The Abysinnian Traveller

(extract from an article by Elspeth Huxley)

In the 1700's a new breed of explorers came to Africa. They came not to enrich themselves by trading in gold or slaves, nor to bring the good news of the Gospel to the pagan tribesmen. Instead they were driven by the desire to unravel the mysteries of the Dark Continent's geography. They explored for the sake of curiosity and adventure. And they were-many of them-seekers of fame. Most of them were not scientists or professional explorers, but gifted amateurs. Such a man was James Bruce, a Scottish aristocrat, laird of Kinnaird near Airth in Stirlingshire.

Born in 1730, Bruce came from an old Scottish family 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."

Bruce 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.

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Shortly 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.

Instead 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."

In 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.

On 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."

The 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.

After 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."

But 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.

Ras 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.

It 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.

Bruce 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 a mill."

bruce2.jpg (55129 bytes) 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.

The 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 stands.

Bruce's 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."

Eventually, 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.

At 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.

Despite 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.

After 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."

Bruce 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.

In 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.

Despite 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.

After 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."

His 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."

Whirlwinds 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.

When 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 into Aswan.

Despite 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.

Now 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.

In 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.

Hurt, angry, and humiliated, Bruce retreated to his estate in Scotland, remarried, raised a frmily, 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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