Struggle for Sea Power - M. B. Synge

James Bruce and the Nile

"In sunset's light, o'er Afric thrown,

A wanderer proudly stood

Beside the well-spring, deep and lone,

Of Egypt's awful flood;

The cradle of that mighty birth,

So long a hidden thing to earth."


While Captain Cook was exploring the unknown, another man—James Bruce—was opening up the geography of the world in another quarter. There were still many blank spots on the map of the world even in this eighteenth century. For 3000 years the source of the Nile had been a mystery which no man had as yet solved, until it had passed into a proverb that to discover the source of the Nile was to perform the impossible.

This man determined to perform the impossible, and succeeded.

A strong young Scotsman,—athletic, daring, a very giant in height,—James Bruce married the orphan daughter of a wine-merchant in Portugal at the age of twenty-three. She died nine months later, and he travelled off to Spain and Portugal to inspect the vines from which the wine was made. Here he was fascinated by the many Moorish remains, and studied Arabic. He came under the notice of Pitt, and was made consul of Algiers. Before he went, however, Pitt's successor had a talk with the young consul. He alluded casually to the undiscovered sources of the Nile. The idea took hold of Bruce's strong imagination.

"It was at that moment," he says, "that I resolved that this great discovery should either be achieved by me or remain—as it has done for 3000 years—a defiance to all travellers."

For two years he did his duty as consul at Algiers. But the spirit of adventure was strong upon him. He resigned his post and crossed the desert to Tripoli. Here he embarked on board a Greek ship for Crete. A violent storm overtook him, the ship foundered, and Bruce had to swim for his life in the raging sea, to be cast up helpless on the coast of Africa. Lying in an exhausted state on the sands, he was beaten and plundered by Arabs, and after a time sailed once more for Crete and so on to Egypt, where he arrived in the summer of 1768. Having gained the confidence of Ali Bey, the chief of the Mameluke rulers, he obtained leave for his journey to Abyssinia. The country was unruly and wild, cruelty and oppression reigned under the Mameluke rule of those days. It was very different to the Egypt of to-day, where British protection has brought freedom, peace, and prosperity.

Bruce sailed up the Nile, past Thebes, to the first cataract at Assuan. He visited the ruins of Karnak and Luxor, and, crossing the desert on a camel, embarked at a little mud-walled village on the shores of the Red Sea.

After a time he reached Massowah, the port of Abyssinia. The place was little more than a den of thieves and murderers, and had it not been for the kindness of Achmet, the governor's nephew, Bruce would have assuredly been slain. Achmet would fain have detained him altogether. He thought it madness for Bruce to proceed; but the sturdy young Scotsman was true to his trust, and, dressed in the long white Moorish dress of the country, he started for Gondar, the capital.

His way lay across mountainous country, indeed he had to cross the highest mountain in Abyssinia. Food was scarce, hyenas reduced the slender stock of donkeys, storms of rain soaked them to the skin, and often enough the little party were in a sorry plight. Bruce's light clothes were soon in rags, his feet bled from the long tramps over rocky ground, but he pushed bravely on toward Gondar, and at last—ninety-five days after leaving Massowah—he arrived at the capital.

The throne of Abyssinia was still occupied by a supposed descendant of King Solomon; but the country was unsettled and lawless, and many governors strove for the mastery. Smallpox was raging at the palace when Bruce arrived, and he soon showed his skill as a doctor in dealing with the cases. As a reward, the king made him Master of his Horse.

"I told him that this was no kindness. My only wish was to see the country and to find the source of the Nile." But the king would not let him go.

The delay worried the explorer not a little, and at last he persuaded the king to take him on an expedition to the banks of the great river, where there was fighting to be done. For his services the king gave him the district in which the Nile was supposed to rise, and Bruce at last was free to start on this last great quest. Through days of burning heat he pushed on with his local guide. They scrambled over mountains and across scorching plains, until at last Bruce stood on the top of the Abyssinian table-land, and looked down on to the very spot where the springs of the Nile arose. Trampling down the flowers that grew on the mountain-side, and falling down twice in his haste and excitement, Bruce stood at the source of the Nile, gazing at the "hillock of green sod" which has made his name famous.

"It is easier to guess than describe the state of my mind at that moment," he said afterwards, "standing in that spot which had baffled the genius, industry, and inquiry of both ancients and moderns for the course of near 3000 years!"

So far he was right; but after all he had only discovered the source of the Blue Nile in the Abyssinian heights. The White Nile, which joins it at Khartum, was not traced to its source for another hundred years.

It was some time before he could tear himself from the scene of all his hopes and fears to face the hardships of his return journey. Difficult as the outward journey had been, it was as nothing compared to the sufferings and troubles that tried him on the return. It was the autumn of 1772 before he reached Assuan, and eighteen months later before he reached England, after an absence of twelve years. Disappointment awaited him. Not satisfied with the reward of his own success, he expected honours and riches from the country for whom he had risked so much. But people would not believe his wonderful stories. They laughed at the wild tales he told of the Abyssinians, their customs and habits, and Bruce went back to Scotland heart-broken.

Sixteen years later he wrote an account of his travels in five fat volumes, which are among the most interesting in the world of adventure. Long years after his death it was proved that his sayings were true. Anyhow, James Bruce "will always remain the poet, and his work the epic, of African travel."