Bruce of Kinnaird
Bruce of Kinnaird came from an old Scottish family in Stirlingshire.
He was 6 feet 4 inches in height, handsome and well-built, with
dark red hair and considerable charm of manner. Charming as
he was, Bruce had a quick temper. In his own words he was "of
a sanguine, passionate disposition, very sensible of injury."
married when he was 24. Nine months later his young wife tragically
died of tuberculosis. In order to take his mind off his loss
Bruce decided to travel abroad. On a visit to Spain he became
very interested in the Moors - the Arabic-speaking people who
had conquered Spain during the 700's , ruled over most of it
until the late 1200's and were finally expelled in 1492 - and
began his studies of Arabic.
after, Bruce was appointed British consul general to the Moorish
city of Algiers. To prepare himself for this new job he perfected
his Arabic, and because part of his official mission was to
learn all he could about Africa, he began to study the little-known
Ethiopian tongues of Amharic and Ge'ez. After two years in Algiers
he spent the next seven years traveling in North Africa and
the Near East, looking, learning, and equipping himself for
an enterprise which, in the words of his first biographer, "had
taken deeper possession of Mr. Bruce's mind than any other project."
His goal was to reach Ethiopia and find the springs which were
said to he the source of the Nile.
of traveling, like most well-to-do Europeans of the day, in
luxury and aloofness, Bruce lived and dressed as an Arab. In
North Africa he learned to ride in the Arab style and proved
to be a brilliant horseman. During an attack of malaria while
he was staying at Aleppo in Syria he came under the care of
a doctor, Patrick Russel, who had made a study of tropical diseases.
Bruce picked up so much medical knowledge From Russel that he
could pass himself off as a physician. When he started off for
Ethiopia the Sherif of Mecca gave him the closest thing in those
days to a passport, saying Bruce was a Christian physician accustomed
to wander over the world in search of herbs and trees beneficial
to the health of man."
1768, Bruce, now 38, was in Cairo ready to embark on his quest.
With Luigi Balugani, a young Italian he had hired as secretary
and artist to make sketches and maps, Bruce set off up the Nile
by boat. The party- got as far as Aswan only to find that tribal
wars to the south made it too dangerous to go on. Bruce, however,
was determined. Turning eastward, he left the Nile and crossed
the desert and the Red Sea to the port of Juddah on the coast
of Arabia. From there he sailed south to Massaua, a port on
Ethiopia's coast. Massaua was then under the control of the
Turks who detained Bruce for two months.
November 10, 1768, Bruce set out from Massaua for Gondar, the
Ethiopian capital. He was accompanied by Balugani, some guards
he had hired and armed, three servants, and a guide. The most
important item in his baggage was a quadrant - an instrument
for measuring the altitude of the sun or stars and used in determining
position - so that when he found the source of the Nile he could
work out its latitude. The quadrant was so heavv that two teams
of four men were needed to carry it over the mountains that
rise so quickly from the coast to the high plateau of Ethiopia.
Traveling over the plateau the party passed through immense
flocks of antelopes that scarcely moved aside to let them by.
The Ethiopians were herdsmen and Bruce wrote that cattle were
"here in great plenty, cows and bulls, of exquisite beauty,
for the most part completely white."
usual diet of the Ethiopians consisted of honey and bread made
from dhurra) a kind of millet. When they ate meat, it was taken
raw from living animals. Bruce first experienced this when his
party overtook three soldiers herding a cow along with them.
When they reached a river bank the soldiers tied the cow and
proceeded to cut two large portions of flesh from her flanks.
After this they folded the skin back over the wound and fastened
it with small skewers, untied the cow and drove her on.
three months the expedition reached Gondar, where small pox
had broken out. Because of his reputation as a physician, Bruce
was summoned to the palace of the Iteghe, the queen mother,
and commanded to treat her grandchildren. Following Russel's
procedures he had all the doors and windows opened, the rooms
fumigated with incense and myrrh, and the walls washed with
vinegar. The children recovered, and the Iteghe's gratitude
and protection opened the way to Bruce's success. A close friendship
grew up between him and the ladies of the court. Bruce spoke
their language fluently, charmed them with his manners, and
took care to dress to please them. "My hair was cut round,
curled, and perfumed in the Ambaric fashion, and 1 was thenceforward,
in all outward appearance, a perfect Abyssinian."
