The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Flora in Bruce's Travels

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This page details the discoveries of James Bruce in the field of Flora during his journey through Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and North Africa. While on his travels Bruce records information and creates illustrations of a wide variety of bushes, flowers, trees and other plants. Bruce, however, thinks of himself as more of an antiquarian and physician than a natural historian. As a result, Bruce’s attempt at recording natural history is, and was often viewed as, dull, subjective, and inadequate. Bruce's dryness can be easily seen in the flora section of his last volume, which is more of a detailed natural history appendix added to the end of his narrative. Bruce has beautiful images of several different species and kinds of flora in the first part of his volume, yet when providing descriptions of them he falls short. Bruce often strays from describing several valuable properties of flora to discuss their hypothetical roles in antiquity and their many uses within African societies, often as a medicine or treatment. Though this information is relevant and generally desired, people at the time would rather learn about the plant itself, its smell, feel, or changes from leaf to leaf or petal to petal. Bruce emphasizes and provides more detail about the areas he is most interested in and curious about in addition to stories about himself and his use of the subject, rather than a consistent and holistic description of the subject at hand. Below are various examples of species Bruce illustrated and described in addition to short descriptions examining Bruce’s main focuses with each specimen, which vary from plant to plant. The order in which Bruce describes the various floras from Africa does not seem to be well defined, however, it appears he discusses well-known flora first and then describes unknown or new specimens towards the end of the section. The images below are in order of how they appear within the appendix. 

~~Fun side note~~

You can buy several products including phone cases, t-shirts, backpacks, and even a deck of cards with James Bruce’s illustrations printed on them from Zazzle. The illustrations of Bruce's used  include Ensett, Umtar, Walkuffa, and Hypericum quartinianum.  (



Bruce, James. 1791. Travels to discover the source of the nile: In the years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773. Dublin: Printed by Zachariah Johnson, for P. Wogan, L. White, P. Byrne, W. Porter, W. Sleater, J. Jones, J. Moore, B. Dornin, C. Lewis, W. Jones, G. Draper, J. Milliken, and R. White.