Thursday 14 November 2013

The Discovery of the Source of the Blue Nile

As the nights draw in and the temperatures drop lower, we bank up the fires here at Henrietta Street and tells tales of warmer climes. We spend a lot of time gadding about Europe so a detour to Africa seemed in order; I hope you have some fard to hand because you're going to need it if you want to stay fashionably pale on this trip!

James Bruce
James Bruce

Scottish traveller and adventurer James Bruce devoted many years to the search for the source of the Nile, a discovery that years of research had left him in do doubt could be made in Ethiopia. Set in this belief, he journeyed to Africa in the summer of 1768, quickly winning the trust and friendship of the Mamluk ruler, Ali Bey. With Ali Bey's invaluable assistance he travelled through North Africa gathering information and finally reached Ethiopia in early 1770. 

Once again the charming, urbane Bruce easily ingratiated himself with the ruler of the country as well as its people, who were thrilled by his tales of adventure and saw in him a respect for their country and its traditions. After the expedition to the source of the Nile he even made his home in Ethiopia for two years, immersing himself in the culture and living amongst the locals despite a serious and recurrent bout of malaria.

Finally, in October 1770, Bruce was ready to embark on his travels once again, the source of the Blue Nile firmly in his sights. Travelling with a trusted and experienced group including local guides with an encyclopedic knowledge of the terrain, the party toiled against the elements and geography in their trek to the source. On 14th November 1770 the expedition arrived at Gish Abay and Bruce proclaimed this the source of the Blue Nile, the Nile of the ancients. Toasts were drunk to the discovery and the party celebrated their achievements. When, after a perilous journey, Bruce returned to England to tell of his discovery, he was horrified to find that many of his contemporaries found his claims unbelievable, the publication of his travel journals in 1790 just adding to the storm of incredulity.

Bruce maintained that he had discovered the source of the Blue Nile to the end of his life and subsequent expeditions and investigations suggest that his claims may indeed be accurate. He is now considered to have made a great contribution to European knowledge of Africa in our glorious Georgian era!

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