The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

James Bruce's Travel Narrative

        Travel narratives, as a literary form, became massively popular during the 18th century.  James Bruce was just one of many explorers whose work became famous due to the widespread circulation of his writings about his journey in Abyssinia to discover the source of the Nile River (Hibbert 21).  Despite the popularity of his travel narrative, Bruce's journey was problematic due to the jarring impact it had on the European knowledge and perceptions.  The large discrepancy between many of Bruce's accounts and most preexisting knowledge about present-day Ethiopia caused many Europeans to question Bruce's veracity (Mitsein 3).  Bruce's narrative did not fit European's preconceived notions about Ethiopia, which were driven primarily by myths about Prester John, as fantastical Christian ruler thought to reside in this region.  Europeans made assumptions about Abyssinia based on these religious connections, and were shocked by Bruce's accounts about the peoples of these lands, notably Bruce's famous story about Abyssinians eating raw beef (Mitsein 1).  European Christians preferred to think of themselves as the pinnacle of civilized society, so Bruce’s descriptions of “barbarous and ignorant” Abyssinians clashed with the predisposition regarding Christian civilizations (Mitsein 3).  While James Bruce's work was impactful and widely read, his narrative did not fit popular stereotypes of Abyssinia, leading many to discredit his findings.  

Neatline Map: James Bruce's Travels

The map below highlights locations from Bruce's journey.

Click red points on the map to read excerpts from Bruce's travel narrative.

Works Cited

Bruce, James. "Travels to discover the source of the Nile, in the years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773. In six volumes. By James Bruce of Kinnaird, Esq. F.R.S." Volume 1-6. Dublin,  M.DCC.XC. [1790]-91. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Washington and Lee University. 18 May 2015.

Hibbert, Christopher. "Ethiopian Bruce." In Africa Explored: Europeans in the Dark Continent,1769-1889, 21-52. New York: W.W. Norton, 1982.

Mitsein, Rebekah. “What the Abyssinian Liar can tell us about true stories: Knowledge, Skepticism, and James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile.” 1-5. 2015.

James Bruce's Travel Narrative