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M. B. Synge

Bruce's Travels in Abyssinia

P ERHAPS one of the strangest facts in the whole history of exploration is that Africa was almost an unknown land a hundred years ago, and stranger still, that there remains to-day nearly one-eleventh of the whole area still unexplored. And yet it is one of the three old continents that appear on every old chart of the world in ancient days, with its many-mouthed Nile rising in weird spots and flowing in sundry impossible directions. Sometimes it joins the mysterious Niger, and together they flow through country labeled "Unknown" or "Desert" or "Negroland," or an enterprising cartographer fills up vacant spaces with wild animals stalking through the land.

The coast tells a different tale. The west shores are studded with trading forts belonging to English, Danes, Dutch, and Portuguese, where slaves from the interior awaited shipment to the various countries that required negro labour. The slave trade was the great, in fact the only, attraction to Africa at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In pursuit of this, men would penetrate quite a long way into the interior, but through the long centuries few explorers had travelled to the Dark Continent.

Towards the end of the century we suddenly get one man—a young Scottish giant, named James Bruce, thirsting for exploration for its own sake. He cared not for slaves or gold or ivory. He just wanted to discover the source of the Nile, over which a great mystery had hung since the days of Herodotus. The Mountains of the Moon figure largely on the Old World maps, but Bruce decided to rediscover these for himself. Herodotus had said the Nile turned west and became the Niger, others said it turned east and somehow joined the Tigris and Euphrates. Indeed, such was the uncertainty regarding its source that to discover the source of the Nile seemed equivalent to performing the impossible.

James Bruce, athletic, daring, standing six feet four, seemed at the age of twenty-four made for a life of travel and adventure. His business took him to Spain and Portugal. He studied Arabic and the ancient language of Abyssinia. He came under the notice of Pitt, and was made consul of Algiers. The idea of the undiscovered sources of the Nile took strong hold of Bruce's imagination.

"It was at this moment," he says, "that I resolved that this great discovery should either be achieved by me or remain—as it has done for three thousand years—a defiance to all travellers."

A violent dispute with the old bey of Algiers ended Bruce's consulate, and in 1765, the spirit of adventure strong upon him, he sailed along the North African coast, landed at Tunis, and made his way to Tripoli. On the frontier he found a tribe of Arabs set apart to destroy the lions which beset the neighbourhood. These people not only killed but ate the lions, and they prevailed on Bruce to share their repast. But one meal was enough for the young explorer.

In burning heat across the desert sands he passed on. Once a great caravan arrived, journeying from Fez to Mecca, consisting of three thousand men with camels laden with merchandise. But this religious pilgrimage was plundered in the desert soon after. Arrived at Bengazi, Bruce found a terrible famine raging, so he embarked on a little Greek ship bound for Crete. It was crowded with Arabs; the captain was ignorant; a violent storm arose and, close to Bengazi, the ship struck upon a rock. Lowering a boat, Bruce and a number of Arabs sprang in and tried to row ashore. But wave after wave broke over them, and at last they had to swim for their lives. The surf was breaking on the shore, and Bruce was washed up breathless and exhausted. Arabs flocking down to plunder the wreck, found Bruce, and with blows and kicks stripped him of all his clothes and left him naked on the barren shore. At last an old Arab came along, threw a dirty rag over him, and led him to a tent, whence he reached Bengazi once more, and soon after crossed to Crete.


A Nile boat, or canja.

It was not till July 1768 that the explorer at last reached Cairo en route  for Abyssinia, and five months later embarked on board a Nile boat, or canja. His cabin had close latticed windows made not only to admit fresh air, but to be a defence against a set of robbers on the Nile, who were wont to swim under water in the dark or on goatskins to pilfer any passing boats. Then, unfurling her vast sails, the canja bore Bruce on the first stage of his great journey. The explorer spent some time in trying to find the lost site of old Memphis, but this was difficult. "A man's heart fails him in looking to the south," he says; "he is lost in the immense expanse of desert, which he sees full of pyramids before him. Struck with terror from the unusual scene of vastness opened all at once upon leaving the palm trees, he becomes dispirited from the effect of the sultry climate."

