The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Reception and Credibility of Explorers

In 18th century Britain, it was a tradition to be skeptical of explorers, especially those whose narratives did not fit with established perceptions of those foreign lands.  As scholar Lennard Davis notes, this put the burdern on explorers of satisfying two distinct criteria for truth: actual and ethical verisimilitude, the ethical aspect meaning that the traveller's reports had to conform with established preconceived norms (Leask, 58). People wanted explorers to come back with information and evidence that reinforced their beliefs, so the issue of credibility became a large one for those explorers who witnessed something abroad that deviated from preconceptions back home. The attitudes formed in the enlightenment created this difficult path to credit for explorers as this new world outlook held a higher standard for truth than merely a gentleman's word. Ultimately, whether because of one fantastical anecdote or ulterior motives held by others in the intellectual community, it is evident that travellers lost their credibility for a variety of reasons. In the curious instance of James Bruce, his return from Africa was at first met with high regards before vicious rumors attacking the integrity of his stories started to spread. One aspect that hurt his credibility, which was critical to validating one's findings in the enlightenment era, was that his travels were not repeatable. The inability of the scientific community to test and validate his findings was stifled by both the nature and timing of his journey. Additionally, some scholars also believed that had Bruce written his antiquated narrative at an earlier time, his writing style would have been better received by the public. In all, as some of the unique circumstances of James Bruce show, the reasons for which many explorers were labeled liars were quite unwarranted.

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The Theban Harp

Many explorers were entirely discredited because of one disputable part of their narrative. In James Bruce's case, several aspects of his narrative could be attributed to his vilification, but many focused on his telling of the Theban harp. When Dr. Charles Burney published James Bruce's letter describing a harp in Ethiopia, a controversy was sparked that discredited all of Bruce's travels in Africa (Moorefield, 493). Bruce's recollection and drawing of the Theban harp was found to be inconsistent with both the knowledge of how harps function and the presence of musical instruments in this region. Such discrepencies led some to believe that Bruce was never even in Africa. Arthur Moorefield defends Bruce here, explaining that the instrument in question could very well have been seen by Bruce in one of the many Arab settlements he passed through. Additionally, he notes that neither Bruce nor any of his critics were prepared to judge the music from a culture so far removed from their own.


Horace Walpole's Role

The intellectual community of this period created an environment in which scholars attacked each other's claims in an effort to gain credibility. This is exemplified in Horace Walpole's criticisms of James Bruce. Walpole labeled Bruce a liar, exclaiming that Richard Pococke, whose narratives had been widely accepted, was in the same cave as Bruce and did not see the harp engraving that Bruce reported to have seen. The difficulty Bruce faced in overcoming this already accepted material represents the 'paradox of attachment'. As David Hume puts it, "Should a traveller, returning from a far country, bring us an account of men, wholly different from any with whom we were very acquainted... we should immediately... prove him a liar, with the same certainty as if he had stuffed his narration with stories of centaurs and dragons, miracles and prodigies" (Leask 57). Despite this difficulty, Arthur Moorefield is cleverly able to identify Walpole's motivation to discredit Bruce. Walpole had encouraged his good friend and neighbor, John Hawkins, to publish his five-volume General History of the Science and Practice of Music. Out of fear that Dr. Charles Burney's publications, which draw on Bruce's findings, would eclipse those of his neighbor, Walpole eagerly branded Bruce a liar. Such an alterior motive was no doubt harmful to the integrity of the intellectual community, but was nonetheless a threat to credibility that explorers were forced to face.


An Abyssinian Breakfast

An assessment of the criticisms of James Bruce would not be complete with out understanding the beef steak incident. When James Bruce returned to Britain, perhaps the most fantastical part of his journey, for many, was his telling of how he dined on the raw meat of cattle in Abyssinia, before the cattle were stiched up and sent back out to pasture. This aspect of his travels, which Bruce insisted was Abyssinian custom, was found far too absurd for a British culture that believe in universal moral norms. In this case, the English would rather brand Bruce a liar than believe that a society as depraved as Abyssinia could exist. As a result, Bruce was ridiculed, and even made the subject of cartoons such as this one.

