Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bruce, James (1730-1794)

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BRUCE, JAMES (1730–1794), African traveller, son of David Bruce of Kinnaird and Marion Graham of Airth, was born at Kinnaird, Stirlingshire, on 14 Dec. 1730. He was educated at Harrow, and 'inclined to the profession of a clergyman' for which, 'his master assured his father, 'he has sufficient gravity.' He nevertheless complied with his father's wish that he should study law, until it became evident that a pursuit involving an intimate knowledge of Roman as well as Scotch jurisprudence was too distasteful to him to be prosecuted to any good purpose. He had in the meantime invigorated his originally delicate constitution by exercise and sport; and now, athletic, daring, and six feet four, seemed made for a life of travel and adventure. While soliciting permission to settle as a trader in India, his ideas received a new direction from his marriage with Adriana Allan, the orphan daughter of a wine merchant in Portugal. To gratify her mother he took a share in the business; but his wife's death in 1754, after a union of only nine months, destroyed his interest in this calling, and to detach himself gradually from it he visited Spain and Portugal under pretext of inspecting the vintage. Two incidents arising out of this excursion aided to determine his subsequent career. Having formed the project of examining the manuscripts in the Escurial, he was led to study Arabic, which incidentally directed his attention to the ancient classical language of Abyssinia; and, having observed the unprotected condition of Ferrol, he submitted, upon the outbreak of hostilities with Spain, a proposition to the English government for an attack upon the place. The scheme, though not carried into effect, gained him the notice of Lord Halifax, and the offer of the consulate at Algiers, with a commission to examine the remains of ancient architecture described but not delineated by Dr. Shaw. According to his own statement, this proposal was accompanied by the promise of a baronetcy when his mission should be completed, and the pledge that he should be assisted by a deputy to attend to consular business while he was engaged in archaeological research. Some hints as to the possibility of his extending his explorations to the Nile took the strongest hold upon his imagination, and to reach its source now became the main purpose of his life. To qualify himself yet further for his undertaking, he spent six months in Italy studying antiquities, and obtained the services of an accomplished draughtsman, a young Bolognese named Luigi Balugani. Before engaging him he had visited Psestum, and made the first accurate drawings ever taken of the ruins, a fortunate step for his own reputation, as it refuted the charge subsequently brought against him of entire dependence upon Balugani and appropriation of the latter's work. He arrived at Algiers on 15 March 1763.

