The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Mixed Reception


Cartoon depeicts an Ethiopian Breakfast with James Bruce cutting raw meat from a live cow

Upon Bruce’s return to Europe, he received a mixed reception with an initial welcoming and a lasting disapproval. Awaiting Bruce in France was his friend the Comte de Buffon, who regarded Bruce as a fellow intellectual and later an important contributor to natural history. Buffon honored him by publishing Bruce’s natural history prints in the third volume of Buffon’s Histoire des Qusaux (Hibbert, 50). At first, Paris welcomed Bruce. The king accepted his botanical specimens at the Royal Botanical Gardens, as well as a copy of the Book of Enoch for the King’s Library (Hibbert, 50). Italy followed; the Pope honored Bruce with gold medals for his journey. In London, Bruce was met with skepticism; however, he was still received by the king, who accepted the drawings Bruce submitted to the royal collections. Bruce eventually joined the Royal Society, which was devoted to the promotion of science and knowledge, but soon came into conflict with its members, including James Boswell, the president of the society, and Samuel Johnson, a scholar who had translated the travels of Father Lobo’s 17th century journey to   Ethiopia. After the mixed reception he received in London, Bruce left for Scotland, settling down in the countryside and marrying his second wife, Mary Dundas. After the death of his wife, he published his travels in 1790 in an attempt to once again arouse public interest in his journey.

A Question of Credit

Though Bruce’s journey in Ethiopia necessitated what historians call a “shifting identity,” this narrative style confused and frustrated his European audience. At different points throughout his journey, Bruce claimed to be Scottish, English, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Indian and Ethiopian, a tactic which was essential to his success (Mitsein, 1). However, the eighteenth century readers found this fluid personality questionable. This variant identity and attachment to other cultures and social norms confused the public readers and heavily lead to discrediting his narratives and writings. Readers expected an act of acknowledgment for the English country, culture, and people yet never found it. However, the public found a sense of recognition given to the cultures through an act of disguise. An example of such behavior can be seen in Captain Boswell’s (Bruce’s relative) reaction to his Turkish clothing when Bruce arrived in Jidda. Regarding this encounter, Bruce stated  “He [Bruce’s uncle] fell into a violent rage, calling me villain, thief, cheat and renegado rascal; and declared, if I offered to proceed a step further, he would throw me over the stairs” (vol. 1, 280).   Bruce received suspicion regarding his clothing from several Englishmen he encountered in Jidda mistaking him to be “a very thief-like fellow, and certainly a Turk” (vol. 1, 282). The suspicion of Bruce’s clothing illustrates the limits of British tolerance, or an anxiety, regarding other cultures in the eighteenth century, an opinion that Bruce did not share. . That is, Bruce did not share the common European belief that civility only existed in Europe; rather, he saw civility in different forms throughout his journey. For example, Bruce’s discerption of Ozoro Esther, a powerful woman in Ethiopia in the 18th century, as his greatest friend aroused the reviewer of the 1790 Monthly Review to state that “[t]o a Philosopher, the greatest inconsistency of all, is the discordant picture of Abyssinian manners.That nation is described as barbarous and ignorant in the greatest degree, as totally unacquainted with every country but their own; as liars and drunkards…yet, of Mr. Bruce’s Friends, some discover such discernment and force of mind, and some of the women display such delicacy of sentiment and elegance of behaviour, as would do honour to the most civilised nations” (188).  Because of this intimate engagement with other cultures, Bruce’s narrative was questioned upon his return to Europe. Thus, even if his narrative was as similarly fantasized as other authors of his time, the scientific community and public readership discredited Bruce because of his shifting identity throughout the journey. In fact, in his writings, Bruce never shows the public what his identity is or what country he belongs to. Readers in Europe expected a well-defined British figure to travel through Ethiopia, one who was able to make comparisons between Europe and other cultures.  However, Bruce’s narrative provided inadequate comparisons and rather suggests that the Europeans are of equals with the Eastern cultures, which provoked the public and the writers of his time.

In addition, Bruce failed to incorporate an authoritative voice in his writings that most famous writers incorporated in their travels.  The narrative inconsistency in Bruce’s writing greatly affected his credibility. For example, Bruce wrote about the Abyssinia court in Gondar engaging in what Europeans considered uncivilized acts, such as public sex and the consumption of raw meat during feasts. Despite these supposedly uncivilized behaviors, Bruce described the court in Gondar as a city filled with courtesy and gracious accommodation.  This narrative had a significant impact on Bruce’s credibility, as the European reading public was skeptical as to why a European gentleman would both engage in, and later write about, such behavior. Furthermore, Bruce addresses the activities of the feast and presents them, in the European view, as civil yet savage. How a group of civilized Ethiopians would gather to dine with strict rules for eating but would consume a piece of live raw meat between bread? This question dazzled the public and struck them with confusion between civility and savageness.

