The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Fauna in Bruce's Travels


A Rhinoceros depicted by James Bruce.  The Rhino was a true point of interest for Bruce, and he made this very apparent through his writing in the sixth volume of his travel narrative. In it Bruce claims "this is the first drawing of a rhinoceros with a double horn that has ever yet been presented to the public" (Bruce, 105). Bruce does however acknowledge earlier renditions of rhinos like the one done by Durer, but these were depictions of Asiatic or Indian rhinoceroses (Bruce, 105).

A large section of James Bruce’s travel narrative details the many species of Fauna he found on his travels to Ethiopia, Egypt and other parts of Africa.  In fact Bruce dedicates around half of his final volume in his novel to cover the interesting animals he encountered.  In this volume Bruce employs numerous images or plates of the animals he encountered and goes to great detail in order to best convey these sights to his readers in Europe.  In addition to these images, Bruce attempts to include his observations of the “quadrupeds”, birds, reptiles, insects and fish in order to report every minute detail back to the reader.  For example, Bruce outlines animals’ physique, coloration, and size.  He measures animals to the precise inch rather than merely estimating what he believes he is seeing.  Bruce also details animals eating habits as well as their daily actions and habits. 

The first “quadruped” or four-legged mammal that Bruce analyzes is the Rhinoceros, which can be seen above to the left.  Bruce spends a shocking amount of time on this particular animal.  In fact, Bruce uses just over twenty-eight pages in his sixth volume to talk about only the rhino.  He discusses the physical characteristics of the massive animal and gives interesting details about it.  For some reason, Bruce finds a need to even talk about the texture of a rhino’s tongue, saying, “The tongue of a young rhinoceros is soft… On the other hand the tongue and inside of the upper lip of the old rhinoceros are very tough” (Bruce, vol. 6, 118). He goes on to conclude that the animal’s diet of hard branches and barks of trees, like the acacia, are to blame for this increased coarseness in its tongue (Bruce, vol. 6, 118). Bruce also spends a great deal of time analyzing rhinoceroses’ horns, claiming there are two species of rhino, one species only has one horn, while the other has two (Bruce, vol. 6, 103). His claim is in fact true, however this easily could have been an area of disbelief by Europeans back home at the time. Another interesting topic Bruce addresses is human relation with the rhinoceros. He talks of the Agageer people hunting and killing rhinos “by cutting the hams or tendon of Achilles with a sword” (Bruce, vol. 6, 114). The author continues on and talks of hunters using the rhino for meat or taking its horns to market.  Bruce does a good job of including a plethora of information for the reader to process for some animals; however, he clearly chooses to talk of some animals more than others.  His evident obsession with the massive rhino does not follow for all others.  Of Quadrupeds, Bruce mentions several more species like the booted lynx, ashkoko, hyena, and a few others, however none of these are remotely close to being in the same level of detail as is the section on the rhino. This high level of detail likely comes from a several century long debate on the rhinocerous and the differences between the African Rhino and the Indian Rhino. When examined, Bruce's plate of the African rhino is almost identical of earlier editions of the Indian rhino, however Bruce's rhino has two horns, the correct number for African rhinos.  In reality, African and Indian rhinos have very different looking bodies.  It is possible Bruce and his engraver chose to use a similar image to the already acknowledged Indian rhinoceros, while adding on a second horn, so that Bruce's claim to the African rhino would be viewed as valid by Europeans of the time. Had Bruce completely showed the true African rhino's body, he likely could have been met with resistance by European skeptics.


Potential Issues with Bruce's Analysis of African Fauna

Despite Bruce's numerous findings and a wealth of valuable facts he obtained through measurements and detailed observation, parts of Bruce's story seem likely to be too fantastical for them to be true.  Another problem with Bruce’s writing in natural history comes from his egotistical approach, which leads to a sense of rambling and unrelated tangents.  Bruce consumes his writing with a very high number of sentences starting with “I” rather than analyzing and recording information he has discovered about the animal life of Africa.  Nigel Leask outlines this egotistical writing style in his article and includes a quote from another reviewer saying that the part written about himself “is the least interesting part of the work” (Leask, 77)In his analysis and report on the African hyena, Bruce includes a wide variety of details that for the most part are very accurate, however he tells a story of a hyena attempting to attack him in his own tent at night.  Bruce claims he walked outside and when he came back in a hyena was beside his bed with a cluster of candles in his mouth. Bruce then says he threw a spear in it and then shot it with his pistol.  (Bruce, vol. 6, 133-134) Even without being a 19th century skeptic of explorer’s finding and stories, many people would find this story somewhat outlandish. Bruce was not an experienced outdoorsman, rather he was landed gentry with enough money for guards to do that for him. Therefore it is highly unlikely this story is true. Many times stories of encounters like the former are interesting stories , but when paired with a preconceived notion of Bruce’s ridiculous claims, they seem too good to be true.

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.

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.