James Bruce (1730-1794), Scottish explorer in Africa, was born at Kinnaird House, Stirlingshire, on the 14th of December 1730. He was educated at Harrow and Edinburgh University, and began to study for the bar; but his marriage to the daughter of a wine merchant resulted in his entering that business. His wife died in October 1754, within nine months of marriage, and Bruce thereafter travelled in Portugal and Spain. The examination of oriental MSS. at the Escurial led him to the study of Arabic and Geez and determined his future career. In 1758 his father's death placed him in possession of the estate of Kinnaird. On the outbreak of war with Spain in 1762 he submitted to the British government a plan for an attack on Ferrol. His suggestion was not adopted, but it led to his selection by the 2nd earl of Halifax for the post of British consul at Algiers, with a commission to study the ancient ruins in that country, in which interest had been excited by the descriptions sent home by Thomas Shaw[1] (1694-1751), consular chaplain at Algiers, 1719-1731. Having spent six months in Italy studying antiquities, Bruce reached Algiers in March 1763. The whole of his time was taken up with his consular duties at the piratical court of the dey, and he was kept without the assistance promised.

But in August 1765, a successor in the consulate having arrived, Bruce began his exploration of the Roman ruins in Barbary. Having examined many ruins in eastern Algeria, he travelled by land from Tunis to Tripoli, and at Ptolemeta took passage for Candia; but was shipwrecked near Bengazi and had to swim ashore. He eventually reached Crete, and sailing thence to Sidon, travelled through Syria, visiting Palmyra and Baalbek. Throughout his journeyings in Barbary and the Levant, Bruce made careful drawings of the many ruins he examined. He also acquired a sufficient knowledge of medicine to enable him to pass in the East as a physician.

In June 1768 he arrived at Alexandria, having resolved to endeavour to discover the source of the Nile, which he believed to rise in Abyssinia. At Cairo he gained the support of the Mameluke ruler, Ali Bey; after visiting Thebes he crossed the desert to Kosseir, where he embarked in the dress of a Turkish sailor. He reached Jidda in May 1769, and after some stay in Arabia he recrossed the Red Sea and landed at Massawa, then in possession of the Turks, on the 19th of September. He reached Gondar, then the capital of Abyssinia, on the 14th of February 1770, where he was well received by the negus Tekla Haimanot II., by Ras Michael, the real ruler of the country, by the ras's wife, Ozoro Esther, and by the Abyssinians generally. His fine presence (he was 6 ft. 4 in. high), his knowledge of Geez, his excellence in sports, his courage, resource and self-esteem, all told in his favour among a people who were in general distrustful of all foreigners. He stayed in Abyssinia for two years, gaining knowledge which enabled him subsequently to present a perfect picture of Abyssinian life.

On the 14th of November 1770 he reached the long-sought source of the Blue Nile. Though admitting that the White Nile was the larger stream, Bruce claimed that the Blue Nile was the Nile of the ancients and that he was thus the discoverer of its source. The claim, however, was not well founded (see Nile: Story of Exploration). Setting out from Gondar in December 1771, Bruce made his way, in spite of enormous difficulties, by Sennar to Nubia, being the first to trace the Blue Nile to its confluence with the White Nile. On the 29th of November 1772 he reached Assuan, presently returning to the desert to recover his journals and his baggage, which had been abandoned in consequence of the death of all his camels. Cairo was reached in January 1773, and in March Bruce arrived in France, where he was welcomed by Buffon and other savants. He came to London in 1774, but, offended by the incredulity with which his story was received, retired to his home at Kinnaird. It was not until 1790 that, urged by his friend Daines Barrington, he published his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the Years 1768-73, in five octavo volumes, lavishly illustrated. The work was very popular, but was assailed by other travellers as being unworthy of credence.

The manner in which the book was written - twelve years after Bruce's return from Africa and without reference to his journals - gave some handle to his critics, but the substantial accuracy of every statement concerning his Abyssinian travels has since been amply demonstrated. He died on the 27th of April 1794.

Bruce wrote an autobiography, part of which is printed in editions of his Travels, published in 1805 and 1813, accompanied by a biographical notice by the editor, Alexander Murray. The best edition of the Travels is the third (Edinburgh, 1813, 8 vols.). Of the abridgments the best is that of Major (afterwards Sir Francis) Head, the author of a well-informed Life of Bruce (London, 1830). The best account of Bruce's travels in Barbary is contained in Sir R. Lambert Playfair's Travels in the Footsteps of Bruce (London, 1877), in which a selection of his drawings was published for the first time. Several of Bruce's drawings were presented to George III. and are in the royal collection at Windsor.

[1] Dr Shaw's Travels relating to Several Parts of Barbary ... was first printed at Oxford (1738).