The Algerine consulate was a post of danger and difficulty at all times, and Baba Ali, the dey to whom Bruce was accredited, though not devoid of a certain barbaric magnanimity, was even more ferocious and impracticable than the generality. The injudicious recall of Bruce's predecessor at the dey's demand had greatly encouraged the latter's insolence. Bruce's presents were judged insufficient, and with great public spirit he advanced more than 200l from his own pocket, 'rather than, in my time, his majesty should lose the affections of this people.' These affectionate corsairs, in fact, were not without grounds of complaint. Blank passports, intended, when duly filled up, to exempt English ships from capture as belonging to a friendly power, had fallen into the hands of the French, who, to damage their enemy's credit, had sold them to nations at war with Algiers. The English, finding their passes thus invalidated, had issued written papers, which the Algerines could not read, and of course disregarded. Bruce had need of all his courage and address. The two years and a quarter during which he held office passed in a series of disputes with the Algerine ruler, which frequently involved him in great danger, but in which he usually triumphed by his undeviating firmness. At length, in August 1765, finding that no assistant was likely to be given him, he resigned his appointment, and departed on an archaeological tour through Barbary, fortified by the protection of the old dey, who secretly admired his spirit. With the aid of his draughtsman and a camera obscura, he made a great number of most elaborate and beautiful drawings of the remains of Roman magnificence extant in the now uninhabited desert. These drawings, which were exhibited at the Institute of British Architects in 1837, are partly in the possession of his descendants, and partly in the royal collection at Windsor. Colonel Playfair finds them to be for the most part virtually in duplicate, but taken from slightly different points of view; one copy probably by Bruce, the other, distinguished by the introduction of conventional ornaments, probably by Balugani. Colonel Playfair's own elaborate work has superseded the imperfect account published by Bruce himself, but his researches have impressed him with the fullest conviction of the accuracy and conscientiousness of his predecessor, in whose delineations he has discovered only one error. The most important ruins visited and sketched by Bruce were those at Tebessa, Spaitla, Tamugas, Tisdrus, and Cirta. After more than a year's travel through Barbary, at the close of which he underwent great danger from famine and pestilence at Bengazi, Bruce embarked at Ptolemeta for Candia, was shipwrecked, cast helpless on the African coast, beaten and plundered by the Arabs, and contracted an ague from his immersion, which he could never entirely shake off. His drawings had fortunately been placed in safety at Smyrna. Having, after a considerable delay at Bengazi, made his way to Crete, and partially got rid of his ague and fever, he proceeded with indomitable spirit to Syria, sketched the ruins of Palmyra and Baalbec, and, after hesitating whether he should not go to Tartary to observe the transit of Venus, arrived in Egypt in July 1768. Having conciliated Ali Bey, the chief of the Mameluke rulers of Egypt, by his real skill in medicine and supposed knowledge of astrology, and thus obtained recommendatory letters to the sheriff of Mecca, the naib of Masuah, Ras Michael the Abyssinian prime minister, and other chieftains and potentates, and being also provided with a monition to the Greeks in Abyssinia from their patriarch in Egypt, Bruce sailed up the Nile to Assouan, visited the ruins of Karnak and Luxor, and embarked at Cosseir for a voyage on the Red Sea. He proceeded to the Straits of Babelmandeb, retraced his course to Jidda, and crossed from thence to Masuah, the port of Abyssinia, where he landed on 19 Sept. 1769. The place, inhabited by a mongrel breed of African savages and Turkish janissaries, was little better than a den of assassins. It had, however one honest inhabitant, Achmet, the nephew of the naib or governor, who took Bruce's part and saved his life, powerfully aided by the fame of a salute which his countrymen had fired in his honour when he quitted Jidda, and by his credentials to the Abyssinian ras, whose wrath the naib had already provoked, and whom he feared to offend further. Bruce ultimately quitted the Red Sea coast on 15 Nov., bound for Gondar, the capital of Abyssinia. He reached his destination on 14 Feb. 1770, after a toilsome march, in which he experienced great difficulties from scantiness of provisions, from the transport of his heavy instruments, and from altercations with petty chiefs on the road. In his march he witnessed the barbarous Abyssinian custom of eating raw meat cut from the living animal, which he brought such undeserved discredit upon himself by relating; and visited the ruins of Axum, his imperfect description of which is more justly open to criticism. It was nearly 150 years since any European had visited Abyssinia, except Poncet, the French surgeon, towards the end of the seventeenth century, and three Franciscan monks who had found their way about 1750, but had published no account of their travels, and probably never returned.

