Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 07.djvu/106

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Bruce
Bruce
100


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