The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile


“Gondar, the metropolis of Abyssinia, is situated upon a hill of considerable height, the top of it nearly plain, on which the town is placed. It consists of about ten thousand families in times of peace; the houses are chiefly of clay, the roofs thatched in the form of canoes, which is always the construction within the tropical rains. On the west end of the town is the king’s house, formerly a structure of considerable consequence; it was a square building, flanked with square towers; it was formerly four stories high, and, from the top of it, had a magnificent view of all the country southward to the lake Tzana.” – James Bruce, Travels, Volume 4, Page 25

After traveling from Massawa, Bruce arrived at Gondar to find that Ras Michael and the Emperor had not returned from fighting against a revolt (Hibbert 32). Since he had arrived with Muslim guides, Bruce remained in the Muslim section of the city, which he described as having “about 3000 houses, some of them spacious and good” (Bruce, vol.3, 528). Though Ethiopia was a Christian kingdom, this evidences a higher level of diversity, at least in the capital, than many Europeans at the time might have expected. Bruce finally met Ras Michael and the Emperor in early March of 1770 and made a much better impression than he had with the Naib in Massawa. Ras Michael named Bruce the commander of the cavalry so that Bruce could travel safely to the source of the Nile but also required that he stay in Gondar indefinitely. In May of 1770, Ras Michael decided to lead an attack Fasil, a rebel in the South, and allowed Bruce to join him (Hibbert, 37).

In the time while he was stuck in Gondar, Bruce attended a wedding that would later become critical to his account. According to Bruce, the Ethiopians butchered a cow in front of the guests and served the steaks raw. The women spiced the meat and fed the men, then the men fed the women (Hibbert, 36). When Bruce told these stories upon his return, people began to doubt him on account of these customs being too far-fetched to be true (Mitsein).

The Journey