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I speak of Africa

The source of the Nile

The Scotsman James Bruce (1730-94) had had various careers, from wine merchant to British consul in Algiers, before he started in 1768 on his self-financed journey to Ethiopia to find the source of the Nile. Even though Europeans had visited Ethiopia before, among them Francisco Alvares (ca. 1465-ca. 1540) and the Jesuit priests Pedro Paez (1564-1622) and Jeronimo Lobo (ca. 1596-1678), and several texts describing the kingdom and its history had been published (such as Hiob Ludolf’s A new history of Ethiopia, shown in case 9), none of these texts were up to date or widely read.

An ashkoko, as depicted in: James Bruce. Travels to discover the source of the Nile, in the years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773. Edinburgh: printed by J. Ruthven, 1790 [FCO Historical Collection FOL. DT377 BRU]An ashkoko, as depicted in: James Bruce. Travels to discover the source of the Nile, in the years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773. Edinburgh: printed by J. Ruthven, 1790 [FCO Historical Collection FOL. DT377 BRU]Together with his assistant Luigi Balugani, an Italian architect and draughtsman, Bruce, posing as a Syrian surgeon, arrived in Gondar, the then capital of the kingdom of Ethiopia, in February 1770. Bruce found the kingdom in a state of civil chaos and soon became involved in the complex politics of the kingdom. He stayed in the country until December 1771 and eventually returned to Britain in 1774 (Balugani had died in Gondar in 1771).

At first, Bruce’s accounts caused a sensation in London but soon his arrogant and rude manner led to his falling out of favour. Bruce never acknowledged his assistant Balugani’s contribution to the whole endeavour. Many, including Samuel Johnson, started to question the truthfulness of his stories, especially as Bruce insisted that he was the first European to reach the source of the Nile, when in fact what he had reached was the source of the Blue Nile, one of the tributaries of the main river. Neither had he been the first European there, as the Portuguese priest Pedro Paez had visited the same spot in the sixteenth century.

Offended by his reception in London, Bruce withdrew to Scotland and published his travel account only in 1790. The book was very successful and widely read, although some scepticism remained. Even though Bruce was prone to exaggeration, his accounts are now believed to give a mainly accurate representation of the political situation of Ethiopia and of the customs of its inhabitants.

On display is a plate depicting the ‘Ashkoko,’ a ‘curious animal’ found in Ethiopia.

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