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Bruce's Fluid Identity

One important aspect of Bruce's journey, which plagued his credibility, was his claim to have passed as a person of a variety of different cultures. Little cultural encounters occurred during the eighteenth century, so travel narratives served as a mediator of cultural boundaries. At different points in his narratives, the six-foot-four Scotsman claims to have convinced the indigenous peoples that he was an Arab, Greek, Turk, Indian, and even an Abyssinian (Mitsein, 4). Unfortunately for Bruce, the ways cultural boundaries were identified was changing during this century. As a result of an enlightenment impulse towards the classification of all natural things, people were learning to judge one's identity through fixed traits rather than through one's ability to perform customs. This European audience for Bruce's narrative was, therefore, much more rigid in their understanding of ethnicity and race. It was very difficult for this eighteenth century reading culture to believe that the Scotsman could pass for such a variety of identities, which seemed to merely be governed by Bruce's own fancy. While, Bruce's linguistic skills may have facilitated this to actually have happened, it still remained unbeleivable to the European public that the tall red-haired Scotsman could pull this off. 


Writing Style

If the content within Bruce's stories had not hurt his credibility enough, his writing style must have been what put his narratives over the top. Not to mention, in taking sixteen years to prepare his travel notes for publication, he did himself no favors, especially in an age of universal skepticism. Bruce's ungenuous treatment of companions and self-inflating personality shined through in his writing, which was off putting for much of his audience. More importantly, Bruce's writing appears to be plagued by an anxiety of credit. He writes in both defensive and aggressive tones in respone to the allegations he faced over his reliability. He provides piles of context to try to validate his claims through the sheer length of his narrative. Moreover, he obliges his readers to take his word as a gentleman. Bruce is unable to proffesionally ground the veracity of his claims, so he spent much of his writing merely insisting on his own validity. This unprofessional tactic was, of course, unsuccessful in meriting validation. Additionally, Bruce's narrative seems to be concerned with singularities and curiosities, rather than the whole picture of everything mundane. This tendency of his, in accordance with the desperate plea for credit that permeated his writing, offered no assistance to his standing in the intellectual community.


These examples represent a few of the reasons why scholars believe James Bruce was discredited. Many scholars would likely add that he was unqualified to use the technology that he claimed to employ. Rebekah Mitsein writes a piece describing how the inconsistencies in his writing prevented his validation. Additionally, his self-financing brought with it several skeptics. In a broader context, these examples reveal the relationship between travel and trust, as well as the limitations of what a British reading public would believe in the eighteenth century. The words of Richard Brathweit represent this sentiment: "Travellers, poets and liars are three words all of one signification" (Mitsein, 5). Citizens at this time were less interested in getting it right and more interested in imaginatively constructing. Unfortunately for travellers, very little credit was afforded to them, and all of them understood that they risked failure through a lack of witnesses. Despite the forces against him, it appears that time granted Bruce the vindication that his words could not as later explorations into Africa validated many of his findings. The self-motivated explorer contributed to a variety of scientific fields, from natural history and geography to sociology and anthropology, and his travel narratives continue to provide scholars with valuable insight into eighteenth century cultures.


Works Cited

Leask, Nigel. “Curious Narrative and the Problem of Credit: James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile.” In Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing, 1770-1840, 54-101. Oxford University Press.

Mitsein, Rebekah. “’Come and Triumph with Your Don Quijote’: Or, How James Bruce Travelled to Discover the Nile but Found Scotland Instead.” Studies in Travel Writing 18, no. 1 (2014): 1-17.

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.

Moorefield, Arthur. “James Bruce: Ethnomusicologist or Abyssinian Lyre?” Journal of the American Musicological Society 28, no. 3 (1975): 493-514.


Reception and Credibility of Explorers