The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Why James Bruce Did Not Receive the Same Veneration for his Voyages as Captain James Cook


The veneration and respect accorded to Cook was never achieved by James Bruce for a variety of reasons. James Bruce was a contemporary of Cook’s, and his work as an eighteenth century explorer, though admirable, did not attain him the same prominence as an explorer and historical figure as did James Cook’s.

First of all, the quality of Bruce’s astronomical observations and other scientific work has been overshadowed by controversy over his Ethiopian reports. His narratives were met with doubt and criticism, partly due to the nature of what his stated mission was and the preconceived theories Europeans held about Ethiopia. Bruce was dubbed the ‘Abyssinian Liar’, and his status in the intellectual community fell with the rise of critics and satirists dismissing his reports as false (Mitsein, 1).

Bruce was not an official explorer supported by the crown, he was a private traveller who relied on wealth created by coal mining. Interestingly, the initial purpose of Bruce’s voyage was similar to that of Cook’s; to observe the transit of Venus and draw classical ruins (Laesk, 2). His principal geographic discovery was more of a rediscovery for the western world, and did not have the vast geographical expansion of knowledge that Cook’s voyages held. Educated in England, he was not a product of Scottish enlightenment; this conflict of identity discredited much of his reports and discouraged his readers (Sebe, 59).

In order to thoroughly analyze the difference in veneration for each explorer, it is critical to establish what drove the popularity of eighteenth century explorers. The reasons for their equivocation with ‘legends’ are cultural, political, social, and economical. By making discoveries that placed their respective country ahead of its rivals, they were bolstered as national heroes and received active support from propaganda networks aimed at promoting the imperial idea (Sebe, 109). Travel narratives offered the public to travel vicariously during a period where wars and international conflict greatly reduced the ability to do so. After reading a narrative of Cook’s voyages, William Cowper writes, “He travels and I too. I tread his deck, ascend his topmask, through his peering eyes. Discover countries with a kindred heart, suffer his woes and share his escapes. While fancy, like the finger of a clock, runs the great circuit and is still at home.” (The Task, 1785). The popularity of Cook’s travel narratives greatly surpasses that of James Bruce. Although popular, the nature of his narrative prose was inconsistent and uncivilized. Much of eighteenth century knowledge was determined by the quality and subsequent interpretation of the narrative, and James Bruce had failed to attain what was culturally desired. His narratives were laced with disparities placed side by side, the inconsistency of which was culturally admonished by our “philosophical” heritage that equates inconsistency with fiction (Mitsein, 4).

It is also important to note that James Cook, though he wrote the Journals documenting his journey, had narratives of his journey published by other writers. These writers, much to Cook's chagrin had they been contemporaneous with his travels, manipulated his journals as they saw fit. At the point of his second voyage when he had reached the Cape of Good Hope, he saw the manuscript Hawkesworth was going to publish of his voyages. He was deeply upset by the freedom Hawkesworth, and others, had taken with his work, altering and omitting what he had written and making a prodigous profit off of sentiments he had never expressed (Finnis, 103). Cook got permission from the Admirilty to publish his own works, but at this point he had the benefit of hindsight. Of course, his third voyage was not published by him, but the first two voyages he had published were edited after his journey. He had the luxury of having an audience in mind and knowing the consequences of his decisions and the outcome of any crisis he encountered on his journey. The various reproductions of James Cook's journey by both himself and ghostwriters are different to that of James Bruce, which was never reproduced in the same way.  

The eighteenth century saw legends of exploration that develop a much more imperial backdrop, where New Imperialism combined exploration with an expansionist agenda (Sebe, 117). This is a factor in why James Bruce did not achieve the same success as Captain Cook, who was revered by Great Britain’s court as a political ploy. Fervent nationalism at this time reveals the geopolitical stakes that determined the celebration of explorers. Ethiopia was only intermittently a principal object of British imperial and strategic interest (Arbel, 106), and endorsement as an empire was not available to Bruce as it was to other explorers. Both explorers, despite their varying reception as legendary explorers of their time, fostered geographical awareness and scientific discoveries that strengthened the relationship between the European and non-western world. 

James Cook
Why James Bruce Did Not Receive the Same Veneration for his Voyages as Captain James Cook