James Bruce: an 18th century Scotsman’s journey to Abyssinia


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A Scottish Laird becomes Lord of the Bedchamber in the Abyssinian/Ethiopian court and finds the source of the Nile.

Like many of his wealthy contemporaries in the 18th and 19th centuries, Lord James Bruce of Kinnaird made the grand tour of Europe (see the companion blog to this podcast). Unlike many of them he also ventured further afield. For three years, from 1769 to 1772, the six-foot four Scottish laird with vivid red hair, travelled to Abyssinia, the old Ethiopian Empire comprising the northern half of present-day Ethiopia. But his reasons for going are shrouded in mystery. Was he trying to find the source of the Nile or like an 18th century Indiana Jones, was he really searching for the Ark of the Covenant?

Our producer Antonia Dalivalle takes up the story….

Bruce arrived in the country at a time when Abyssinians weren’t exactly fans of Europeans. A century earlier, the Emperor had kicked out the Portuguese Jesuits. They had pushed their luck and tried to convert the already-Christian Ethiopians to Catholicism.

After the last of the Portuguese fled with their tails between their legs, Abyssinia closed itself off to outside influence – barricading itself against those they called the hyenas of the west. Abyssinians paid each other to spread ‘fake news’ to foreigners about the journey into the interior– hoping they would turn around and go back the way they came. A common bluff was that a rampant warlord was blocking the road.

With a couple of exceptions, Bruce was pretty much the first European to set foot in the
country since the expulsion of the Jesuits. A notable exception was the seventeenth century French doctor Jean-Baptiste Poncet, who exclaimed that the Abyssinian highlands, fragrant with flowers, reminded him of “The most beautiful part of Provence!”

Bruce surely achieved his passage to Gondar not only because of the liberal distribution of gifts – from gold to English pistols – but also because he was fluent in Ethiopian languages, having studied them industriously before leaving Europe.

He arrived in Gondar on the occasion of an outbreak of smallpox. But this unfortunate
event had a silver lining for Bruce. Europeans before him had used medicine to get into the Abyssinian court. Luckily for Bruce, he had studied medicine in Arabia, and was able to lend a hand.

As a Protestant Scot, Bruce was in a position to forge a closer bond with the imperial family, who were anti-Catholic. At one point, Bruce placed his hand on a Bible, and explained to the Abyssinian Queen, the Iteghe,

“I declare to you, by all those truths contained in this book, that my religion is more different from the Catholic than yours is. There has been more blood shed between the Catholics and us, on account of the difference of religion, than ever was between you and the Catholics in this country.”

In Abyssinia, royal and religious history are interwoven. If asked ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, Abyssinian Queens could justifiably say the Queen
of Sheba. Abyssinian royalty traced their lineage back to the King of Kings, King Solomon.

Bruce was similarly insistent about his royal lineage. He commissioned the Bruce of
Kinnaird tartan to be woven from fourteen colours of yarn – twice the royal seven. Bruce was the direct descendant of the fierce Scottish warrior-king, Robert the Bruce.

After a grueling interrogation from the teenage Emperor on the subject of England, he
became Lord of the Bedchamber. The Scottish laird was now an official member of the
glorious Gondarian court. Fluent in Amharic and Ge’ez, with his hair curled and perfumed in the ‘Abyssinian fashion’, he was the most punctilious guest.

And Bruce said about the Emperor:
“Nor did I ever after see, in his countenance, any marks either of doubt or diffidence. But always, on the contrary, the most decisive proofs of friendship, confidence, and attention”.

Musical Interlude—-‘Duelling African Lyres: The Ancient Egyptian Lyre and the Kenyan Obokano’ by Michael Levy and Nick Vest

Ras Michael gave Bruce a manuscript – the Kebra Nagast (which translates as The Glory of Kings). But Ras Michael wasn’t a king. He was the Governor, and had seen off a string of kings through misadventure. When Bruce was in Abyssinia, Ras Michael was jerking the strings of power. Your mental image of Ras Michael may not be of a weak and elderly man, but that’s what Ras Michael was. And while he had been busy grabbing power for himself, the empire had become weaker and weaker. Battles marked the political landscape.

In the second volume of Bruce’s book, he uses information drawn from the Kebra Nagast –as well as his own first-hand observations – to write about the royal and political history of Abyssinia. He compiles short biographies of Abyssinian monarchs from the thirteenth century to 1769. He inserts Ras Michael into this narrative – and talks about the cultivation of his friendship with the Governor. Ras Michael was right where he wanted to be. Alongside a string of kings, as a powerful ruler

The Kebra Nagast has another name – the Chronicles of Aksum. A closer look at the
manuscript’s subject matter sheds light on another possible reason why Bruce was in
Abyssinia – at that particular moment in time. The city of Aksum, in northern Ethiopia, was the ancient capital of a powerful empire which stretched from southern Egypt to southern Arabia. And it may have had links with Scotland.

