Raider of the Lost Ark

Richard Pankhurst

  • The Pale Abyssinian: A Life of James Bruce, African Explorer and Adventurer by Miles Bredin
    Flamingo, 290 pp, £7.99, March 2001, ISBN 0 00 638740 3

Ethiopia was by the Middle Ages the only Christian country outside Europe and thus of great interest to medieval Christendom. Since the early 12th century, the Ethiopians had been in possession of a chapel in Jerusalem and a station in the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Both were visited every year or so by Ethiopian pilgrims, whose coming, and obvious devotion, gave rise to the idea in Europe that they might serve as useful allies in the Crusades.

This belief was reinforced by the legend of Prester John, which held that there was a powerful Christian monarch somewhere in the East, whose overriding ambition was to liberate the Holy Sepulchre from the infidels. Further support for the story came from a fictitious letter suggesting that a mysterious and remarkably wealthy monarch, named Prester John, had extended a cordial invitation to the rulers of Europe to enter his service, and that he had promised in return to grant his European supporters high administrative office and large estates. Strenuous attempts were made to locate the fabulous ruler, who was thought to hold court somewhere north of India. He could not, however, be found, which was scarcely surprising since he did not exist.

Belief in an Asian Prester John then evaporated, and was replaced by the idea that the much sought-after monarch was in fact the Christian emperor of Ethiopia, of whose existence Marco Polo had learnt in the 13th century. The first European ruler to react to this change of location was Henry IV, who in 1400 wrote a letter to the ‘King of Abyssinia, Prester John’. The fascination with Ethiopia did not stop there, for news broke, in 1441, that an Ethiopian delegation was to attend that year’s Council of Florence. The Pope was reportedly much moved, even though the delegation turned out to consist of no more than two monks, sent not by any Ethiopian monarch but by their local community in Jerusalem.

Interest in Ethiopia was, however, by then well and truly aroused – and could be satisfied only by actual travels to the country. None of the first Europeans to get there left behind a reliable account of what they found, if they left one at all. The first to do so was a Portuguese priest, who went as chaplain to a diplomatic mission, sent following a request from the Ethiopian Empress for an alliance with Portugal as a defence against the aggressive policies of the Ottomans. Francisco Alvares’s Verdadera Informaçam das terras do Preste Joam das Indias, published in Lisbon in 1540, is available in English as The Prester John of the Indies (1954). It remains to this day indispensable for any understanding of medieval Ethiopia, containing descriptions of the ancient capital Aksum, with its obelisks, and the monolithic rock-hewn churches of Lalibala, as well as of the then Emperor’s court, which was constantly on the move. It also gives invaluable accounts of virtually all aspects of the country’s political, religious, economic and social life.

The Portuguese mission did not succeed in saving Ethiopia from an Islamic invasion, which was itself followed in due course by a Portuguese military expedition, the collapse of Muslim rule and the arrival after the mid-16th century of successive groups of Jesuit missionaries. Jesuit attempts to eradicate traditional Orthodox beliefs and practices led, however, to great discontent and rebellion, and in 1632 the Jesuits were expelled, first from the capital and later from the country as a whole.

The expulsion brought to a sudden end Ethiopia’s contacts with the West. The post-Jesuit period was important, however, in that it witnessed the establishment, in 1636, of the city of Gondar in the north-west, as the capital of the realm, and the emergence of an at least partially urban civilisation, which had not existed since early medieval times. The eventual ‘discovery’ of Gondar-based Ethiopia owed much to the travels of the Scottish ‘explorer’ James Bruce, who landed at Massawa in 1769, and reached Gondar in the following year. His visit was comparable in importance to that of Alvares a quarter of a millennium earlier, and those of the 17th-century Jesuits. Bruce was to become the author of a five-volume classic, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (1790), which was translated into French and German, and often reprinted, mainly in abridged versions.

Bruce provided the first detailed description of Gondar, and his second volume was valuable for containing a lengthy history of Ethiopia, culled from the royal chronicles. The fifth volume has in it the first engravings of Ethiopian animals and plants ever published – they were drawn by Bruce’s Italian draughtsman Luigi Balugani, though the Scottish author failed to acknowledge this. Bruce also collected a fair amount of meteorological and other scientific information on Ethiopia and neighbouring countries; and introduced the Western world to the apocryphal Book of Enoch, an intriguing work that had survived only in a Ge’ez, or Ethiopic, version, and is still included in the Ethiopian Bible.

For all these reasons it is surprising that Miles Bredin’s The Pale Abyssinian is only the third biography of Bruce to have been published in over two centuries. The first, by the Orientalist Alexander Murray, which is included in the second and third editions of Bruce’s Travels (1805, 1813), is brief but important, revealing discrepancies between Bruce’s original notebook and his subsequently published narrative. The second, much fuller, biography, Traveller Extraordinary (1968), was written by J.M. Reid, a journalist-cum-Scottish historian, and is not yet superseded. The author of the present volume is a journalist with African experience who has also published a book about Angola and Mozambique. The value of his biography lies mainly in its new, but idiosyncratic, interpretations.