Bruce's way to the source of the Nile was blocked by political
strife. Ethiopia was in a state of civil war caused by a rising
against the 15-year-old king of the country, Takla Haymanot.
The real ruler of Ethiopia, however, was not Takla but his adviser,
Ras Michael, who was away campaigning against the rebels when
Bruce arrived. Upon his return Ras Michael paraded through the
capital at the head of 30,000 men. Every soldier who had killed
an enemy decorated his lance or musket with a strip of red rag.
One soldier "had been so fortunate in combat that his whole
lance and javelin, horse and person, were covered over with
shreds of scarlet cloth." Held high in the procession was
the "stuffed skin" of a rebel chief who had been flayed
alive. One of Ras Michael's first acts on his return was to
have the eyes of 44 captive chiefs torn out and "the unfortunate
sufferers turned out into the fields, to be devoured at night
by the hyenas." Bruce rescued three of the chiefs and nursed
them back to health.
Michael, apart from his brutality, was an intelligent man. He
was about 70 years old with "an air perfectly- free from
constraint," and he saw in Bruce a possible ally in the
civil war and court intrigue. He appointed theScot master of
the king's horse, groom of the bedchamber, and titular governor
of the province of Geesh where the fabled spring that Bruce
hoped to find was located.
was while Bruce was in the employ of the Ethiopian court that
he got his first view of the Blue Nile. The river's source is
the Little Abbai River, a stream that rises about 70 miles south
of Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and some 2,750 miles from the Nile
Delta. The stream enters Lake Tana, emerges from the lake's
southeast corner, and then - as the Blue Nile - flows in a great
curve, first to the southeast and then northwest to enter the
Ludan. Bruce first saw the Blue Nile where it thunders over
the Tisisat Falls 20 miles below Lake Tana, but he was campaigning
with the king's army. As they were returning to court he had
to turn back with them.
was determined to attempt to reach the source of the river.
Eventually, in October, 1770, he received royal permission to
under take his search, and he left Gondar with a small party
of men and his precious astronomical instruments. Just as they
approached the stream, his party climbed a steep, rugged mountain
populated by great numbers of baboons. Although these long-toothed
powerful animals can be dangerous, Bruce was not deterred. From
the mountain's 9,500 foot summit he looked down on "the
Nile itself now only a brook that had scarcely water to turn
Below the mountain, at the tiny town of Geesh, lay a shallow
ford and beyond that a deserted Ethiopian church where the small
party paused in the shade of a grove of cedars. Before them
lay the swamp from which the river drained. The guide now turned
difficult and bargained for Bruce's scarlet silk sash in return
for revealing the spring which was the ultimate source of the
Blue Nile. Throwing off his shoes, Bruce raced toward the little
island in the marsh the guide had pointed to, and there he found
his prize. The spring, which was sacred to the local people,
appeared to Bruce as in the form of an altar. . . . I stood
in rapture over the principal fountain which rises in the middle."
Bruce indulged himself in a moment ot triumph "standing
in that spot which had baffled the genius, industry, and enquiry
of both ancients and moderns for the course of near three thousand
years. Kings had attempted this discovery at the head of armies
But Bruce had at last triumphed and reached his goal.
For all his exuberance, Bruce was mistaken on two counts. This
spring was not the true source of the Nile, nor was he the first
European to reach it, of the two branches that unite to form
Africa's greatest river, the White Nile is the longer, and the
place where it issues from Lake Victoria is now generally accepted
as "the source of the Nile." The Blue Nile is, in
this sense, a tributary, although a mighty one, supplying six-sevenths
of the water that flows through Upper Egypt as well as the fertile
silt upon which Egypt's civilization' was founded.
first European to set eyes on the spring at Geesh had been a
Spanish Jesuit, Pedro Paez, in 1618. About 10 years later another
Jesuit, Jeronimo Lobo, had passed through the district and visited
the Tisisat Falls. But Bruce was the first to verify the source
and to fix the spring's position, and the first to follow the
river from Sennar, where the Sennar Dam now blocks its path,
down to its confluence with the White Nile where Khartoum now
mood of euphoria quickly gave way to one of gloom' Having achieved
his object, he wanted to go home, but this was not allowed by
the Ethiopian court. As master of the king's horse he found
himself caught up in campaigns against the rebels, and for his
part in one of them was rewarded with a massive gold chain.
