The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile


The Curious Case of James Bruce

Born in 1730 at Kinniard House, Stirlingshire, James Bruce went on to be educated at Harrow and Edinburgh Univesity (Ullendorff, 128). The Scotsman, who was described as quite unpleasant by many,  inherited his wealth through the wine business of his wife's family. Impressed by the desirability of finding the source of the Nile in Job Ludolf's writings, he set that task as the aim of his life. After liquidating his portions of the wine business, his personal fortune was enough to finance his adventurous plans. After studying several languages and the classics, the Earl of Halifax offered him the post of Consul-General at Algiers in 1762, with an additional request to explore the coast of Barbary (Ullendorff, 129). After acquiring some knowledge of medicine and increasing his linguistic capabilities, he began his explorations in 1768, while meticulously documenting what he encountered. Upon returning from his journy through the Northeastern region of the African continent, the British community greeted him with an enthusiastic reception of his accounts. The intellectual community celebreated the return of the traveller, who they long believed to be dead. Soon after, a great deal of skepticism arose over his stories, and that skepticism quickly turned to ridicule. In response to this, Bruce retreated to his estate in Kinniard and spent sixteen years preparing his travel notes before publishing his lengthy narrative, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, In the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773, in 1790. His thorough and content filled volumes did him no favors in reacquiring his credibility, and the Scotsman passed away in 1794, knowing that very few believed his travels. To read the first volume of James Bruce's travel narrative, click here.


Map of North Africa

"Enlightenment and exploration offered one another a bevy of techniques and tools of persuasion, which may have spoken in the language of reason but which inevitably also encompassed appeals to the emotions, passions, preconceptions, and proclivities of its practitioners and audiences alike: that is, in the terms of classical rehtoric, logos, pathos and ethos in equal proportions. Both were at their most fundamental levels, forms of culture and ways of knowing: ideologies, discourses, and epistemologies embedded in and reinforced by a range of social, political, commercial, technological, and textual practices. Exploration and Enlightenment were thus cut from the same cloth, amplifying, intensifying, and transforming one another while exposing their mutual complexities, challenges, and contradictions." (Stern, 54)

Travel Narratives and Popular Geography

By analyzing James Bruce's travels within the focused scope of travel narratives and popular geography, this exhibit seeks to better expose the circumstances in which he explored and the historical context surrounding his journey. As Stern explains in his quote above, the enlightenment was a defining factor in shaping attitudes of this time, and it created an environment filled with skepticism. Additionally, Travel narratives were very popular in eighteenth century culture, so an investigation into their content and structures provides further understanding of how Bruce's narrative fits into the grand scheme. Geography was also coming into its own during this century, and became a fascination of the European public. James Bruce, having mapped the regions of Northeast Africa, contributed to this development of mapping and the public conception of this relatively unchartered region of the world. Each page of this exhibit seeks to further the discussion of James Bruce's travels by providing a detailed context of the eighteenth century circumstances of exploration, while also analyzing Bruce's unique path.

Works Cited

Ullendorf, Edward. "James Bruce of Kinniard." The Scottish Historical Review 32, no. 114 (1953): 128-43.

Hibbert, Christopher. "Ethiopian Bruce." In Africa Explored: Europeans in the Dark Continent, 1769-1889, 21-52. New York: W W Norton and Company, 1982.

"Exploration and Enlightenment." In Reinterpreting Exploration The West in the World, 57-79, edited by Dane Kennedy, by Philip Stern. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.