James Bruce

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.

He at length acceded to the proposal of Lord Halifax, and, in June, 1762, having previously been introduced to the king, set out for Africa. He reached that country on the 20th of March, 1763; when such was his knowledge of the Arabic, that he was able to fulfill his consular duties with out the aid of an interpreter. On his way thither, he passed through the principal cities of Italy, where he made several sketches of its temples and ruins; and, it appears from his manuscripts, that he also intended writing a dissertation on the ancient and modern state of Rome. Shortly after his arrival at Algiers, a dispute occurred between him and the dey, concerning Mediterranean passes, for carrying which in a form differing from that originally prescribed, several British vessels were seized and. destroyed; of which, having first remonstrated with the dey, he immediately wrote to inform government. The ministry, however, who had been secretly prejudiced against him, by a party hostile to him at Algiers, treated his communication very lightly; and, in May, 1765, being recalled to England, he was compelled, either to abandon the principal design of his residence in Barbary, or to make his intended excursions as a private individual. After some consideration, he adopted the latter alternative; and, on the 25th of August, sailed for Tunis, stopping, on his way thither, at Utica and Carthage, the ruins of which cities he stayed some time to examine, making drawings of the most important parts, in which he was assisted by a young Bolognese artist, whom he had brought with him from Italy. In one of his incursions into the interior of the country, he discovered Cirta, the capital of Syphax, whence he returned to Tunis, and started thence for Tripoli, by way of Gabs and Gerba. On entering the desert which borders the latter town, he was attacked by the Arabs, and compelled to return to Tunis, where he remained till August, 1766, when he crossed the desert in safety, and arrived at Tripoli. He next proceeded, across the Gulf of Sydra, to Bengazi and Ptolometa, and shortly afterwards, set sail for Crete, when a shipwreck drove him again upon the African shore, with the loss of every thing but his drawings and books, which he had fortunately despatched from Tripoli to Smyrna. From Begazi, the place of his shipwreck, and where he was cruelly treated, he escaped, by a French vessel, to Canea, where he was detained by an intermittent fever, till the end of April, 1767, when he proceeded, by way of Rhodes, to Sidon.

On the 16th of September he commenced his journey to Balbec, which he reached on the 19th of the same month; and, having returned to Tripoli, set out, in a few weeks, for Palmyra. After making several drawings, which, as well as those of Balbec, he afterwards presented to the king, he traveled along the coast to Latakia, Antioch, and Aleppo, where he was attacked by a fever, from which he with great difficulty recovered. About this time, meditating the discovery of the source of the Nile, he left Aleppo for Alexandria, where he arrived on the 20th of June, 1768. From hence he proceeded by land to Rosetta, where he embarked on the Nile for Cairo. After impressing the bey of the city with an idea of his skill in medicine and prophecy, he sailed to Syene, visiting, in his way thither, the ruins of Thebes; and, on the 19th of February, 1769, set out from Kenne, through the Thebaid desert, to Cosseir, on the Red Sea; and from thence proceeded to Tor and Jidda, where he landed on the 5th of May. After making several excursions in Arabia Felix, he quitted Loheia, on the 3d of September, for Masuah; where on his arrival, he was detained for some weeks, by the treachery and avarice of the governor of that place, who attempted to murder him, in consequence of his refusal to make him an enormous present. In February, 1770, he entered Gondar, the capital of Abyssinia, the ras of which city appointed him gentleman-usher of the king's bed-chamber, commander of the household cavalry, and governor of a province.