The Kebra Nagast describes how the Queen of Sheba set off from Aksum, to see King
Solomon in Jerusalem. It was a fruitful meeting. They would have a son – who would become the first emperor of Ethiopia. According to the Kebra Nagast, their son brought the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, from Jerusalem to Aksum. In 1769, Bruce would have been in Abyssinia in time for the Feast of Epiphany. During this religious ceremony, the Tabot is brought out, covered by cloth, and paraded by priests. A
‘tabot’ – the Ethiopian word for ‘Ark – is a sacrosanct representation of the Ark of the
Covenant. These wooden tablets are so sacred that they can only be seen by Ethiopian clergy. They are invisible objects. In Aksum on that day in 1769, the real Ark of the Covenant would have been at the centre of celebrations.

And where was Bruce, on this day? Only a couple miles away. But Bruce is weirdly quiet about his time in Aksum. Any talk of the Ark of the Covenant seemed to be strictly under wraps. This was out of character for Bruce, who usually furnished
his narratives with a lot of detail

Back in Edinburgh, Bruce was a member of a secret society. Bruce was a Freemason. In a Masonic Lodge in Edinburgh he fraternized with figures of the Scottish Enlightenment like David Hume and Robert Burns. Freemasons were intensely
interested in the Bible’s most important structure – the Temple of Solomon, built to house the Ark of the Covenant.

The masonic lodge, Canongate Kilwinning Lodge No.2, had been given to the Templars by Bruce’s ancestor, King Robert the Bruce, in the fourteenth century. Kilwinning is a town in Ayrshire, Scotland. There are theories that this Scottish town is the location of the hidden ‘Holy Grail’, and a sacred Biblical mountain called ‘Heredom’.

Perhaps, Aksum was the reason Bruce came to Abyssinia in the first place. Had he gone to Abyssinia to see if the Ark was really there? Was he the real Indiana Jones?
He would have been aware of the Ark’s importance to the Abyssinians – and the role tabots play in their religion. Concealment is intrinsic to the reverence of these objects.
Had Bruce quietly put in a word about the Ark in Abyssinia to the Freemasons in Edinburgh? His secret would have been safe within the stone walls of the Masonic Lodge.

Musical Interlude—-‘Yekermo Sew’ by Mulatu Astatke

Ethiopian manuscripts speak volumes about the country’s history and culture. They highlight aspects of the country’s past that have been overlooked by Europeans and signal the two-way traffic of antiquarian exchange between eighteenth-century Ethiopia and Enlightenment Europe. By disseminating these manuscripts among the monarchies and libraries of Western Europe, perhaps Bruce was helping to ‘advertise Abyssinia’ in the West.

The Kebra Nagast describes how the Ark of the Covenant was transported from Jerusalem to Aksum by red-headed angels. Could this have been a subtle reference to Bruce?

Musical Interlude—-‘Yekermo Sew’ by Mulatu Astatke

But things would get complicated, when Bruce was back in Britain.
Writing about Abyssinian royal and political history for a British audience would be a
challenge. Bruce wrote his multi-volume travelogue in an unorthodox way. Sixteen years after his visit to Abyssinia, he sat down and recited, from memory, an eye-witness account of Abyssinian history and culture. His assistant, Benjamin Latrobe, desperately tried to add structure to his ‘confused’ narrative, where ‘memory melted into imagination’.

It was questioned how reliable Bruce’s writings really were. It wasn’t helped by the fact that Bruce was a walking paradox. He was a charmer – but be wary if you crossed his path. He was a fan of duels – although they were by then out of fashion. He was anti-Catholic…well, anti-Portuguese. He liked the Spanish. He brought along instrument of mathematical mensuration to chart the Red Sea – and find out how Moses parted it. Over the years, James Bruce has been dismissed as an eccentric Scottish laird.

The Scottish Professor Alexander Murray ‘edited’ (or in his words, ‘improved’) the second volume of Bruce’s travelogue, in 1805. Murray talks about the Kebra Nagast in a letter to the English artist Henry Salt in 1811:
“The early Kings of Abyssinia are almost entirely forgotten, only their names remain, and these are neither correct nor genuine”.