But the intrigues, bloodshed, torture, and executions sickened
him' "Blood continued to be spilt as water, day after day,"
he wrote, ''Priests and laymen, young and old, noble and vile,
daily found their end by the knife or the cord. Bodies were
left to rot where they lay - and by night the capital was filled
with scavenging hyenas." Bruce fell sick with malaria.
His Italian draughtsman, Balugani, died of dysentery. "Nothing
occupied my thoughts but how to escape from this bloody country
by way of Sennar."
because of Bruce's ill-health, the king reluctantly allowed
him to depart. More than a year after his return from the spring
at Geesh Bruce rode out of Gondar accompanied only by three
Greeks, one of them almost blind, an elderly Turk, and a few
grooms. He headed for Sennar in the Sudan both to follow the
Nile and to avoid the Turks at Massaua. He was to take just
over a year on the journey, which began on December 26, 1771,
and ended at Cairo, a total of 2,000 miles, on January 10, 1773.
this period the authority of the Ottoman Turks who controlled
Egypt extended no farther up the Nile than Aswan, at the first
cataract. South of this lay an immense and sparsely-populated
region where independent kingdoms waxed and waned according
to the strength and fortunes of their rulers. These desert kings
were of Arab blood mixed with the native Negro or Hamitic. They
were Moslems who spoke and wrote Arabic, and kept to some Arab
customs and traditions. Their subjects were either nomadic herders
- long-horned cattle or peasants barely able to survive because
of the taxes imposed upon them by their landlords.
the remoteness of these kingdoms, cut off by cruel deserts and
even more cruel bandits from the rest of the world, they had
not lost all touch with civilization. To such markets as Shandi
and Barbar on the Nile came silks from the Indies, swords from
Syria, rugs from Iran, glass from Venice, brass and beads from
India, and spices from many other parts of the world. From them
went spirited desert-bred horses, ivory, leopard skins, ostrich
feathers, gold-dust, and a great number of slaves. There was
a regular slave trade with Egypt, and with Arabia via the port
of Suakin on the Red Sea.
a four-month journey part of it taken up with a two-month bout
of malaria Bruce reached Sennar. The courts of the sheiks kept
up a barbaric sort of splendor. One traveler recorded in 1409
that the ladies of Sennar wore robes of silk or fine calico
with sleeves falling to the ground, "their hair is twisted
and set with rings of silver, copper, brass, and ivory, or glass
of different colours. These rings are fastened to their locks
in form of crowns; their arms, legs, ears, and even nostrils
are covered with these rings."
was less flattering to the King of Sennar's favorite wife. She
was, he wrote, "about six feet high, and corpulent beyond
all proportion. A ring of gold passed through under her lip,
and weighed it down, till, like a flap, it covered her chin,
and left her teeth bare." Her ears reached to her shoulders,
tugged down by more rings, and "she had on her ankles two
manacles of gold, larger than any I had ever seen upon the feet
of felons." It was not surprising that all the royal ladies
needed treatment for some ailment.
Sennar the king's authority was enforced by a small but highly
trained corps of cavalry, the Black Horse, who fought, like
medieval knights, in chain mail. Bruce was deeply impressed
by the Black Horse of Sennar, known and dreaded throughout a
kingdom stretching from the Ethiopian foothills to Kordofan,
west of the White Nile. Bruce admired the 400 famous horses,
"all above sixteen hands high, of the breed of the old
Saracen horses, all fimely made." The soldiers slept beside
their horses, and each man hung up on its stall his suit of
chain mail, his copper helmet, a broad-sword in a red leather
scabbard, and a pair of thick leather gloves.
