The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

James Bruce as a Natural Historian in Africa

Lake Tana

Lake Tana - Source of the Blue Nile. On his mission to discover the source of the Nile, Bruce spent a good amount of time at Lake Tana, which is the formal source of the Blue Nile.  Even though Bruce believe the true source was just above the lake in a marshy area, he was fundamentally correct.  

In 1771 James Bruce privately funded and led a mission taking him nearly six years to complete.  In addition to the vast knowledge he collected on the people and cultures of Africa, Bruce also took the time to record and document natural history while on his journey.  He did this in what he deems an appendix separate from the rest of his volumes.  Bruce claims “in so doing I hope to meet the approbation of my scientific botanical reader by laying the different subjects all together before them” (Bruce,vol. 6, x). In this appendix, or final volume, Bruce recorded specimens of flora and fauna from Egypt, Ethiopia, other parts of Africa, and even collected and observed some types of plants in Arabia.  He also documented several marine specimens from his time spent in the Red Sea (Bruce, vol. 6, xvi-xix).  Bruce tends to target certain specimens over others when writing in his narrative.  He often chooses to write of plant species with medicinal traits or plants characterized as important by the local peoples (Bruce, vol. 6, xi-xii). Similarly, the majority of the animals Bruce chooses to include are animals of European interest or are topics of discussion in the scientific field.  For example, his inclusion of the rhinoceros is likely planned out and incorporated because of the European interest and confusion surrounding the two known species, African and Asian.

After spending the great majority of his time writing about subjects other than natural history, why did Bruce decide to venture out and document the plants and animals of Africa? The answer is simple enough in Bruce’s mind; “It has been my endeavor, throughout this history, to leave nothing unexplained that may assist the reader in understanding the different subjects that have been treated in the course of it” (Bruce, vol. 6, ix).  Bruce likely believed that in order to be a legitimate and valid source of new findings and information, he must be complete in his report to ensure he does not leave out any detail that could be important to the reader. Another likely reason for Bruce to include natural history comes along with his will to be the first to discover an animal or the first to present an animal to the European public.  Bruce claimed he had the first engraving of an African rhino seen by the public and that he was the first to discover the Erkoom bird (Bruce, vol. 6, xxx, 203). His obsession with being the first to accomplish a feat is also seen in his introduction to his travel narrative where he says his journey “was the first discovery attempted in Your Majesty’s reign” (Bruce, vol. 1, "Dedication"). Bruce’s attempt to fill the minds of curious Europeans, as well as his desire to be a glorified explorer, led to his interest in Natural History.  However, was Bruce truly a naturalist or was he something different?

Is Bruce a Good Naturalist?

Title Page

Title Page of Volume 6.

Camera Obscura

A Camera Obscura

James Bruce’s journey was a multi-faceted expedition, containing a wealth of information on the peoples, geography, antiquities, as well as items of natural history from Eastern Africa.  In the analysis of Bruce as a natural historian, we must ask the question 'is Bruce is a good naturalist?' The simple answer to this question is that no he is not. This being said, Bruce focused predominantly on African people, their cultures, their past, and their land’s geography more than did he look at the natural history of Africa.  This is clearly demonstrated by Bruce’s fascination in antiquarian objects like obelisks and hieroglyphs in the ancient city of Axum as well as in his elaborate stories, one of which where he claims to cut a steak from a live cow and sew it up to continue grazing (Leask, 91). Bruce also finds great enjoyment in artificialia like instruments such as the Theban harp or the African lyre (Moorefield, 493-507).  A clear example of his lack of focus on natural history comes merely from the fashion in which Bruce organizes his travel narrative.  Rather than listing the natural history as it happened chronologically, Bruce decided to create an Appendix where he could list his findings of the flora and fauna of Africa.  According to Leask, he does this “in an entirely contextless fashion”, exemplifying the potential issues readers may have with Bruce's style of writing (Leask, 70). The appendix, which is the sixth volume of his work, includes images and descriptions of the flora and fauna he encountered while on his journey as well as a variety of maps detailing the topography and geography of the lands he encountered.  Also, instead of focusing on the natural history, Bruce states he includes it for the sake of completeness and for some readers’ enjoyment (Bruce, vol. 6, ix-xi).

Bruce also struggles to be a true naturalist because of the distrust in his skills of making observations.  For Bruce, his focus lies more with his private thoughts on wildlife encounters and what was going on in his head, than did he worry about getting scientific facts (Leask, 78).  Bruce struggled to gather conclusive data on species, especially animals.  Rather than taking many samples and observations of the flora and fauna he encountered, Bruce took data from a single animal he shot and declared to the rest of Europe that the entire species was the same in measurement. He does this for many of the species, a notable one of which is the hyena where he declares the exact weight as 112 pound, in addition to the rest of the specific measurements, instead of gathering multiple specimens to render much more accurate specifications (Bruce, vol. 6, 136-138). 

A last important argument against Bruce being an naturalist comes from the distrust Europeans had in his plates of natural species.  Despite his many technologies like the camera obscura, Europeans doubted Bruce’s plates were real.  Some even argued that he was incompetent and unqualified to use the technologies he brought with him, and therefore there was no way his drawings were accurate (Leask, 71). Others inherently distrusted his plates because he had no one to validate his pictures.  Unfortunately for Bruce, the artist he chose to accompany him, Luigi Balugani, died while on the trip so upon his return he had no established artist at his back to support him (Leask, 65). At the same time, many of the specimens, specifically flora, are merely parts of the entire plant. Rather than analyzing and sketching the entire species, Bruce drew the part he found most interesting. In most cases this mean Bruce only sketched a part of a branch and flowers instead of the entire plant. 

Works Cited

Bruce, James. 1791. Travels to discover the source of the nile: In the years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773. Dublin: Printed by Zachariah Johnson, for P. Wogan, L. White, P. Byrne, W. Porter, W. Sleater, J. Jones, J. Moore, B. Dornin, C. Lewis, W. Jones, G. Draper, J. Milliken, and R. White.

Bruce, James. 1790. Travels to discover the source of the nile: In the years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773. Edinburg: Printed by J. Ruthven, for G. G. J. and J. Robinson, Paternoster-row.

Leask, Nigel. “Curious Narrative and the Problem of Credit: James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile”. In Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing 1770-1840. (2002). 54-101.

Moorefield, Arthur. "James Bruce: Ethnomusicologist or Abyssinian Lyre." In Journal of American Musicology Society, 493-514. Vol. 28, No 3. 1975. 

James Bruce as a Natural Historian in Africa