 years.” – James Bruce, Travels Volume 5, Pages 369-370

On Bruce’s return journey inland along the Nile, he faced a number of challenges, including disease and inhospitable rulers. He spent two months with a near-deathly case of dysentery near the beginning of the trip during a period of heat with temperatures of well over 100 degrees (Hibbert, 46). In April of 1772, Bruce reached the capital of the Fung kingdom, Sennar, but King Ismail was unwilling to help Bruce pass through the kingdom. Instead, he forced Bruce to stay in Sennar and attend to his sick wives (Hibbert, 47). Bruce eventually left in September by giving the King nearly all of his remaining gold, leaving him with nothing but his men, camels, and belongings (Hibbert, 48-49). On November 11, 1772, Bruce left the Nile and civilization to cross the Nubian Desert. At his last stop before crossing the desert, the Queen Mother of Shendi had given him an Arab guide to cross the desert. Nevertheless, the journey was still excruciating. First, Bruce developed a Guinea-worm in his leg that he describes in Volume 6 of Travels: “…[it] had retired into my leg and festered there. The foot, leg, and thigh, swelled to a monstrous size, appearance of mortification followed…” (Bruce, vol. 6, 73). Then, after three of the camels died, Bruce describes in the above quote how he was forced to leave many of his possessions and artifacts from the journey in the desert in order to carry on traveling (Hibbert, 50). Because of the treacherous trip across the desert, Bruce returned with an incomplete collection of artifacts, certainly further hurting the credibility of his account. Despite his struggles in the desert, Bruce successfully made his way to Cairo, then Alexandria, and eventually France in March of 1773 (Hibbert, 50).

The Journey
The Return Journey