The name Abyssinia is derived from an Arabic word signifying confusion; and the term—intended to denote the mixture of races in the population of the country—was, in Bruce's time as now, accurately descriptive of its political condition. Although the throne was still filled by a reputed descendant of Solomon, the prestige of royalty had wellnigh disappeared, and the country was virtually divided among a number of provincial governors, whose revolts against the nominal sovereign and contentions among themselves kept it in a state of utter anarchy. At the time of Bruce's arrival the post of ras or vizier was filled by the aged Michael, governor of Tigré, the Warwick of Abyssinia, who, having assassinated one king and poisoned another, was at the age of seventy-two ruling in the name of a third. It was Bruce's business to conciliate this cruel but straightforward and highly intelligent personage, as well as the titular king and royal family, and Fasil, the chieftain in whose jurisdiction lay the springs of the Blue Nile, which Bruce, mistaking for the actual source of the river, had made the goal of his efforts. This individual happened to be in rebellion at the time, which increased the difficulties of the situation. But Bruce, by physical strength and adroitness in manly exercises, by presence of mind, by long experience of the East, by his very foibles of excessive self-assertion and warmth of temper, was fitted beyond most men to overawe a barbarous people. When he arrived at Gondar, King Tecla Haimanout and Ras Michael were engaged in a military expedition, and the Greeks and Moors to whom he had letters of introduction were likewise absent. Fortunately for him several persons of distinction were sick of small-pox, which procured him access to the queen mother; and perhaps still more fortunately he was not at first allowed to prescribe for them, greater confidence being reposed in a cross and a picture of the Virgin Mary. The speedy death of two of the patients insured him his own way with the remainder, and their recovery won him the gratitude of the queen mother and of Michael's wife, the young and beautiful Ozoro Esther. The favour thus gained was confirmed by his feat of firing a tallow candle through a table, which Salt found talked of forty years afterwards. Bruce received an office about the king's person, and, according to his own statement, was made governor of the district of Ras-el-Feel. This circumstance was contradicted by Dofter Esther, a priest, from whom Salt subsequently obtained information, and who cannot have been actuated by any animosity to Bruce, as the general tenor of his communications was highly favourable to him. The appointment, however, may not have been generally known in Abyssinia, or Bruce himself, who at the time could not speak Amharic, may have been under a misapprehension as to the extent of his authority. In the spring of 1770 he accompanied the king and Michael on an expedition into Maitsha, which gave him an opportunity of obtaining from the king the investiture of the district of Geesh, where the fountains of the Blue Nile are situated, and of propitiating the rebel chief, Fasil, by sending medicine to one of his generals. The expedition was unsuccessful; the king and ras sought refuge in the latter's government of Tigre, and Bruce returned to Gondar, where he spent several months, living in the queen mother's palace under her protection, but exposed to considerable danger from the hostility of a usurper who had been elevated to the nominal throne. On 28 Oct. 1770 Bruce left Gondar to take possession of his fief, and after two days' march fell in with the army of Fasil, who had returned to his allegiance, and was favouring the king's return to Gondar. Fasil gave Bruce at first a very ambiguous reception; but, overcome by his intrepid bearing, and captivated by his feats in subduing savage horses and shooting kites upon the wing, altered his demeanour entirely, accepted Bruce as his feudatory, naturalised him among his Galla followers, and dismissed him with a favourite horse of his own, and instructions to drive the animal before him ready saddled and bridled wherever he went. The steed certainly brought the party security, for every one fled at the sight of him, and Bruce was finally obliged to mount. Thus sped, he arrived at the village of Geesh, and struck upon the mighty Nile, 'not four yards over, and not above four inches deep,' and here his guide pointed out to him 'the hillock of green sod' which he has made so famous. Trampling down the flowers which mantled the hillside, and receiving two severe falls in his eager haste, Bruce 'stood in rapture over the principal fountain.' It is easier to guess than to describe the situation of my mind at that moment standing on that spot which had baffled the genius, industry, and inquiry of both ancients and moderns for the course of near three thousand years.'

Bruce, however, was mistaken. He had not reached the source of the true Nile, but only that of its most considerable tributary. With a frankness which does him honour, he virtually admits the fact by pointing out that, if the branch by whose spring he stood at Geesh did not encounter the larger stream of the White Nile, it would be lost in the sands. He maintains, indeed, that the Blue Nile is the Nile of the ancients, who bequeathed the problem of its source to us; but this is inconsistent with the fact that the expedition sent by Nero evidently ascended not the Blue Nile but the White. He was also in error—less excusable because in a certain measure wilful—in regarding himself as the first European who had reached these fountains. Pedro Paez the Jesuit had undoubtedly done so in 1615, and Bruce's unhandsome attempt to throw doubt on the fact only proves that love of fame is not literally the last infirmity of noble minds, but may bring much more unlovely symptoms in its train. There is a sense, however, in which Bruce may be more justly esteemed the discoverer of the fount of the Blue Nile than Paez, who stumbled upon it by accident, and, absorbed by missionary zeal, thought little of the exploit to which Bruce had dedicated his life.