For some days the canja, with a fair wind, stemmed the strong current of the Nile. "With great velocity" she raced past various villages through the narrow green valley of cultivation, till the scene changed and large plantations of sugar-canes and dates began. "The wind had now become so strong that the canja could scarcely carry her sails; the current was rapid and the velocity with which she dashed against the water was terrible." Still she flew on day after day, till early in January they reached the spot "where spreading Nile parts hundred-gated Thebes." Solitude and silence reigned over the magnificent old sepulchres; the hundred gates were gone, robbers swarmed, and the traveller hastened away. So on to Luxor and Karnac to a great encampment of Arabs, who held sway over the desert which Bruce had now to cross. The old sheikh, whose protection was necessary, known as the Tiger from his ferocious disposition, was very ill in his tent. Bruce gave him some lime water, which eased his pain, and, rising from the ground, the old Arab stood upright and cried: "Cursed be those of my people that ever shall lift up their hand against you in the desert."

He strongly advised Bruce to return to Kenne and cross the desert from there instead of going on by the Nile. Reluctantly Bruce turned back, and on 16th February 1769 he joined a caravan setting out to cross the desert to the shores of the Red Sea.

"Our road," he says, "was all the way in an open plain bounded by hillocks of sand and fine gravel—perfectly hard, but without trees, shrubs, or herbs. There are not even the traces of any living creature, neither serpent, lizard, antelope, nor ostrich—the usual inhabitants of the most dreary deserts. There is no sort of water—even the birds seem to avoid the place as pestilential—the sun was burning hot." In a few days the scene changed, and Bruce is noting that in four days he passes more granite, porphyry, marble, and jasper than would build Rome, Athens, Corinth, Memphis, Alexandria, and half a dozen more. At last after a week's travel they reached Cossier, the little mud-walled village on the shores of the Red Sea. Here Bruce embarked in a small boat, the planks of which were sewn together instead of nailed, with a "sort of straw mattress as a sail," for the emerald mines described by Pliny, but he was driven back by a tremendous storm. Determined to survey the Red Sea, he sailed to the north, and after landing at Tor at the foot of Mount Sinai, he sailed down the bleak coast of Arabia to Jidda, the port of Mecca.


An Arab Sheikh.

By this time he was shaking with ague and fever, scorched by the burning sun, and weather-beaten by wind and storm—moreover, he was still dressed as a Turkish soldier. He was glad enough to find kindly English at Jidda, and after two months' rest he sailed on to the Straits of Babelmandeb. Being now on English ground, he drank the King's health and sailed across to Masuah, the main port of Abyssinia. Although he had letters of introduction from Jidda he had some difficulty with the chief of Masuah, but at last, dressed in long white Moorish robes, he broke away, and in November 1769 started forth for Gondar, the capital of Abyssinia.

It was nearly one hundred and fifty years since any European of note had visited the country, and it was hard to get any information.

His way led across mountainous country—rugged and steep. "Far above the top of all towers that stupendous mass, the mountain of Taranta, probably one of the highest in the world, the point of which is buried in the clouds and very rarely seen but in the clearest weather; at other times abandoned to perpetual mist and darkness, the seat of lightning, thunder, and of storm." Violent storms added to the terrors of the way, trees were torn up by the roots, and swollen streams rushed along in torrents.

Bruce had started with his quadrant carried by four men, but the task of getting his cumbersome instruments up the steep sides of Taranta was intense. However, they reached the top at last to find a huge plain, "perhaps one of the highest in the world," and herds of beautiful cattle feeding. "The cows were completely white, with large dewlaps hanging down to their knees, white horns, and long silky hair." After ninety-five days' journey, on 14th February Bruce reached Gondar, the capital, on the flat summit of a high hill.

