Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 07.djvu/107

This page has been validated.

that, if the branch by whose spring he stood at Geesh did not encounter the larger stream of the White Nile, it would be lost in the sands. He maintains, indeed, that the Blue Nile is the Nile of the ancients, who bequeathed the problem of its source to us; but this is inconsistent with the fact that the expedition sent by Nero evidently ascended not the Blue Nile but the White. He was also in error—less excusable because in a certain measure wilful—in regarding himself as the first European who had reached these fountains. Pedro Paez the Jesuit had undoubtedly done so in 1615, and Bruce's unhandsome attempt to throw doubt on the fact only proves that love of fame is not literally the last infirmity of noble minds, but may bring much more unlovely symptoms in its train. There is a sense, however, in which Bruce may be more justly esteemed the discoverer of the fount of the Blue Nile than Paez, who stumbled upon it by accident, and, absorbed by missionary zeal, thought little of the exploit to which Bruce had dedicated his life.

During Bruce's absence from Gondar, King Tecla Haimanout had recovered his capital. Twenty thousand of Has Michael's Tigre warriors occupied the city, and Bruce was in time to witness the vengeance of the victors. For weeks Gondar reeked with massacre, and swarmed with hyaenas lured by the scent of carrion. Bruce's remonstrances were regarded as childish weakness. His draughtsman, Balugani, died, an event which he himself misdates by a year, and he ardently longed to quit the country. With much difficulty he obtained permission, but the general anarchy prevented his departure. The queen mother had always been unfriendly to Ras Michael. Two leading provincial governors, Gusho and Powussen, espoused her cause, and interposed their troops between Michael in the capital and his province of Tigre. After much indecisive fighting in the spring of 1771, the royal army was cut off from its supplies, and became completely disorganised in its retreat upon Gondar. The old ras, victor in forty-three battles, arrayed himself in cloth of gold, and sat calmly in his house awaiting his fate. He was carried away prisoner to a remote province, but was yet to rise again and rule Tigre seven years until his death. The king, though not dethroned, remained in virtual captivity, but was destined to experience many more changes of fortune ere he died a monk. Bruce spent a miserable autumn, prostrated with fever, harassed with debt, and in constant danger of his life from the wild Galla. On 26 Dec. 1771 he finally quitted Gondar, amid the benedictions and tears of his many friends, bearing with other treasures the chronicles of the Abyssinian kings and the apocryphal book of Enoch in the Ethiopic version, in which alone it is preserved. The next stage of his journey was to be Sennaar, the capital of Nubia, which he reached after four months' march through a densely wooded country infested with wild beasts, narrowly escaping assassination at the hands of the treacherous sheikh of Atbara. After five months' disagreeable detention at Sennaar among 'a horrid people, whose only occupations seem war and treason,' he struck into the desert, and after incurring dreadful perils, most graphically described, from hunger, thirst, robbers, the simoom, and moving pillars of sand, on 29 Nov. 1772 reached Assouan, the frontier town of Egypt. He had been compelled to leave his journals, drawings, and instruments behind him in the desert, but they were recovered, and in March 1773 he brought the hard-won treasures safely to Marseilles.

Bruce spent a year and a half on the continent, enjoying the compliments of the French savants, recruiting his constitution at the baths of Poretta, and calling to account an Italian marquis who had presumed during his absence to marry a lady to whom he had been engaged. On his arrival in England he at first received great attention, but a reaction against him soon set in. People were scandalised by his stories, especially such as were really in no way improbable. As Sir Francis Head puts it, the devourers of putrid venison could not digest the devourers of raw beef. Bruce's dictatorial manner and disdain of self-vindication also told against him. 'Mr. Bruce's grand air, gigantic height, and forbidding brow awed everybody into silence,' says Fanny Burney in her lively sketch of him at this time in a letter to Samuel Crisp, adding, 'He is the tallest man you ever saw gratis.' No honour was conferred upon him, except the personal notice of the king. Deeply wounded, he retired to his patrimonial estate in Scotland, which had greatly increased in value from the discovery of coal; he postponed the publication of his travels, and might have finally abandoned it but for the depression of spirits caused by the death of his second wife in 1785. The need of occupation and the instances of his friend, Dailies Barrington, incited him to composition, and five massive, ill-arranged, ill-digested, but most fascinating volumes made their appearance in 1790. They included a full narrative of his travels from the beginning; a valuable history of Abyssinia, 'neglecting,' however, according to Murray, 'very interesting traits of character and manners that appear in the