Many scientific instruments that Bruce brought on his journey, such as the camera obscura, were intended to add credibility to his work. However, historian Nigel Leask argues that the credibility of Bruce’s instruments was highly debatable.  The technologies Bruce used while in Egypt and Ethiopia were still considered relatively new, and not yet totally validated by the scientific community in Europe. Thus, rather than adding credibility, these instruments came to cast even more uncertainty upon Bruce’s narrative. In fact, in the eighteenth century, there was no reproduction of Bruce’s work by any explorer after him. Hence, there was no one to prove Bruce’s claims wrong nor right. Thus, the public assumed what they knew from previous writings and discredited Bruce’s work. All that was left for Bruce’s credibility was his voice in writing.

An authoritative voice was needed for the public to believe that James Bruce was a credible narrator. However, Bruce’s writings portrayed an egotism and ignorance of past contributions by other explorers to Ethiopia. In fact, Bruce discredited any European that had reached the source of the Nile before him, including Pedro Paez and the Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century. Upon Bruce’s arrival to the source of the Nile he writes in his Travels “though a mere private Briton, I triumphed here, in my own mind, over kings and their armies; and every comparison was leading nearer and nearer to presumption, when the place itself where I stood, the object of my vain-glory, suggested what depressed my short –lived triumphs “(vol. 3, 597). Bruce’s arrogance is also present in his dedication to George III in the first volume of the Travels. While describing his success in locating the source of the Nile, Bruce stated “it was the first discovery attempted in Your Majesty’s reign” (vol. 1, Dedication). He then continues, “In laying the account of these Travels at Your Majesty’s feet, I humbly hope I have shewn to the world of what value the efforts of every individual of your Majesty’s subjects may be” (vol. 1, Dedication).This illustrates Bruce’s self-centeredness, and his desire for public recognition.

The public disliked Bruce’s awkward narrative voice and he became a target to famous satirists of the eighteenth century, including Samuel Johnson, Horace Walpole, and John Wolcot (“Peter Pindar”) (Mitsein, 1). Several of their writings and publications had an effect on the attitude of the public readers towards Bruce. Many of the publications would claim that Bruce was merely fantasizing, and others would even say that Bruce never entered the African continent. Plays even severely fantasized Bruce’s journey, discrediting his voyages even more. It is also important to note that the publication of the Travels in 1790, nearly ten years after Bruce’s return from Ethiopia, contributed to further suspicion about the veracity of Bruce’s narrative.  Even with the short-lived popularity of the Travels in 1790, Bruce’s reputation never recovered.


Despite the complicated reception Bruce received in Europe, he still managed to influence several discourses spanning natural history, anthropology, sociology, geography, and metrology while fulfilling his goal of reaching the source of the Blue Nile. Bruce also relayed a detailed account of the areas, peoples, objects and even weather patterns of the regions he came in contact with. He influenced Europe’s understanding of natural history with several drawings and illustration, and was an influential figure in Buffons Histoire des Qusaux. His works in ethnomusicology, especially details regarding the ancient Egyptian harp was publically recognized by his friend and fellow intellectual Charles Burney, who was famous for his work in the music industry specifically for his work on historical music (Moorfield, 499). Bruce also made contributions to the antiquarian discourse on Ethiopia, providing detailed descriptions of the obelisks in Axum.  Bruce’s maps of Ethiopia were considered remarkably authoritative, as they were the first drawn through eyewitness accounts.  (Clapham, 298). Finally, Bruce also maintained an enormous temperature data log during his journey, which significantly contributed to the field of 18th century metrology. Ironically, later exploration into the interior of Africa proved much of Bruce’s account to be somewhat accurate. Additionally, his travel volumes continue to be used by many researchers to study eighteenth century British culture through the complicated reception of both Bruce and his Travels upon his return to Europe.

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.

Rebekah Mitsein “What the Abyssinian Liar can tell us about true stories: Knowledge, skepticism, and James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Sources of the Nile” 1-5.

Christopher Clapham “The European Mapping of Ethiopia 1460-1856” Journal of Ethiopian Studies, (2007), 293-307.

Arthur Moorefield “James Bruce: Ethnomusicologist or Abyssinian Lyre?” in Journal of American Musicology Society Vol. 28, No 3 (1975); 493-514

Nigel Leask “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.

Mixed Reception