During Bruce's absence from Gondar, King Tecla Haimanout had recovered his capital. Twenty thousand of Has Michael's Tigre warriors occupied the city, and Bruce was in time to witness the vengeance of the victors. For weeks Gondar reeked with massacre, and swarmed with hyaenas lured by the scent of carrion. Bruce's remonstrances were regarded as childish weakness. His draughtsman, Balugani, died, an event which he himself misdates by a year, and he ardently longed to quit the country. With much difficulty he obtained permission, but the general anarchy prevented his departure. The queen mother had always been unfriendly to Ras Michael. Two leading provincial governors, Gusho and Powussen, espoused her cause, and interposed their troops between Michael in the capital and his province of Tigre. After much indecisive fighting in the spring of 1771, the royal army was cut off from its supplies, and became completely disorganised in its retreat upon Gondar. The old ras, victor in forty-three battles, arrayed himself in cloth of gold, and sat calmly in his house awaiting his fate. He was carried away prisoner to a remote province, but was yet to rise again and rule Tigre seven years until his death. The king, though not dethroned, remained in virtual captivity, but was destined to experience many more changes of fortune ere he died a monk. Bruce spent a miserable autumn, prostrated with fever, harassed with debt, and in constant danger of his life from the wild Galla. On 26 Dec. 1771 he finally quitted Gondar, amid the benedictions and tears of his many friends, bearing with other treasures the chronicles of the Abyssinian kings and the apocryphal book of Enoch in the Ethiopic version, in which alone it is preserved. The next stage of his journey was to be Sennaar, the capital of Nubia, which he reached after four months' march through a densely wooded country infested with wild beasts, narrowly escaping assassination at the hands of the treacherous sheikh of Atbara. After five months' disagreeable detention at Sennaar among 'a horrid people, whose only occupations seem war and treason,' he struck into the desert, and after incurring dreadful perils, most graphically described, from hunger, thirst, robbers, the simoom, and moving pillars of sand, on 29 Nov. 1772 reached Assouan, the frontier town of Egypt. He had been compelled to leave his journals, drawings, and instruments behind him in the desert, but they were recovered, and in March 1773 he brought the hard-won treasures safely to Marseilles.

Bruce spent a year and a half on the continent, enjoying the compliments of the French savants, recruiting his constitution at the baths of Poretta, and calling to account an Italian marquis who had presumed during his absence to marry a lady to whom he had been engaged. On his arrival in England he at first received great attention, but a reaction against him soon set in. People were scandalised by his stories, especially such as were really in no way improbable. As Sir Francis Head puts it, the devourers of putrid venison could not digest the devourers of raw beef. Bruce's dictatorial manner and disdain of self-vindication also told against him. 'Mr. Bruce's grand air, gigantic height, and forbidding brow awed everybody into silence,' says Fanny Burney in her lively sketch of him at this time in a letter to Samuel Crisp, adding, 'He is the tallest man you ever saw gratis.' No honour was conferred upon him, except the personal notice of the king. Deeply wounded, he retired to his patrimonial estate in Scotland, which had greatly increased in value from the discovery of coal; he postponed the publication of his travels, and might have finally abandoned it but for the depression of spirits caused by the death of his second wife in 1785. The need of occupation and the instances of his friend, Dailies Barrington, incited him to composition, and five massive, ill-arranged, ill-digested, but most fascinating volumes made their appearance in 1790. They included a full narrative of his travels from the beginning; a valuable history of Abyssinia, 'neglecting,' however, according to Murray, 'very interesting traits of character and manners that appear in the original chronicles;' and disquisitions on the history and religion of Egypt, Indian trade, the invention of the alphabet, and other subjects, evincing that the great traveller was not a great scholar or a judicious critic. With all their faults, few books of equal compass are equally entertaining; and few such monuments exist of the energy and enterprise of a single traveller. Yet all their merits and all the popularity they speedily obtained among general readers did not effect the reversal of the verdict already passed upon Bruce by literary coteries. With sorrow and scorn he left the vindication of his name to posterity. He shot, entertained visitors, played with his children, and, 'having grown exceedingly heavy and lusty, rode slowly over his estate to his collieries, mounted on a charger of great power and size.' Occasionally he would assume Abyssinian costume, and sit meditating upon the past and the departed, especially, it is surmised, his beautiful protectress, Ozoro Esther. At last, on 27 April 1794, hastening to the head of his staircase to hand a lady to her carriage, he missed his footing, pitched on his head, and never spoke again.