the splendor of the horses, the beauty of the country, and he
hospitality of the people, Bruce soon grew tired of Sennar which,
in the rainy season, became unbearably hot and unhealthy. Once
again the king refused to let him go. Bruce ran out of goods
and money, and was forced to sell all but six links of his massive
gold chain to buy food to keep himself and his men alive. But
after four months, he managed to escape with the three Greeks,
the old Turk, an unreliable guide, and five camels. Ahead lay
800 miles of unknown country, mostly desert, separating Sennar
from the borders of Egypt at Aswan.
passing the junction of the two Niles and then Shandi and Barbar,
Bruce and his party reached the point where the Nile turns west
to make an 800- mile loop before it turns north again. Rather
than follow the great curve, they struck out on the direct but
dangerous route north across the desert toward Aswan, a distance
of about 350 miles. On November 11, 1772, they filled their
water- skins and Bruce had his last bathe in the Nile, "and
thus took leave of my old acquaintance, very doubtful if we
should ever meet again."
doubts were nearly justified. The men's shoes wore out and they
trudged on through burning sand and over jagged rock, barefooted,
and in pain. There was no food for the camels. Then, to add
fear to physical discomfort, the struggling group came on the
remains of a large caravan that had left Sennar a few days before
them and had been wiped out by robbers. "In this whole
desert," wrote Bruce, "there is neither worm, nor
fly, nor anything that has the breath of life."
and the dreaded simoom, the burning dust-laden wind of the desert,
almost suffocated them. Bruce's feet were so badly blistered
and swollen that he could scarcely walk. As a last desperate
resort Bruce and his companions killed the camels and drained'
their stomachs to replenish their water supplies. They set off
on foot, leaving Bruce's instruments and the records of his
four years of travel.
all hope seemed lost, Bruce saw two hawks in the sky- signs
that water was not tar away. The party staggered on, and in
the evening heard the distant sound of a cataract. "Christians,
Moors, and Turks all burst into floods of tears, kissing and
embracing one another, and thanking God for his mercy in this
deliverance." Next morning, November 29, 1772, they limped
his desperate condition, Bruce's first thought was for his papers.
He begged camels from the governor, retraced his steps, and
found his baggage untouched. From Aswan he went by boat to Cairo,
sick and with feet so swollen that he could not stand.
Bruce was ready to reap his reward. He set out for home. Before
going to England, however, he went to France to receive treatment
for a leg infected by the parasitic Guinea worm he had picked
up in Sennar. Several months elapsed before he arrived back
in London, expecting recognition and praise for his great achieve
ment. At first, people listened to his story. George III received
him and accepted a present of some of Balugani's drawings. Then
the mood changed.
1774, London society was dominated by polished, skeptical wits.
This bluff, noisy Scot, full of what seemed to be tall stories,
was an irresistible target. London society just did not believe
Bruce's tales of meat cut from living cows and served raw and
bleeding, and of fat princesses with golden rings in their noses.
Moreover Bruce fell foul of Samuel Johnson, one of the great
figures of London who greatly influenced popular opinion. Johnson's
first published work had been a translation of Jeronimo Lobo's
account of his Ethiopian travels, and he had written a novel,
Passe/as, Prince of Abyssinia, set in an imaginary Ethiopia
very different from the reality described by Bruce. Johnson,
who disliked Scots anyway, made it known that he did not believe
that Bruce had ever been to Ethiopia at all. This was a sentence
of death to the explorer's reputation. None of the honors Bruce
had hoped for came his way.
angry, and hurniliated, Bruce retreated to his estate in Scotland,
remarried, raised a farnily, and enjoyed the social and sporting
life of a Scottish laird. Only after his wife died in 1785 did
he begin to work on the notes and journals he had brought home
at so high a cost and then locked away in disgust at his treatment.
And it was not until 1790 that his Travels to Discover the Source
of the Nile appeared. The public did not question the author's
truthfulness, but delighted in his racy style, and admired his
courage and tenacity. He did not, however, live long to enjoy
his popular success. On April 27, 1794, Bruce, the gentleman-adventurer,
died at the age of 64 as a result of an accident the day before.
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