The Adventures of an 18th-Century Common Post

In 2015 I wrote a Features post for The 18th-Century Common because I will never pass up an opportunity to tell the world about James Bruce, the verbose Scottish explorer who traveled to Abyssinia in the 1760s in search of the source of the Nile.  But beyond the instant satisfaction of sharing something I find fascinating, contributing to a public humanities website turned out to be worthwhile for other reasons:

It was an opportunity to practice translating my research.  In Fall 2015 I was on the job market, faced with the tasks of describing what I study to people outside my field, articulating how I make it interesting and relevant in undergraduate classes, and advocating for its intellectual and social impact.  Reworking even a small piece of my project for a public audience helped me start developing language and examples to communicate its exigency.

It was a quick and open-access way for people to see what I do.  I sent the link to people outside the academy who have been resources for me, and to friends and family who wanted to know more about what I study.  It came up when search committees looked me up online.  Students in the department that I will be joining in the fall read it, and they asked me questions about it during my campus visit.

It had a fast reach.  I recently ran across a web exhibit about the European exploration of the Blue Nile that was put together by a History class at Washington and Lee University.  I was pleased to see my post among their sources and amazed at how quickly it had an impact.

It turned out to be both fun and useful.  And how often does that happen?

Editor’s note:  Learn how you can get involved in public humanities project that is The 18th-Century Common.

What the Abyssinian Liar Can Tell us about True Stories: Knowledge, Skepticism, and James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

James Bruce by E. Topham.  Etching, published 1775.  NPG D13789.  National Portrait Gallery, UK.  Used under Creative Commons Limited Non-Commercial License.

James Bruce by E. Topham. Etching, published 1775.
NPG D13789. National Portrait Gallery, UK. Used under Creative Commons Limited Non-Commercial License.

In 1773, James Bruce of Kinnaird returned to Europe after a decade of travel and study in North East Africa and Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia).  Initially, the knowledge he brought back with him was favorably received by notable figures like the great naturalist the Comte de Buffon, Pope Clement XIV, King Louis XV, and Dr. Charles Burney, ethnomusicologist, composer, and father of author Frances Burney.  But as time went on, the public began to grow suspicious of some of his stories, such as his claims that he had eaten lion meat with a tribe in North Africa or that Abyssinian soldiers cut steaks from the rumps of live cows, then stitched the cows up again and sent them out to pasture.  As Bruce became a target of satirists and critics including Horace Walpole, John Wolcot, and Samuel Johnson, his standing in the European intellectual community began to slip.  Walpole, for example, circulated a commonly cited anecdote in which, during a dinner party, one of the guests asked Bruce if he saw any musical instruments in Abyssinia.  “Musical instruments,” said Bruce, and paused—“Yes I think I remember one lyre.”  The dinner guest then leaned to his neighbor and whispered, “I am sure there is one less since he came out of the country.”[1]

Despite having been dubbed the “Abyssinian liar,” Bruce always stood by his word, and in 1790, he published a sprawling, five-volume narrative of his journey in an attempt to satisfy those whom he claimed, “absurdly endeavoured to oblige me to publish an account of those travels, which they affected at the same time to believe I had never performed.”[2]  He titled the work the Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile because locating the source of the legendary river had been the primary purpose of Bruce’s journey.  He always maintained that he was the first European to have achieved that goal, even though contemporary translations of Portuguese travel narratives indicated that Jesuit missionaries had made it there first, and even though subsequent explorers would point out that he had traveled only to the source of the Blue Nile (Lake Tana in present-day Ethiopia), not the source of the much longer White Nile (Lake Victoria in present-day Uganda).  Nevertheless, the Travels was a bestseller, and the first printing sold out in 36 hours.  His tales influenced literary figures like Frances Burney, who wrote about Bruce’s visits to her childhood home in her journals, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose dulcimer-playing “Abyssinian maid” in Kubla Khan was likely inspired by engravings of the court women who were enormously influential to Bruce’s knowledge of the region.  Although it did little to repair his reputation at the time, his work contributed significantly to Western knowledge about Eastern Africa, and examining how the narrative sits on this paradoxical point between success and failure can tell us much about how knowledge and truth were culturally defined in the eighteenth century, during a time that laid the foundations for our own understanding of such concepts.  In particular, Bruce’s situation highlights the way that heterogeneity of storytelling can come in tension with the singularity of truth, and how narratives that resist synthesis can reveal important information about what it means for something to be a true story.

