JAMES BRUCE was born at Kinnaird, near Falkirk, in Stirlingshire, on the 14th of December, 1730, and, in 1738, was placed under the care of his uncle, a barrister in London, who sent him, in January, 1742, to school, at Harrow. Here he so successfully prosecuted his studies, that Dr. Cox, the head-master, said of him, in a letter to a friend, When you write to Mr. Bruce's father about his son, you cannot say too much; for he is as promising a young man as ever I had under my care; and, for his years, I never saw his fellow.' From Harrow, he went, for a few months, to a private academy, where he renewed his classical studies, and acquired a knowledge of French, drawing, and geometry. In the November of 1747, he entered the University of Edinburgh, with the intention of studying the law; which, at his father's desire, he had determined on adopting as his profession. Disinclination, however, and ill-health, induced him, in the spring of 1748, to relinquish for ever the sedentary labors of a law student; and being threatened with consumption, he retired to Scotland, where he remained till 1753. In the July of that year, he went to London, with the intention of embarking for the East Indies, where he purposed settling as a free trader, under the patronage of the Company, to whom he had already prepared a petition. An attachment, however, frustrated this design; and, in February, 1754, he married a Miss Allan, daughter of a deceased wine-merchant and, for a short time, held a share in the business. This he relinquished on the death of his wife, which happened in Paris, eight months after her marriage; and such was the bigotry of the catholics towards protestants, that he was compelled to inter her at midnight, and to steal a grave in the burying ground assigned to the English embassy.
After this event, he again turned his attention to literature, and acquired a knowledge of the Spanish and Portuguese tongues, as well as the art of drawing; all of which studies he pursued with a view to their utility in the future travels that he secretly contemplated. At the commencement of the vintage season, in July, 1757, he embarked for the continent; and, after landing at Corunna, traversed Spain and Portugal, where he sojourned till the end of the year, devoting much attention to the social and political state of those countries. At the beginning of 1758, he passed over the Pyrenees to France; thence down the Rhine into Germany and the Netherlands, whence he was recalled to England, in July, by a letter announcing the death of his father. Whilst at Brussels, having taken the part of a young stranger, insulted in his presence, he was challenged to fight a duel, in which he severely wounded his antagonist, and was obliged to fly the city. The death of his father entitled him to an inheritance which afforded him ample means of efficiently and uninterruptedly pursuing the studies which were necessary to the success of his designs; and, by the year 1761, he had collected most of the Dutch and Italian books on the subject of oriental literature. He had also made great progress in the Arabic and Ethiopic languages, to the study of which was owing his determination to explore the sources of the Nile.
About this time, a rupture being anticipated between England and Spain, he visited Mr. Wood, the under-secretary of state, whom he requested to lay before the minister, Mr. Pitt, a plan he had concerted, when abroad, of an expedition against the latter country, by attacking Gallicia, in Ferrol. After much negotiation, his suggestion was adopted by the ministry, but it was subsequently abandoned, owing to the Portuguese ambassador having represented the great danger that would result to his country from such an expedition. Chagrined at the failure of his military project, he meditated returning to Scotland, where the recent discovery of some valuable mines on his estate would have enabled him to live with comfort and independence, when he received a message from Lord Halifax, requesting to see him before he left London. His lordship ridiculed the idea of Bruce's retirement; and, after hinting to him the encouragement which the king would bestow on enterprise and discovery, suggested Africa to him, as a fit region for the exercise of both; and, as a further inducement to his visiting that country, offered him the situation of consul-general at Algiers, with leave to appoint a vice-consul in his absence. He promised. him, in addition, the rewards stipulated in the affair of Ferrol, and advancement to a higher diplomatic station, if he made wide incursions into the former country.