Here lived the King of Abyssinia, a supposed descendant of King Solomon; but at the present time the country was in a lawless and unsettled condition. Moreover, small-pox was raging at the palace, and the royal children were smitten with it. Bruce's knowledge of medicine now stood him again in good stead. He opened all the doors and windows of the palace, washed his little patients with vinegar and warm water, sent away those not already infected, and all recovered. Bruce had sprung into court favour. The ferocious chieftain, Ras Michael, who had killed one king, poisoned another, and was now ruling in the name of a third, sent for him. The old chief was dressed in a coarse, dirty garment wrapped round him like a blanket, his long white hair hung down over his shoulders, while behind him stood soldiers, their lances ornamented with shreds of scarlet cloth, one for every man slain in battle.

Bruce was appointed "Master of the King's horse," a high office and richly paid.

But "I told him this was no kindness," said the explorer. "My only wish was to see the country and find the sources of the Nile."

But time passed on and they would not let him go, until, at last, he persuaded the authorities to make him ruler over the province where the Blue Nile was supposed to rise. Amid great opposition he at last left the palace of Gondar on 28th October 1770, and was soon on his way to the south "to see a river and a bog, no part of which he could take away"—an expedition wholly incomprehensible to the royal folk at Gondar. Two days' march brought him to the shores of the great Lake Tsana, into which, despite the fact that he was tremendously hot and that crocodiles abounded there, the hardy young explorer plunged for a swim. And thus refreshed he proceeded on his way. He had now to encounter a new chieftain named Fasil, who at first refused to give him leave to pass on his way. It was not until Bruce had shown himself an able horseman and exhibited feats of strength and prowess that leave was at last granted. Fasil tested him in this wise. Twelve horses were brought to Bruce, saddled and bridled, to know which he would like to ride. Selecting an apparently quiet beast, the young traveller mounted.

"For the first two minutes," he says, "I do not know whether I was most in the earth or in the air; he kicked behind, reared before, leaped like a deer all four legs off the ground—he then attempted to gallop, taking the bridle in his teeth; he continued to gallop and ran away as hard as he could, flinging out behind every ten yards, till he had no longer breath or strength and I began to think he would scarce carry me to the camp."

On his return Bruce mounted his own horse, and, taking his double-barreled gun, he rode about, twisting and turning his horse in every direction, to the admiration of these wild Abyssinian folk. Not only did Fasil now let him go, but he dressed him in a fine, loose muslin garment which reached to his feet, gave him guides and a handsome grey horse.

"Take this horse," he said, "as a present from me. Do not mount it yourself; drive it before you, saddled and bridled as it is; no man will touch you when he sees that horse." Bruce obeyed his orders, and the horse was driven in front of him. The horse was magic; the people gave it handfuls of barley and paid more respect to it than to Bruce himself, though in many cases the people seemed scared by the appearance of the horse and fled away.

On 2nd November the Nile came into sight. It was only two hundred and sixty feet broad; but it was deeply revered by the people who lived on its banks. They refused to allow Bruce to ride across, but insisted on his taking off his shoes and walking through the shallow stream. It now became difficult to get food as they crossed the scorching hot plains. But Bruce was nearing his goal, and at last he stood at the top of the great Abyssinian tableland. "Immediately below us appeared the Nile itself, strangely diminished in size, now only a brook that had scarcely water to turn a mill." Throwing off his shoes, trampling down the flowers that grew on the mountain-side, falling twice in his excitement, Bruce ran down in breathless haste till he reached the "hillock of green sod" which has made his name so famous.

"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. Kings had attempted this discovery at the heads of their armies—fame, riches, and honour had been held out for a series of ages without having produced one man capable of wiping off this stain upon the enterprise and abilities of mankind or adding this desideratum for the encouragement of geography. Though a mere private Briton, I triumphed here over kings and their armies. I was but a few minutes arrived at the source of the Nile, through numberless dangers and sufferings, the least of which would have overwhelmed me but for the continual goodness and protection of Providence. I was, however, but then half through my journey, and all those dangers which I had already passed awaited me again on my return. I found a despondency gaining ground fast upon me and blasting the crown of laurels I had too rashly woven for myself."

Bruce then filled a large cocoa-nut shell, which he had brought from Arabia, full of the Nile water, and drank to the health of His Majesty King George III.