Although the Nile was Bruce’s main objective, as a polyglot, diplomat, artist, and amateur scientist, he imagined advancing all areas of learning, and in many ways he succeeded.  He recorded detailed descriptions of the people, architecture, and landscape from all across North East Africa.  He mapped star patterns and recorded geographical coordinates for navigators and astronomers.  The engravings and samples of plants and animals he collected were invaluable to antiquarians as well as scholars of botany, zoology, and medicine.  He recorded a thorough history of Abyssinia’s monarchy, wrote about the Ethiopian Orthodox church, and brought the Codex Brucianus back with him—a gnostic manuscript that contained one of the first copies of the Book of Enoch circulated in Europe.  He contributed to Dr. Burney’s History of Music.  Perhaps his most significant contribution to Western scholarship is his documentation of Abyssinian court life at the beginning of Ethiopia’s “Era of the Princes.”  He recounted extensive details about Emperor Tekle Haymanot II; about Məntəwwab, the commanding Dowager Empress of Ethiopia who had ruled as regent for several decades; about her clever and ambitious daughter Wäyzäro Aster; and about Aster’s extremely politically influential husband, the kingmaker Ras Mika’el Səḥul.  Although Bruce’s tone is often characterized by a sense of European exceptionalism when he writes about the court, the power and intelligence of these individuals is evident, as is Bruce’s obvious respect and admiration for them—particularly the women, to whom he often refers as his closest friends and allies in the country.

But if Bruce contributed to all these advances in Western knowledge, and his narrative was so widely read, why did Britain’s reading public latch onto a few seemingly unbelievable details rather than the wealth of valuable information he brought back with him?  After all, it was assumed that all travelers told some tall tales, yet Bruce seems to have received more than his share of scorn.  The answer to this question illustrates the fact that eighteenth-century knowledge was extensively influenced by narrative techniques.  Despite common assumptions that mid-to-late eighteenth-century natural philosophy automatically equated eyewitness accounts with factuality, whether or not such an account was considered trustworthy still depended a great deal on how its story was told.  Samuel Johnson, for one, accused Bruce of not being a “distinct relator,” meaning that Bruce was often more interested in telling a raucous tale of heroic self-aggrandizement than in delivering objective geographical and ethnographical reports.[3]  When Bruce did include specific details, they occasionally seemed too far-fetched to be possible, such as the aforementioned live steak incident, or his claims that Abyssinians ate their beef raw.

The skepticism over Bruce’s description of Abyssinians eating raw beef reveals a second reason why his narrative wasn’t always taken seriously:  it didn’t square with people’s preconceived notions of what Abyssinia was like based on other representations of the region such as Johnson’s Rasselas, translations of Portuguese and French travel narratives, and even stories of Prester John’s land (a Christian country since the fourth century, Abyssinia had been considered a possible location of the legendary Christian kingdom amid the heathens since the Middle Ages).  According to these portraits, Abyssinia was a civilized if foreign nation, not a place where the elite would eat uncooked flesh like “savages,” even though raw beef blended with oils and spices in fact was, and still is, an Ethiopian delicacy.  In fact, the very inconsistency between details that eighteenth-century readers found barbarous and Bruce’s flattering descriptions of his friends in the Abyssinian court was a particular point of contention for one anonymous 1790 reviewer.  He writes,

To a philosopher, the greatest inconsistency of all, is the discordant picture of Abyssinian manners.  That nation is described as barbarous and ignorant in the greatest degree, as totally unacquainted with every country but their own; as liars and drunkards . . . yet, of Mr. Bruce’s Friends, some discover such discernment and force of mind, and some of the women display such delicacy of sentiment and elegance of behaviour, as would do honour to the most civilised nations.[4]

This perceived lack of coherence may have been a significant reason why Bruce’s Travels have largely been cursed to obscurity in spite of their initial popularity—seemingly contradictory stories exist side-by-side both inside the text in terms of Bruce’s descriptions and outside the text in terms of its reception history.  As the above reviewer intimates, it is hard to get a handle on what the narrative—and thus what Abyssinia—is all about because our “philosophical” heritage trains us to equate inconsistency with falsehood.  But this multiplicity is perhaps the most compelling reason for paying attention to the Travels now.

