The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Tisisat Falls


A photograph of Tisisat Falls taken in 2006

“The cataract itself was the most magnificent sight that I ever beheld.”– James Bruce, Travels, Volume 4, Page 77

The next major stop on Bruce’s journey was at Tisisat Falls, a waterfall on the Blue Nile south of Lake Tana. Though Europeans did not have extensive knowledge about Ethiopia, two Portuguese missionaries, Pedro Paez and Jeronimo Lobo, did previously record accounts of the same waterfall (Hibbert, 37-38). However, Bruce had a tendency to overlook the accomplishments of those before him and claim them for himself. For example, in the Dedication of Travels, Bruce claims that his journey was “the first discovery attempted in Your Majesty’s reign” (Bruce). This suggests Bruce’s inflated sense of ego and perhaps an undue importance that he gave to his journey. His arrival at Tisisat Falls continued the trend of claiming as much fame and importance for himself as possible; he aimed to discredit the missionaries with his own measurements (Hibbert, 38). He writes in the fourth volume of Travels, “The height has been rather exaggerated. The missionaries say the fall is about sixteen ells, or fifty feet. The measuring is, indeed, very difficult, but, by the position of long sticks, and poles of different lengths, at different heights of the rock, from the water’s edge, I may venture to say that it is nearer forty feet than any other measure” (Bruce, vol. 4, 77). Bruce goes on to refer to some of Lobo’s other claims about the waterfall as “downright falsehood” and “absolutely impossible” (Bruce, vol. 4, 78). By discrediting earlier travelers, it seems that Bruce tried to implicitly claim that they had never visited the falls, and he was therefore the first European at the location. However, as Christopher Hibbert notes, the main cause of difference in measurements between Bruce and Lobo was the time of year they reached the falls and subsequent difference in the depth of the river (Hibbert, 38). Though Bruce would have liked to be the first European at the falls, and possibly even believed it, the Portuguese missionaries had, in fact, been there before him (Hibbert, 37).

The Journey
Tisisat Falls