On the 27th of October, after having taken an active part, in the council s of the sovereign, and effected several cures of persons about the court attacked with the small-pox, he left the capital, and set out in search of the source of the Nile, which he discovered at Saccala, on the 14th of the following November. The joy he felt on the occasion is thus described by himself: 'It is easier to guess than to describe the situation of my mind at that moment standing in that spot which had baffled the genuis, history, and inquiry of both ancients and moderns, for the course of nearly three thousand years. Kings had attempted this discovery at the head of armies, and each expedition was distinguished from the last only by the difference of the numbers which had perished, and agreed alone in the disappointment which had uniformly, and without exception, followed them all. Fame, riches, and honor, had been held out, for a series of ages, to every individual of the myriads those princes commanded, without having produced one man capable of gratifying the curiosity of his sovereign, or wiping off the stain upon the enterprise and abilities of mankind, or adding this desideratum for the encouragement of geography. Though a mere private Briton, I triumphed here in my own mind over kings and their armies; and every comparison was leading the nearer to presumption, when the place itself where I stood, the object of my vain glory, suggested what depressed my short-lived triumphs. I was but a few minutes arrived at the source of the Nile, though numberless dangers and sufferings, the least of which would have overwhelmed me, but for the continual goodness and protection of Providence; I was, however, then but half through my journey, and all those dan g ers which I had already passed, awaited me again on my return. I found a despondency gaining ground fast upon me, and blasting the crown of laurels I had too rashly woven for myself.'

After returning to Gondar, our traveler found much difficulty in obtaining permission to proceed on his way homewards; it being a rule with the inhabitants never to allow a stranger to quit Abyssinia. A civil war breaking out in the country about the period of his intended departure, he was compelled to remain in it till the December of the following year, and took part in one of their battles, in which his valiant conduct was such that the king presented him with a rich suit of apparel, and a gold chain of immense value. At length, at the end of 1771, he set out from Gondar, and in the February of the following year, arrived at Senaar, where he remained two months, suffering under the most inhospitable treatment, and deceived in his supplies of money which compelled him to sell the gold chain he had been presented with. He then proceeded by Chiendi, and Gooz, through the Nubian desert, and on the 29th of November, reached Assouan, on the Nile, after a most dreadful and dangerous journey, in the course of which he lost all his camels and baggage, and twice laid himself down in the expectation of death. Having procured, however, fresh camels, he returned to the desert and recovered most part of his baggage, with which, on the 10th of January, he arrived at Cairo: where, ingratiating himself with the bey, he obtained permission for English commanders to ingratiating their vessels and merchandise to Suez, as well as to Jidda, an advantage no other European nation had before been able to acquire. In the beginning of March he arrived at Alexandria, whence he sailed to Marseilles; where he landed about the end of the month, suffering under great agony from a disease called the Guinea worm, which totally disabled him from walking, and had nearly proved fatal to him during his voyage. Notwithstanding, however, the perils he underwent, and the barbarities he witnessed in the course of his travels, and particularly at Abyssinia, yet even that country he left with some regret, and would often recall, with a feeling almost of tenderness, the kindnesses he had received there, especially from the ras's wife, Ozoro Esther, between himself and whom a very affectionate intimacy had existed.

After residing a few weeks in the south of France, he set out for Paris, in company with Buffon, to whom he communicated much valuable information which that celebrated naturalist has acknowledged in his advertisement to the third volume of the History of Birds. His health being still unconfirmed, he left the French capital in July, and made a second tour into Italy where he resided till the spring of 1774, when he again returned to France, and thence proceeded to England, which he reached in June following, after an absence of twelve years. Previously to leaving Scotland, he had contracted an engagement with a lady, whom, during his travels, he never forgot; and he was so incensed, on his arrival at Rome, on hearing that she had married an Italian marquess, that he insisted on fighting with her husband, who, however, declined the challenge. After remaining some months in London, he returned to his mansion at Kinnaird, to regulate his private affairs, which he found greatly disordered in consequence of his relations having supposed him dead, and taken possession of great part of his effects; to prevent a recurrence of which, he married the daughter of Thomas Dundas, Esq., of Fingask, who, after bearing him three children, died in the spring of 1785.

In 1790, the account of his travels, which had long been looked for with anxiety, appeared in five quarto volumes, with plates, maps and charts. The extraordinary events and discoveries which they contained, occasioned many to doubt the truth and accuracy of Bruce; and some went so far as to assert, that he had never even been in Abyssinia. Recent travelers, however, and among them Mr. Salt, one of his most hostile sceptics, have confirmed the greater part of his assertions relative to that country, though many of them still remain doubtful and unauthenticated. Such was the effect of the reports circulated against his work, that, according to Dr. Clarke, a short time after its publication, several copies were sold in Dublin -for waste paper. Being, however, translated into French, his book was widely circulated on the continent; and he had made arrangements for printing an octavo edition, when, on the 26th of April 1794, he fell down the stairs of his mansion at Kinnaird, while in the act of handing a lady to dinner, and expired the following morning.