Bruce’s narrative is still the primary source of much of our knowledge today about east Africa during the mid-to-late eighteenth century.  For one, understanding how such knowledge was produced can help us understand its limitations.  Returning to the text, we are reminded that Bruce’s subject position as member of the eighteenth-century British gentry necessarily influenced the way he wrote about the non-European cultures he came in contact with.  As such, proto-colonial discourse and British exceptionalism shaped much of what he saw and wrote about, and paying attention to these aspects reminds us that no knowledge is ever entirely neutral.  Yet, the Travels are not reducible to these limitations—returning to the text can also open up how we think about how such knowledge was gathered.  Take, for example, Bruce’s admitted debt to the women of the Abyssinian court for enabling his mobility both through the court and the kingdom itself. Bruce’s impressions of Abyssinia’s politics and even its geography may be as much a product of their worldviews than they are of his, and his text offers an opportunity to consider how such seemingly marginalized figures in the eighteenth century as African women may have in fact played a significant role in shaping Western knowledge.  He similarly relied on his native guides and Gondar’s Greek and Muslim populations for much of his information not only about the city but also the surrounding countryside, not to mention the scholars, writers, and travelers—European, African, and Arabic—who paved the way for Bruce’s achievements long before he ever set foot on African soil.

In a 2009 TED talk, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about the danger of the single story, about the incompleteness that results when we—like the anonymous author from the Monthly Review—seek homogeneity from representations of people and places rather than opening ourselves up to the many narratives that comprise both our pasts and our presents.[5]  While Bruce and his paradoxical narrative may seem just a vestige of the past, from an era when the fields he helped advance—from geography and anthropology to theology and more—had not yet reached their full maturity, revisiting his story can help us reconsider how the production of European knowledge about the world may have in fact been a global affair.  In spite of Bruce’s tendency to characterize himself as a solitary, intrepid traveler standing alone at the head of the Nile, from the Scottish traveler to his English critics, his Continental supporters, and his African friends, Bruce’s narratives bear the marks of the fact that modern knowledge has always been shaped by how multiple stories of the world are told and by the many people who have a hand in their telling.

Further Reading:

J.M. Reid, Traveller Extraordinary:  The Life of James Bruce of Kinnaird.  London:  Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1968:  310.

Charles Withers, “Travel and Trust in the Eighteenth Century.”  L’invitation au Voyage:  Studies in Honour of Peter France.  Oxford:  Voltaire Foundation, 2000:  47-54.

Paul Hulton, F. Nigel Hepper, and Ib Friss, Luigi Balugani’s Drawings of African Plants:  From the Collection Made by James Bruce of Kinnaird on his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile 1767-1773.  New Haven:  Yale Center for British Art, 1991.


[1] As cited by Arthur A. Moorefield, “James Bruce:  Ethnomusicologist or Abyssinian Lyre?”  Journal of the American Musicological Society 28.3 (1975):  503.

[2] James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile.  Vol. 1.  London, 1790:  iii.

[3] James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson.  London, 1827:  243.

[4] The Monthly Review, from May to August, Inclusive.  Vol. 2.  London, 1790:  188.

[5] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story.”  TED Talks.  Web. 29 Jan. 2015.  <>

Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures

Faculty and students at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg are working on a long-range digital project (Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures) to code and analyze the voyage narratives of eighteenth-century European expeditions to the Pacific, together with the English poetry and print media that responded to the published accounts of Pacific voyages.  We are attempting to study the cross-cultural significance of European voyages in the Pacific and cultural contact experiences in Oceania and Australia, using digital coding and “text-mining” to collect information from very long voyage records in systematic ways through computational methods.

One phase of our work involves preparing digital editions of Pacific voyage publications by Hawkesworth, Cook, and the Forsters in TEI XML (the language of the Text Encoding Initiative) to meet a world standard for accessible and consistently encoded digital texts.  (For more on the Text Encoding Initiative, please see  Some of the voyage accounts we have prepared for the site have not been freely available online in any searchable form before.  Some are available in proprietary or public databases but have not, to this point, been united in one place.  In addition to preparing editions, we have collected the geographic coordinates recorded in these publications using regular expression matching and autotagging, in order to generate Google Earth & Map views of the voyages.  Our Google Earth projections of Wallis’s and Cook’s voyages offer a clickable interface, so that selecting a compass rose point along the voyage brings up a paragraph or block of text from a voyage record describing events recorded in connection with this place.  Here is an example.

We have also been preparing TEI XML editions of poems, plays, and excerpts from literary and philosophical texts that respond in some way to the Pacific voyage publications.

