The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Bruce's Intentions


The first page of James Bruce's Travels, the "Dedication to the King"


James Bruce presented two different motivations for traveling to Ethiopia: both that he represented the British kingdom under the banner of discovery and that he did it for personal recognition as a popular explorer. In his Dedication to the King, Bruce claimed that he made his journey, in part, to bring the knowledge of British civilization to Ethiopia: “Your Majesty’s subjects, braver, more powerful and magnified [sic] than those destroyers of old, but far more just, generous, and humane, erected in the hearts of an unknown people, while making these discoveries, an empire founded on peace and love of the subject” (Bruce, “Dedication”). Furthermore, Bruce proclaimed his humility as the “least considerable of your Majesty’s subjects…no difficulties or dangers are unsurmountable to a heart warm with affection and duty to his Sovereign, jealous of the honour of his mailer, and devoted to the glory of his country” (Bruce, “Dedication”). Though in these examples Bruce explicitly portrays himself as a humble servant, other passages and accounts contradict this idea. For example, when he reached the source of the Nile, he proclaimed himself a conqueror and a hero: “Come and triumph with me over all the kings of the earth, all their armies, all their philosophers, and all their heroes” (Mitsein, 11). This leaves the audience to question whether or not Bruce’s earlier statements were sincere.

Whether or not Bruce was a servant of empire or a self-centered seeker of fame, he was by all accounts genuinely interested in the pursuit of knowledge. While he was Consul-General at Algiers, he spent time recording Roman ruins, learned medicine from a doctor, and took drawing lessons (Hibbert, 23). He learned a number of languages throughout his life, including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chaldean, Syriac, Ge’ez, Arabic, Tigrinya, and Amharic (Mitsein, 4). Even before his journey, Bruce was a man of knowledge.

Bruce placed an enormous amount of importance on his journey, indicating his desire for fame as an explorer, and his Dedication to the King may have been more of a formality than it was meaningful. However, it seems unfair to discount what may have been more noble motives. He certainly acted in accordance with his claims in his Dedication by treating cultures he encountered with deference and respect rather than “trampling under foot the laws of society and hospitality” (Bruce, “Dedication”). Evidenced by his academic interests, Bruce was a naturally curious adventurer and helped to advance many scientific studies during his time in Africa.


The Nile

In Bruce’s Travels, he emphasizes the historical significance of finding the source of the Nile and makes it clear that this was the main goal of his expedition. To understand why Bruce chose his particular journey, it is critical to trace the historical European fascination with the Nile. Initially, Europeans knew very little about the Nile, endowing it with a certain mystique. Beginning in Ancient Greece, scholars were unable to ascertain many concrete facts about the Nile. For example, Herodotus theorized that the position of the sun determined the flow of the river, but he was unable to find anyone who knew the source (Arbel, 105-106). Later, Alexander the Great suggested that the Ganges River was one of the Nile’s tributaries (Arbel, 106). Even through medieval times, the only firsthand information about the river came from travelers to Alexandria and Cairo, leading to nothing more than conjecture about the source (Arbel, 106). European writers created fantastical stories about the Nile with little or no evidence. Adding to the significance of the river, many gave the Nile religious importance, claiming that it was the Gihon River mentioned in the Bible that could lead to an “earthly paradise” (Arbel, 107). For centuries, the source of the Nile was a mystery to Europeans.

Beginning in the Renaissance, Europeans created more detailed maps of the African continent. During much of the 16th century, scholars relied heavily on Ptolemy’s ancient maps of Africa, though the maps were mostly inaccurate (Clapham, 296). Before Bruce published Travels, new maps were often revisions of old ones with only minor changes (Clapham, 302). However, as travelers such as European missionaries began to explore the interior of Africa, the public perception of Africa, and subsequently the Nile, transitioned from unknown and mysterious to knowable (Arbel, 114). 16th and 17th century explorers, especially missionaries, helped to map the Nile with firsthand observations previously unavailable to Europeans.  Fueled by the principles of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution during the 17th and 18th centuries, this European search for knowledge inspired both explorers and popular consumption of their works. In this way, Bruce hoped to harness the public desire to learn about foreign lands to gain renown as an explorer.


