The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Bruce's Tactics for Success

Talented Linguist and Wealth

Although Bruce graduated from law school at Edinburgh University, he chose not to practice law. Influenced by his marriage to a wine merchant’s daughter, Adriana Allan, he chose to attend to the business of her father. After the death of Adriana, Bruce’s exposure through the wine trades in Spain, Italy, France, and Portugal influenced him to learn more about the history of those regions and enhanced his passion to write about ancient objects and material such as the Roman ruins in France and Italy. His travels led him to journey more and learn Arabic in Algiers and Ge’ez in Ethiopia. By the end of his time, Bruce had expertise in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chaldean, Syriac, Tigrinya, and Amharic (Mitsein, 4). Unlike many others, like James Cook who was funded by the royal crown to investigate the transit of Venus, Bruce independently funded his journey to the source of the Nile. It is to be noted that Bruce was prepared to accept any financial losses, as he did when he covered the costs of new equipment that was lost in a shipwreck on the way to Crete.

Social connections and skills

Soon after his father’s death, Bruce was appointed the laird of Kinnaird House. Furthermore, he was assigned to the post of consul general in Algiers after a recommendation from an authoritative Scottish friend. On his way to Algiers, he explored the Roman ruins in France and Italy and wrote on classical civilization in one of his first attempts to enter the field of antiquarianism. After his arrival to Algiers, Bruce learned Arabic and Greek, trained as a horseman, acquired some knowledge of medicine, and experienced cultural traditions of the region.  There, he also looked to enhance his previous knowledge of drawing and architecture by hiring Luigi Balugani, a young Italian artist. With further travel to Tunis, Tripoli, and Syria, Bruce became an expert in Eastern diseases. Bruce prepared well for a troublesome and draining trip to the source of the Nile.

Bruce’s social network truly crossed continents and served as a successful tool in his journey to North Africa and Ethiopia. This could be found in Bruce’s successful attempt to receive a luxurious status in the Abyssinian court and in acquiring friends with great authority such as “Ras Michael, the militant governor of Tigre , Ozoro Esther, Ras Michael’s wife  regent of Ethiopia, and even Emperor Tekle Haymanot II himself ” (Mitsein, 4).  These are the strongest possible connections that he would be able to create in the African Continent that time. Afterwards, his basic social network would include anyone who supported, allies with, or friends of these powerful figures. This is not to forget his various allies in Europe who assisted Bruce and offered him help along his journey. For example, with the aid from the Greek Orthodox priest who sent out a notification to the Greeks in Gondar to encourage them to support Bruce’s act in front of the Abyssinian court, Bruce was able to manipulate the Abyssinian court into fear of his “powerful nation” (Vol.1, 36). Moreover, on the way to Crete, Bruce lost his equipment in a shipwreck. Nevertheless, his French academic associates whom he had met in Paris contacted King Louis XV for his help, to which he responded by sending a quadrant to be picked up in Alexandria. Certainly Bruce’s trip would have come to a stop, temporarily or permanently, if no one had helped. He used his connections to several highly authoritative figures to obtain letters of recommendation that would accompany him during his travel and act as a protection for Bruce’s journey.

Variable Identity and Alertness

Bruce was remarkable at shifting his identity to suit a given situation. However, Bruce would always use this skill to reach his goals, whether it was acquiring knowledge of something or exploring. He was a consul general in Algiers where he learned many skills, such as being a horseman.  He presented himself as “El Hakim Jagoube,” (“Doctor James”), wearing Arab clothes while he moved in Egypt compiling a set of recommendation letters. Bruce continued to present himself as the situation required following the customs and traditions of the country or area he visited, using phrases such as ‘Salam Alicum’ (in English, ‘Peace be between us’) to give comfort to whom was around him. This also meant following the traditions of the people who occupied the place he stayed near the source of the Nile while he was gathering data and celebrating his achievement.  Bruce continued playing the role and listening to the “strange stories of the rites of the Nile worshippers” (Hibbert,45) after being granted some of the village’s clay and straw houses by an old man that headed the village of Ghish.  In other words, Bruce acted a counselor, a physician, a horseman, a trader, an artist and finally an explorer all so he could fulfill his goals, ambitions, and the social recognition that he deeply desired.

Bruce’s strategy of adopting forms of identity was one of the most important and significant traits that provided safety in his rather dangerous trip. Bruce’s journey in disguise, mimicking cultures and traditions, allowed for personal comfort in the communities he visited.  Several scholars describe the “fluid nature of his own identity” as an aid in his safety; he shifted his own nature to be Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Indian and even Ethiopian when needed (Mitsein, 4). On his way to Alexandria, he boarded a ship that sunk, forcing him to swim to shore. Unconsciously laying on the shore, Arabs woke him up thinking he was a Turk.  Later, when he wandered into a village, he claimed to be a “dhimmi – a non-Muslim citizen of a Muslim state protected against enslavement under Sharia law” (Mitsein, 6). This was the best identity to claim in such situation. If he had claimed to be a Muslim, the villagers may have questioned his faith and religious actions that would reveal him as a non-Muslim immediately. On the other hand, if he claimed to be a Christian, he may have been captured as a slave. His knowledge of customs, traditions, and religious characterization of people saved him from a dangerous situation.  As mentioned earlier, while traveling in Egypt, he called himself El Hakim Jagoube, or Doctor James . “El Hakim” is an Arabic word that means “wisdom;” however, it is usually given to physicians for their ability to heal patients. Bruce’s ability to identify and use that word and disguise himself in Arab clothes assuredly conferred him as more friendly to those communities. In addition, it is shown that his success in mimicking the identities came from a sincere appreciation of each culture and tradition he encountered. As he described in his writing, he felt there was no need for “Arabia, or the East in general” (Vol.1, 299) to follow the example of England. He extended this respect to figures he met, such as Ozoro Esther, saying she was “the greatest friend I had in Abyssinia, and one who had the most frequent opportunities of being so” ( Vol.3, 218).  In the end, though, his continued acknowledgment of and respect to his own variant identity would later produce confusion in the English public that affected his reception and recognition after the publication of his Travels in 1790.

Works Cited

 Christopher Hibbert “Ethiopian Bruce” in Africa Explored: Europeans in the Dark continent, 1769-1889 (1982); 21-52.

Bruce, James. Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773. Edinburgh, Printed by J. Ruthven, for G. G. J. and J. Robinson, London, 1790.

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

Bruce's Tactics for Success