These texts were located by searching the ECCO and ECCO TCP databases, and we will be adding more material from these resources and the Burney Collection.  Our students have been preparing and marking these files to code specific kinds of cultural interactions so that we can study how English texts represented Pacific encounters and identify the types of interactions which seem to have caught the interest of Atlantic-bound media.  We’ve also provided an interactive clickable interface to “color-code” the poems, highlighting names of people and places as well as the cultural markup our students have applied:  See our edition of Anna Seward’s “Elegy on Captain Cook” (1780).  Please see also our edition of Gerald Fitzgerald’s “The Injured Islanders” (1779), produced just before the news of Cook’s death became known in England.  We offer Fitzgerald’s poem as a significant contrast to the cultural representations in Seward’s work.

The project began and is developing at the University of Pittsburgh’s Greensburg campus, but the site’s initial development joined a team of faculty and undergraduate students at the Pittsburgh and Greensburg campuses.  As the project continues to develop, it combines classroom teaching of digital humanities research methods together with new research to build a publicly accessible resource.  Our texts and markup and our data visualization experiments are very much a work in progress and are freely available to the public for reading or to download as the basis of new digital projects under a Creative Commons license.  Our site will continue to expand over the next few years as we experiment with topic modelling the Pacific voyage texts and as we develop new maps, search tools, and network graphics, working with new groups of students.


Iceland and Eighteenth-Century Travel and Exploration

William Daniell, “Sir Joseph Banks” (circa 1808-1814). Graphite and red chalk on medium, moderately textured, cream laid paper mounted on moderately thick, slightly textured, beige laid paper. Sheet: 9 7/8 x 7 1/4 inches (25.1 x 18.4 cm). Inscribed in graphite, lower center: “Sir Joseph Banks”, watermark on mount: lion within shield with initials D and M on either side; MDCCCXXVII below. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Prints and Drawings. B1975.4.1129

Iceland didn’t make much of an impact on eighteenth-century British literature.  Mount Hecla appears every now and then in poetic evocations of the far-flung edges of the world, and there is a well-known joke in The Life of Johnson about Johnson’s ability to quote verbatim an entire chapter of Niels Horrebow’s Natural History of Iceland (tr. 1758).  (It is the chapter on snakes, which runs simply, in James Boswell’s slightly misquoted version, “There are no snakes to be met with throughout the whole island.”)  When Sir Joseph Banks went to Iceland in 1772, leading the first major British expedition to the island, it was more or less by accident:  he had been planning to accompany James Cook on his second voyage to the South Pacific, but the Admiralty intervened because of what they saw as Banks’ excessive demands for space for his equipment and his companions.  Deciding not to waste the organizational efforts he had already made, he simply headed north instead of south.  Yet even if Iceland fell short of Tahiti and the other South Sea islands in terms of sheer distance and glamour, a small but significant body of English-language writing on the island started appearing in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth, much which proclaims itself to be the product of exactly the sort of scientific and philosophical curiosity that ostensibly drove the more elaborate, glamorous, and high profile expeditions to the South Pacific.  Most of these accounts of Iceland are framed in more or less utilitarian terms, as a straightforward pursuit of scientific knowledge, but in fact they tend to slide more or less precipitously from dry records of height, distance, and other such measurements into the language of the magical and the fantastic, as writers attempt to convey the impact of what they suggest is the almost indescribable Icelandic landscape.  The result is an intriguing if relatively unfamiliar body of work that not only offers glimpses of a part of Europe that remained both literally and figuratively on the fringes of the known world in later eighteenth-century Britain, but also that demonstrates some of the complexities and challenges facing travel writers as they tried to merge their scientific and cultural observations with an evocation of what they present as the strange and wonderful world around them.

