The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Who Was James Bruce?


Engraving of James Bruce by S. Freeman


Dutch sketch of Bruce's journey through Africa

Born in Scotland in 1730, James Bruce of Kinnaird was an intelligent and fascinating man, described as tall, gruff and quarrelsome (Hibbert, 21). He attended Edinburgh University with the intentions of becoming a lawyer, but he decided against that career in favor of joining the East India Company. Though this never panned out, it set the stage for his love of travel and exploration. He abandoned these plans when he fell in love with a wine merchant’s daughter and married her, joining the familial profession. Through the wine business, Bruce began travelling throughout Europe and developed a taste for languages, learning fist Spanish and Portuguese, later Arabic and Ge’ez, the common language of Ethiopia. Eventually he decided he was not a wine merchant and accepted a position as Consul-General at Algiers in 1762 with the purpose of studying and drawing the ancient Roman architecture. With the job he travelled a good deal in an effort to find and draw ruins, eventually reaching Syria and Egypt. He arrived at Massawa, the so-called “gateway” of Abyssinia, in 1769, where he embarked upon his great journey of discovering the source of the Nile and reached the capital at Gondar in 1770. Bruce returned to Europe two years later. The trip was mostly self-funded and his stated purpose was discovering the source of the Blue Nile, now known to be Lake Tana. Though he was almost certainly not the first European to reach the source of the Nile, more likely the second or third, Bruce was one of the first African explorers to make his journey for the sake of curiosity, as well as for personal glory, instead of a sense of nationalism, a religious expedition or a trading mission (Ullendorff, 136).

James Bruce completed his travel narrative, which was well-sold but unpopular, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in 1790 after the death of his second wife, and died in 1794 from an accidental fall in his family home in Scotland (Ullendorff, 131). 

Works Cited

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

Ullendorff, Edward. “James Bruce of Kinnaird.” The Scottish Historical Review 32, no. 114 (1953):128-43


Who Was James Bruce?