James Bruce Rare Books
James Bruce, 1730-1794
Who would you suppose was the most renowned traveller in the eighteenth century? The Pacific voyager James Cook maybe? Well he probably was, but for a few years in the 1770’s, shortly after his return from exploring the Blue Nile, that honour fell to Scotsman James Bruce, a red-headed,larger than life – at six feet four inches a giant for his times – imposing figure of a man, telling outlandish tales of what he had seen and down in a land unknown to Europeans. As recounted in his five-volume work Travels to discover the source of the Nile (London, 1790).
He left the family home, Kinnaird House in Scotland for London in 1753 determined to win a job with the East India Company. That plan was put on hold when he met, and married, Adriana Allan whose attractions, by all accounts, he found more powerful than the mystical east. Tragically his wife died young and Bruce determined to travel Europe to conquer his grief. He studied Spanish and Portuguese and in 1757 sailed to Portugal to study its society, art and science.
The following year he moved on, visiting France, Germany, Brussels and Holland. It was whilst he was in Holland that he purchased Job Ludolf's History of Ethiopia, a seventeenth-century work which whetted his appetite to know more about the ancient Christian kingdom of Abyssinia, a region virtually unknown to Europeans in the eighteenth century. In Brussels in 1758 he received the news that his father had died, and returned to Scotland to assume his responsibilities as laird of Kinnaird. He signed a contract on 4 November 1760 to supply the Carron ironworks with coal from his mines at Kinnaird. The contract provided him with the capital and the leisure to travel the world.
In 1763 Bruce was appointed British Consul in Algiers and remained in what was a dangerous job for two years. After this he travelled around the Middle East. Before long, however, the lure of the Nile proved irresistible and Bruce set off for Egypt and the start of his venture. From the very beginning it was extremely dangerous and included being kidnapped by pirates in the Red Sea. Fortunately he gained the support of the King of Abyssinia and his prime minister, Ras Michael and they were able to offer assistance in his travels.
In November 1770, after many delays and adventures, he finally reached the goal of his ambition, the source of the Blue Nile which he believed to be the principal branch of the great river itself. After carefully noting the positions of the springs and the distinguishing features of the surrounding countryside, Bruce returned to Gondar and began to make arrangements for his journey home.
The First & Greatest Modern Continental Explorer
Bruce turned for home, and finally arrived in England in June 1774. His outlandish tales such as dining on live cattle and numerous dalliances with local women made him a great celebrity but he fell foul of Dr. Johnson, the translator of the Portuguese missionary, Lobo’s narrative of Abyssinia, who accused him of fabricating his account. It wasn’t until many years later that Bruce’s account was verified and he got the credit he deserved as the first and greatest of the modern continental explorers.
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