Given the novelty of Iceland as a destination at the time of Banks’ expedition, and even for decades afterwards, it is hardly surprising that the later eighteenth-century writers who took it as their subject tended to insist upon the value of the information they were offering rather than calling attention to the charms of their style.  The English translation of Uno von Troil’s Letters on Iceland–the only published account of Banks’ expedition–foregrounds the matter-of-fact rather than the literary, addressing matters ranging from volcanoes to Icelandic cuisine and to the varieties of whales to be found in Icelandic waters, among many other topics–according to the presumed interests of the person being addressed.  Yet that is not quite what one would expect if one judged by the book’s reviews.  The Monthly Review, for example, seemed to find von Troil’s picture of Iceland less a matter of facts and figures than it was a vision of the exotic, the mysterious, and the dangerous–in a word, of the sublime.  Describing Iceland as a fantastical place that “within a small and almost inconsiderable space freezes with the utmost rigour, and burns with all the violence of the most intense flame” (187-88), the reviewer presents a version of the country that might sound at least somewhat at odds with von Troil’s deprecating assessment of it as a “dreary” land “so little favoured by nature” that “one is tempted to believe it impossible to be inhabited by any human creature” (25).  Yet the reviewer’s rhapsodic evocation of a sublimely elemental world of fire and ice is not as unjustified by von Troil’s prose as one might be tempted to think if one looked simply at the headings of his letters or leafed through his accounts of matters such as Icelandic breeds of cattle or the economy of the in-shore fishery.  The language of science repeatedly slips into the poetic, the sublime, and the wonderful.  In von Troil’s hands, the landscape is not merely empty but actively hostile, made up of “vitrified cliffs, whose high and sharp points seem to vie with each other, to deprive you of the sight” of what little greenery there is.  Even as simple a matter as the absence of trees around the coastal villages becomes an occasion for an oddly plaintive moment of inverted pastoralism:  “a single tree,” von Troil writes, “does no where appear that may afford shelter to friendship and innocence” (25).  Indeed, von Troil himself suggests that the language of science might be inadequate to his needs.  A long letter to a Professor Bergmann of Stockholm about geysers that specifies the heat of the water, the mineralogical composition of the surrounding rocks, and other such matters concludes with a lamentation that “the best description will fall very short” of the “most uncommon phænomena” that he witnessed at Geysir, because it would require “the pen of a Thomson” to create an adequate idea of the scene (257).

The idea of Iceland as a land that demands a poetic imagination to convey scientific fact can be further illustrated by a quick glance at travelers’ accounts of what was perhaps the most famous of the island’s natural phenomena, Mount Hecla.  Understandably, given the late-eighteenth-century interest in earth sciences, it attracted the fascinated attention of British travelers and readers alike, and in one respect, accounts of Hecla from this period could be read as exemplifying the power of science to kill myth.  Supposedly the haunt of demons and the entrance to hell, Hecla seen up close was simply another mountain, according to Henry Holland, who climbed it in 1810, when, as a young medical student, he accompanied Sir George Mackenzie to Iceland.  Yet even so, Holland’s journal presents the snow-filled crater at the summit in terms that recall von Troil’s reactions to the geysers, as he moves from matter-of-fact observation to an evocation of magic and fantasy:  “The bottom of the crater,” Holland writes,

Is filled with a vast mass of congealed snow–which by the process of melting, gradually proceeding during the summer, has been hollowed beneath in several places, so as to form caverns of some extent.  Entering these caverns, we were surprized & gratified by the singular beauty of their appearance–the congealed snow had acquired a bluish transparency of colour, the effect of which in certain points of view, was at once extraordinary and pleasing–The magical palaces of an eastern tale, could not have been better illustrated to the eye.  (260)

This oscillation between the languages of science and romance is something that Holland maintains elsewhere in this journal.  “If a foresight of the infernal regions of mythological story were desired,” he writes of Krýsuvík, “this would be the spot where the wish might best be gratified” (128).  He then turns, matter-of-factly, to a detailed description of the sedimentation patterns of the clay and rocks.

Passages such as this underline the difficulty, in this writing, of sustaining any distinction between scientific and the more self-consciously literary travel writing of the Enlightenment.  The result, for Holland and others, are accounts that suggest the inadequacy of either scientific travel or the more conventionally belle lettristic type of travel writing to communicate fully what the traveler is seeing.  Of course, the attempt to represent in language the supposedly unrepresentable is something of a cliché by the end of the eighteenth century, but that does not make these journals by early travelers to Iceland any less innovative or intriguing.  As Holland attempted (in his words) both to add to “the interests & advancement of science” (273), and to give an adequate sense of his own pleasure in and wonder at a place that was remote, in all senses, from anything he had previously seen, he is demonstrating the flexibility rather than the limitations of the genre of the travel journal.  Just as importantly, he is also helping to shape the concept of Iceland, in the minds of British readers of the day, as a place that is not only a scientific curiosity but also, and even because of that, exceeds all they can imagine of the sublime.

Works Cited

Anon, “Rev. of Letters on Iceland.”  The Monthly Review.  Vol. 63 (1780):  187-98.

Holland, Henry.  The Iceland Journal of Henry Holland, 1810.  Ed. Andrew

Wawn.  London:  The Hakluyt Society, 1987.

Von Troil, Uno.  Letters on Iceland.  London:  J. Robson, 1780.