Bruce's character is depicted with incomparable liveliness by himself. It is that of a brave, magnanimous, and merciful man, endowed with excellent abilities, though not with first-rate intellectual powers, but swayed to an undue degree by self-esteem and the thirst for fame. The exaggeration of these qualities, without which even his enterprise would have shrunk from his perils, made him uncandid to those whom he regarded as rivals, and brought imputations, not wholly undeserved, upon his veracity. As regards the bulk and general tenor of his narrative, his truthfulness has been sufficiently established; but vanity and the passion for the picturesque led him to embellish minor particulars, and perhaps in some few instances to invent them. The circumstances under which his work was produced were highly unfavourable to strict accuracy. Instead of addressing himself to his task immediately upon his return, with the incidents of his travels fresh in his mind and his journals open before him, Bruce delayed for twelve years, and then dictated to an amanuensis, indolently omitting to refer to the original journals, and hence frequently making a lamentable confusion of facts and dates, which only came to light upon the examination of his original manuscripts. 'In the latter part of his days,' says his biographer, Murray, 'he seems to have viewed the numerous adventures of his active life as in a dream, not in their natural state as to time and place, but under the pleasing and arbitrary change of memory melting into imagination.' These inaccuracies of detail, however, relating exclusively to things personal to Bruce himself, in no way impair the truth and value of his splendid picture of Abyssinia; nor do they mar the effect of his own great figure as the representative of British frankness and manliness amid the weltering chaos of African cruelty, treachery, and superstition. His method of composition, moreover, if unfavourable to the strictly historical, was advantageous to the other literary qualities of his work. Fresh from the author's lips, the tale comes with more vividness than if it had been compiled from journals; and scenes, characters, and situations are represented with more warmth and distinctness. Bruce's character portraits are masterly; and although the long conversations he records are evidently highly idealised, the essential truth is probably conveyed with as much precision as could have been attained by a verbatim report. Not the least of his gifts is an eminently robust and racy humour. He will always remain the poet, and his work the epic, of African travel.

[The principal authority for Bruce's life is his own Travels, which have appeared in three editions, in 1790, 1805, and 1813. He left an unfinished autobiography, part of which is printed in the later editions of the Travels. They are also accompanied by a biography by the editor, Alexander Murray; an exceedingly well-written and in the main a very satisfactory book. Some slight coldness towards Bruce's memory may be explained by the uneasy relations between Murray and Bruce's son, who quarrelled with him during the progress of the work. Sir Francis Head's delightful volume in the Family Library goes into the other extreme. It is a mere compilation from the Travels, but executed con amore by a kindred spirit, and highly original in manner if not in matter. Crichton's memoir in Jardine's Naturalists' Library is an audacious plagiarism from Head. Bruce's Travels in Barbary have been most fully illustrated by Colonel Playfair (Travels in the Footsteps of Bruce, 1877). See also the Travels of Lord Valentia and Salt, Bruce's principal detractors; Asiatic Researches, vol. i.; Madame d'Arblay's Memoir of Dr. Burney, i. 298-329; Beloe's Sexagenarian, ii. 45-9; and the chapter on Alexander Murray in Archibald Constable and his Literary Correspondents, vol. i. The excellent article in the Penny Cyclopaedia is by André Vieusseux.]

R. G.