Sunday, February 19, 2012

James Bruce

One of the more interesting characters that have been to Gondar is James Bruce, a Scot who set out to discover the source of the Nile in 1768. He reached Gondar in 1770, where he managed to gain the confidence of the emperor and his general. As Alan Moorehead, who wrote a chronicle of the Blue Nile, says: “It is wonderful that Bruce should have survived (..) among these violent men whose first instinct was to kill a stranger and then rob him of his goods”. Bruce did get to travel on to Lake Tana, and to the Falls at Tis Abay (which he describes as ‘one sheet of water that fell down without interruption, with a force and noise that was truly terrible; a thick fume, or haze, hung over the course of the stream..’ – remember what I said about the trickle of water there today?). At a later stage he also managed to reach a little swampy area at the head of a small stream that flows into Lake Tana, the Little Abbai, which he – wrongly – proclaimed the source of the Nile.
His problem was multi-fold. Firstly, he maintained that he was the first European to reach the source of the Nile. He wasn’t, some 150 years earlier two Portuguese had been at the place he was standing, and at Lake Tana, and at the Falls. He dismissed their accounts as fabrication, which they clearly weren’t. Secondly, the Blue Nile is really a secondary Nile, the White Nile coming from Lake Victoria being the main stream. Bruce barely mentions the White Nile when he got to the confluence, on his way back to Europe. But his biggest problem was that nobody believed his description of the Ethiopian court. Altogether, he stayed for some two years in Gondar, and his observations – however accurate they later proved– were just too incredible to be taken at face value. No European would accept that the people here ate raw beefsteaks, cut out of cows that were still alive, subsequently submit to some heavy drinking, and then happily engaged in sex, uninhibited by the fact that all other dinner guests happened to be in the same one big room. As Bruce writes, “they sacrifice both to Bacchus and to Venus”.
From all I read about Bruce, he didn’t seem to be a nice and pleasant person, quite spiteful, jealous, single-minded. This may have added to the reasons that he was not believed, back in Europe, until more than 30 years later, and well after his death, others corroborated his observations. Nevertheless, his was a great achievement, there is no doubt about that.

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