The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile



A map of Massawa taken from James Bruce's Travels

“At that time it was a place of great commerce, possessing a share of the Indian trade in common with other ports of the Red Sea near the mouth of the Indian Ocean. It had a considerable quantity of exports brought to it from a great tract of mountainous country behind it, in all ages very unhospitable, and almost inaccessible to strangers.” – James Bruce, Travels, Volume 3, Page 328

Before sailing to Africa, Bruce stopped in Meccah to acquire letters of recommendation from the Sherif of Mecca and his adviser who knew the Ethiopian ruler, Ras Michael (Hibbert, 24). In this way, he hoped to gain safe passage from the coast to the inland capital of Ethiopia, Gondar. Bruce’s journey into Africa began at the port city of Massawa on September 19, 1769 (Bruce, vol. 3, 336). There, he met with the city’s ruler, the Naib, and presented his letters of recommendation. However, the meeting did not go as Bruce would have hoped. The Naib refused to read the letters and pretended not to speak Arabic, forcing Bruce to speak through an interpreter (Bruce, vol. 3, 347). In his Travels, Bruce describes his reaction to the encounter: “I took my leave of the Naybe [sic], very little pleased with my reception, and the small account he seemed to make of my letters, or of myself (Bruce, vol. 3, 348). Bruce continued to meet with the Naib during September and October in attempts to gain his favor, but to no avail. However, during Bruce’s stay, Ras Michael heard that Bruce had arrived and sent for him to come take care of the sick Emperor, as Bruce was traveling under the pretense of being a physician (Hibbert 26). On November 6, two messengers retrieved Bruce, and he was allowed to leave. This was the first example of Ethiopian politics playing a prominent role in Bruce’s journey, often interfering with his plans and forcing him to adapt.

The Journey