Scientific and Cultural Exploration

In addition to having a specific destination or purpose to his journey, an explorer was obligated to record detailed empirical findings on the geography, natural history, and culture of the places he visited along the way. During the Enlightenment, scholars made advances in fields including zoology, botany, geology, and many others, all of which were closely tied to exploration (Stern, 55). As the study of natural history expanded, artifacts, specimens, and notes from the field became extremely valuable to collectors who established “cabinets of curiosity” (Huxley, 80). Beginning in the early 16th century, collectors amassed vast numbers of “exotic” articles that represented discoveries from around the world (Bleichmar, 16). Originally, these collections were used primarily as a means of personal pride to show to others rather than to advance public knowledge (Huxley, 80). Into the late 17th century, academic societies began to amass collections and encouraged individuals to donate to these collective cabinets (Huxley, 81). Eventually, individual collectors began to treat collections as scholarly pursuits rather than merely entertainment (Huxley, 82). As examples of individual interests contributing to the advancement of public knowledge, Hans Sloane’s natural history collection from the late 17th and early 18th centuries and William Hamilton’s 18th century collection of Greek artifacts later became important parts of the British Museum (Huxley, 88; Jenkins, 174). In addition, some collectors created “paper museums” that consisted of drawings, engravings, maps, and other documents (Huxley, 80). It was more convenient and cheaper to acquire articles in a paper museum than a cabinet of curiosity, allowing for more collectors and a wider audience. As knowledge became more public, demand for new information grew, and explorers were given the task of providing these advances. Therefore, the more detailed, new facts that an explorer recorded, the more successful his narrative would be. On his journey, Bruce recorded an astounding amount of information on flora and fauna, as well as information on geography, meteorology, and many more subjects.

Besides topics about natural history, Europeans were fascinated by the cultures of other nations, and they were especially interested in Ethiopia given its history as a Christian kingdom.  During the Crusades, Europeans developed a special interest in Christian nations who might help the cause against Muslims in the Holy Land (Arbel, 108). Over time, Europeans created a legend of a Christian leader named Prester John. Though it began with him as the ruler of India or another East Asian kingdom, people eventually associated his kingdom with Ethiopia, which was known to be Christian (Arbel, 108). Therefore, people expected Ethiopia to have similar customs to a Christian, European country. This would play an important role in the public reaction to Bruce’s journey when he returned and his picture of Ethiopia did not match European expectations. Regardless of whether the public believed him, while traveling through Ethiopia, Bruce was able to extensively document new scientific discoveries as well as answer significant questions about Ethiopian culture.


Works Cited

Arbel, Benjamin. "Renaissance Geographical Literature and the Nile." In The Nile, edited by Haggai Erlich and Israel Gershoni, 105-119. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000.

Bruce, James. "Dedication to the King." In Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773. Vol. 1. Edinburgh: G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1790.

Clapham, Christopher. "The European Mapping of Ethiopia, 1460-1856." Journal of Ethiopian Studies 40, no. 1/2 (2007): 293-307. Accessed April 29, 2015.

Hibbert, Christopher. "Ethiopian Bruce." In Africa Explored: Europeans in the Dark Continent, 1769-1889, 21-52. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983.

Huxley, Robert. “Challenging the Dogma: Classifying and Describing the Natural World” and “Natural History Collectors and Their Collections: ‘Simpling Macaronis’ and Instruments of Empire.” In Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Kim Sloan and Andrew Burnett, 70-91. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2003.

Jenkins, Ian. "Ideas of Antiquity: Classical and Other Ancient Civilizations in the Age of Enlightenment." In Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Kim Sloan and Andrew Burnett, 168-177. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2003.

Rebekah Mitsein “’Come and triumph with your Don Quixote’: or, how James Bruce travelled to discover the Nile but found Scotland instead” in Studies in Travel Writing. Vol. 18 (2014), 1-17.

Stern, Philip. "Exploration and Enlightenment." In Reinterpreting Exploration: The West in the World, edited by Dane Kennedy, by Philip Stern, 54-79. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Bruce's Intentions