In Abyssinia, the Kebra Nagast was a historically reliable source. At the same time, it is a storehouse of legends and traditions, from historical, folkloric, Biblical, Rabbinic, Egyptian, Arabian and Ethiopian sources.
Murray urged the English artist and Egyptologist Henry Salt to retrace Bruce’s footsteps and double check that Bruce wasn’t making it all up. And while he was there, he might as well try opening commercial contact with Abyssinia Salt re-drew the antiquities Bruce had seen in Aksum. With a lick of watercolour, Salt made these drawings into romanticized landscapes. The British loved them.

King George the third heard the rumours about Bruce’s unreliability. He hid the Ethiopian manuscript Bruce gave him. Meanwhile, another ancient African civilization caught the antiquarian’s attention – ancient Egypt. This would culminate in the Egyptomania of the1920s.

Even today, Ethiopian collections have been absorbed and subsumed in Egyptomania.

At one point it seemed as though the only legacy Bruce would leave behind would be the Brucea antidysenterica, an Abyssinian plant Bruce named after himself, which was used to treat bad bowels.

But all is not lost.

Musical Interlude—-‘Duelling African Lyres: The Ancient Egyptian Lyre and the Kenyan Oboka by Michael Levy and Nick Vest

There are glimpses of ‘Ethiomania’ out there – in the form of ‘Enoch Mania’.

An Ethiopian manuscript Bruce brought with him was thought to have been lost for two
thousand years. This was the Book of Enoch. And as a result, Europe rediscovered Enoch, the Biblical patriarch, father of the arts, and angel.

William Blake: Enoch Lithograph

William Blake: Enoch Lithograph

Bruce’s contemporary, the English visionary artist-poet William Blake, would absorb himself in the mystical cult of Enoch. Capturing his imagination, Enoch became the subject of illuminated poems and his only lithograph.

Bruce’s travelogue was described as a ‘true romance novel’. It is interesting to see that Samuel Taylor Coleridge completed Kubla Khan in 1797 after getting hold of Bruce’s travelogue in 1794. What if Coleridge’s poem was the result of a Bruce-influenced dream, after reading a volume from Bruce’s book? In his dream, Coleridge sees an Abyssinian maid. She plays a stringed instrument and sings about Mount Abora. The word is strikingly similar to ‘Atbara’, the name of a river that flows through Abyssinia into the Nile. Bruce had mentioned an Abyssinian maid, whom he met on his way to the source of the Nile. He called her the ‘Nymph of the Nile’. (She was the sixteen-year old daughter of a village chief. Her nickname was ‘Ferret’, but perhaps Nymph of the Nile had a better ring to it.)

In his travelogue, Bruce remembers the moment he discovered the source of the Nile:

“It is easier to guess than to describe the situation of my mind at that moment – standing in that spot which had baffled the genius, industry, and inquiry, of both ancients and moderns, for the course of near three thousand years. I triumphed here, in my own mind, over kings and their armies.”

Actually, Bruce wasn’t so original. The Portuguese had got there before him, a century
earlier.But Bruce made a conscious decision to forget this small detail.

At the source of the Nile, he scooped Nile water into his coconut cup, and made a toast to King George.,

And all should cry: ‘Beware! Beware!’
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise!

This extract from Kubla Khan sounds a bit like someone we know!

Like a dream, Coleridge’s poem is probably a hodgepodge of things he had seen, read and thought about. He had even made a note to himself to find ‘the fountains of the Nile’.

Musical interlude—-‘Duelling African Lyres: The Ancient Egyptian Lyre and the Kenyan Obokano’ by Michael Levy and Nick Vest

Bruce’s story is part of a hidden history of the political relations between Britain and an uncolonised African country. Europeans and Ethiopians have cooperated together since the early modern period. The impact of Ethiopian antiquarianism on artistic – and scientific – developments in Enlightenment Britain, remain unappreciated today.
The diplomatic gifts that Bruce conveyed to the Vatican, the French royal court and the
British royal court, are today dispersed. The stories of friendship that lie behind the presence of these objects in Western collections are neglected in today’s charged discourse around African objects in European collections.

Music—- ‘Mela Mela’ by Seyfu Yohannes

Researched, written, and presented by Antonia Dalivalle
Edited by Ian Cozier at The Hall, Chipping Norton
Recorded at The Hall, Chipping Norton
With contributions by Steve Hay, Richard Worland, Michael Levy and Nick Vest

Antonia writes: I would like to thank Miles Bredin, whose book ‘The Pale Abyssinian: The Life of James, African Explorer and Adventurer’ (2001) first introduced me to the individualistic Bruce and his incredible story. My much-loved copy of Bredin’s book provided endless inspiration for this podcast.