The person of Mr. Bruce being nearly six feet four inches in height, and of great muscular strength, was well suited to the enterprises he undertook and the dangers he encountered. Though his hair was a dark red, his countenance had a handsome cast; and though he possessed great urbanity of manners, his mien was dignified, and almost haughty. He paid particular attention to his dress, especially during his travels, the fatigue and danger of which never prevented him from appearing in the most elegant costume of the different countries he visited. He was an excellent horseman and swimmer, and an unerring marksman; and, for his skill in the latter capacity, was mistaken by the barbarians, who were unaquainted with the use of fire-arms, for a magician. In addition to his numerous literary accomplishments, he acquired considerable knowledge of physic and surgery, which he practiced with great success in Africa and Abyssinia. He possessed a mind prudent and vigorous, and a spirit untameable by danger or disappointment, so that he was enabled finally to ensure the success of his most ambitious projects. In Abyssinia he discovered a plant very serviceable in cases of dysentery and brought the seeds of it to England, where it is known by the name of Brucea, having been so called by Sir Joseph Banks, in honor of its finder. An island in the Red Sea, on the coast of Abyssinia, also bears his name.

The doubt which prevailed respecting the truth of his narratives, was in a great degree owing to the habit he had of telling his own exploits, which he embellished with a coloring of romance calculated to weaken the credulity of his hearers. His account of his travels became the subject of much disputation; and Dr. Vincent, who defended it, allowed that Bruce was in some instances mistaken, by aspiring to knowledge and science which he had not sufficiently examined; though, he adds, his work throughout bears internal marks of veracity, in all instances where he was not deceived himself; and his observations were the best which a man, furnished with such instruments, and struggling for his life, could obtain.' He was often pompous and ostentatious, especially in his character of consul. The Bey of Cairo, having, after a long conversation, ordered him a purse of sequins, he declined accepting any thing more than a single orange, saying to the Bey, who requested to know his reason, am an Englishman, and the servant of the greatest king in Europe: it is not the custom of my country to receive pecuniary gratuities from foreign princes without the approbation of our sovereign.' In alluding to his pictures of Palmyra and Balbec, which are in the king's library at Kew, he used to speak of them as the most magnificent presents ever made in that line by a subject to a sovereign.' It has been said, however, that he received for these drawings the sum of L2000. He was descended, on his mother's side, from Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, a circumstance he was excessively proud of; and he once said to a friend, that he was entitled to give his servants royal livery.' He occupied much of the latter part of his life in the formation of a museum, in his own house, which contained many rare and valuable curiosities.

He expressed an utter contempt for all kinds of suspicion with regard to his veracity, which he could never be prevailed on to take any pains to substantiate. When requested by his friends, to alter or explain any thing, he would sternly repeat, What I have written, I have written!' with which words he concluded the preface to his travels. Dining out, one day,' says Major Head, at the house of a friend, a gentleman present observed, "that it was impossible the natives of Abyssinia could eat raw meat;" on which, Bruce without saying a word, left the table, and shortly returned from the kitchen with a piece of raw beef-steak, peppered and salted in the Abyssinian fashion, and said to the gentleman, "Sir, you will eat that, or fight me;" the person addressed chose to do the former, when, Bruce calmly observed, "Now sir, you will never again say it is impossible." ' Major Head also relates the following anecdote: Single-speech Hamilton, who was Bruce's first cousin, one evening said to him, "that to convince the world of his power of drawing, he need only draw something then in as good a style as those paintings which it had been said were done for him by his Italian artist." "Gerard!" replied Bruce, very gravely, " you made one fine speech, and the world doubted its being your own com position but, if you will stand up now here, and make another speech as good, we shall believe it to have been your own." '

He used to teach his daughter, who was scarcely twelve years old, the proper mode of pronouncing the Abyssinian words, that he might leave,' as he said, 'some one behind him who could pronounce them correctly. He repeatedly said to her, with feelings highly excited, I shall not live, my child, but you probably will, to see the truth of all I have written thoroughly confirmed.'