Featured image: Christ in Glory. Ethipoic Gospels – Late 17th century Parchment manuscript, British Library

Music Credits
‘Duelling African Lyres: The Ancient Egyptian Lyre and the Kenyan Obokano – Single’ by Michael Levy (Ancient Egyptian lyre) & Nick Vest (Obokano): Accessed from

‘Romance Anonimo’ (Romance by Anonymous) for guitar: Accessed from

‘Mela Mela’ by Seyfu Yohannes: Accessed from
https://archive.org/details/ThomasLadonne_Ethiopia_Modern/Seyfu_Yohannes.mp3. Taped by Thomas Ladonne (2002) and uploaded by zuzu_(2006). (Attribution-ShareAlike).

‘Yekermo Sew’ by Mulatu Astatke: Accessed from
https://archive.org/details/ThomasLadonne_Ethiopia_Modern/Seyfu_Yohannes.mp3. Taped by Thomas Ladonne (2002) and uploaded by zuzu_(2006). (Attribution-ShareAlike).

Sound Effects
‘Posh Dinner Party’: Accessed from https://freesound.org/people/7by7/sounds/72848/

‘Small Group of Laughter’: Accessed from https://freesound.org/people/Ch0cchi/sounds/15294/

‘Wind Blowing’: Accessed from https://freesound.org/people/thanvannispen/sounds/9666/

‘Water’: Accessed from https://freesound.org/people/INNORECORDS/sounds/469009/

Bredin, Miles (2000) The Pale Abyssinian: A Life of James Bruce, African Explorer and
Adventurer, London: Harper Collins (Ed. by) Brooks, Miguel, F. (2002)

A Modern Translation of the Kebra Nagast: The Glory of Kings: The True Ark of the Covenant, NJ and Asmara: The Red Sea Press, Inc
Bruce, James (Based on 2nd Edition of 1804/5; 1964). (Eds. by Beckingham, C.F.)

Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, Edinburgh University Press: T & A Constable Ltd. Bruce, James (1790), Travels to discover the source of the Nile, in the years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773, Vol. 2

Budge, E.A. Wallis, (1932) The Kebra Nagast, Sacred Texts https://www.sacredtexts.
com/chr/kn/kn000-1.htm (Trans. By) Budge, E.A. Wallis (2000).

The Queen of Sheba and Her Only Son Menyelek (Kebra Nagast), Cambridge, Ontario
Cumming, Duncan, (March 1971).

Seven Unpublished Letters of James Bruce of Kinnaird,
The Geographical Journal, Vol. 137, No. 1, The Royal Geographical Society
Dalivalle, A. (2019).

To the Source: Ras Michael’s Gift of the Kebra Nagast to James Bruce
Friis, Ib. (January 2013). Travelling Among Fellow Christians (1768-1833): James Bruce, Henry Salt and Eduard Rüppell in Abyssinia, University of Copenhagen

Hammerschmidt, Ernst (1963). A Brief History of German Contributions to the Study of
Ethiopia, Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2

Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No 2, ‘About Lodge Canongate Kilwinning’

Mitsein, Rebekah, (16th March 2015) ‘What the Abyssinian Liar Can Tell Us About True
Stories: Knowledge, Scepticism, and James Bruce’s ‘Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile’’, The 18th Century Common: A Public Humanities Website for Enthusiasts of 18th-Century Studies, https://www.18thcenturycommon.org/james-bruce/

Murray, Alexander (1808) Account of the life and writings of James Bruce…author of Travelsto discover the source of the Nile, in the years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, & 1773, Edinburgh: A. Constable and Company
Robins, George Henry (1842) A Catalogue of A Valuable Collection of Oriental Literature, Collected by James Bruce of Kinnaird, Consisting of From Ninety to One Hundred Volumes in High Preservation, Which Will Be Sold By Auction, By Mr. George Robins, On Monday, the 30th day of May, 1842

Royal Collection Trust, Johan Joseph Zoffany (Frankfurt 1733-London 1810): The Tribuna of the Uffizi, https://www.rct.uk/collection/406983/the-tribuna-of-the-uffizi
Smidt, Wolbert G.C. (2015). Gorgoryos and Ludolf: The Ethiopian and German Fore-
Fathers of Ethiopian Studies: An Ethiopian scholar’s 1652 visit to Thuringia, Cultural
Research in Northeastern Africa: German Histories and Stories, Frankfurt: Frobenius-Institut; Addis Ababa: Goethe-Institut; Mekelle: Mekelle University, pp. 10-25

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