Bruce must be read with care. Scrutiny of the Travels reveals that it was marred, as Murray showed almost two centuries ago, by inaccuracies and exaggerations. It is doubtful in particular whether, in his conversations with the rulers he met, its author ever delivered the pompous monologues he lays claims to. If he had, he would probably not have got so far in his travels. Any evaluation of his life and writings must also take into account that although his historic journey came to an end in 1773, he did not begin work on the book for a decade and a half. Only in 1786 did he engage a secretary, whom he sought to impress by ignoring his detailed notes and dictating most of the text from memory – which, by that time, was clearly fading. In the 1813 edition, Murray notes that Bruce ‘at the close of his life . . . seems to have viewed his former life as in a dream. Each interesting event found a glowing place in his descriptions, though indolence often prevented him from fixing, by his journals, the true time and place’. Bruce’s reliability was also questioned by a subsequent British traveller, Henry Salt, who visited Ethiopia twice, a generation or two later. He was quoted by Sir Walter Scott, who met him in 1815, as saying that Bruce considerably exaggerated his personal consequence and exploits’.

Aware that Bruce cannot always be taken at face value, Bredin accepts two well-known facts: first, that his claim to have ‘discovered’ the source of the Nile is unjustified because the Jesuits had done that a century and a half earlier – not to mention the fact that the local people had always known it was there. Second, that virtually all the drawings Bruce claimed to have done were in fact drawn by Balugani. Elsewhere, however, Bredin follows the Travels uncritically. He claims, too credulously, that on arrival at the Red Sea port of Massawa, Bruce ‘spoke French, Italian, Portuguese, Greek (modern and ancient), Latin, Hebrew, Chaldean, Syriac, Ge’ez, Amharic and Arabic’, as well as some Tigrinya. He should have considered the contrary evidence – if only to dismiss it – of two Ethiopians who had known Bruce, and were later interviewed by Salt. The first, Haji Hamed, declared that Bruce ‘did not understand well Amharic or Tigr [i.e. Tigrinya] and did not speak more Arabic than I do, but had with him an interpreter named Michael’. The second critic was ‘Dofter Esther’, an elderly cleric, who observed that the traveller ‘did not speak the Tigr language nor much Amharic’.

Bredin also follows Bruce in claiming that he was appointed commander of the royal cavalry, participated in the battle of Serbraxos, and was later appointed governor of Ras el Feel. All three statements are open to question, for they were unanimously rejected by no fewer than five of Bruce’s Ethiopian contemporaries interviewed by Salt. Bredin likewise accepts Bruce’s story that the body of the murdered Emperor Joas had been exhumed at Gondar, and ‘allowed to rot with no shroud’ to cover it – until Bruce thoughtfully had it buried. The alleged neglect of the body, which went against traditional Ethiopian practice, is contradicted in Bruce’s own notes, which say that the body was ‘covered, and a tent placed over it’.

When faced with contradictions on the Travels, Bredin sometimes uses his powers of invention to overcome them. To cite one instance: Bruce, describing an outbreak of smallpox, reportedly in 1770, claimed that Welled Hawaryat, the son of Ras Michael Sehul, the powerful ruler of Tigray, was treated by a monk carrying a ‘large cross and a picture’, who gave him a concoction made of ‘some characters written with common ink upon a tin plate’, and ‘washed off by a medicinal liquor’. This cure was, naturally, a fiasco. The patient, according to Bruce, speedily died – though in the next volume he claims that he later treated the young man, who recovered. Ras Michael, he asserts, thereupon took Bruce by the hand, ‘and said, Welled Hawaryat (that is the name of his son) is well, you are very kind’. Faced with this, Bredin avoids what he seems to regard as the irrelevant question of whether the patient lived or died. He maintains neutrality, and fobs us off with the statement that Bruce saw the monks administering, not ‘characters . . . washed off by a medicinal liquid’, as Bruce records, but ‘ink and a sacred portrait’. However, the two versions of Bruce, no less than that of his new biographer, are at least debatable, for Welled Hawaryat, according to the Ethiopian royal chronicle, had died a decade or so earlier, on 22 May 1760.

Bredin’s overall account seems strongly influenced by Graham Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant (1992). Hancock was the first to argue that, as a Freemason (and hence an heir of the Templars), Bruce did not go to Africa to ‘discover the source of the Nile’, as he repeatedly claims, but instead to find the Ark of the Covenant, an artefact supposedly abducted from Jerusalem during the reign of King Mannaseh (687-642 BC), and taken to Aksum, where, Ethiopian tradition claims, it still resides. A symbolic replica, known as a tabot (which Bredin incorrectly refers to by the plural form tabotat) is an essential feature in every Ethiopian Orthodox church, and is taken out annually at the festival of Timkat, or Epiphany.

Like Hancock, Bredin bases his theory about Bruce and the Ark on the fact that the traveller scarcely even mentions it. ‘Why in a book so verbose and detailed as the Travels, does he scarcely mention the Ark? Its very absence is conspicuous.’ ‘I believe,’ Bredin adds, ‘that Bruce deliberately concealed his knowledge of the Ark.’ Bredin is so taken by the Ark theory that he uses it to explain Bruce’s decision to leave Ethiopia by the Western route, through the old Muslim kingdom of Sennaar, instead of returning the way he came, through Massawa: ‘If Bruce wanted to trace the route that the Ark is supposed to have taken from Jerusalem this was the only way he could go. To return via Massawa would be safer, shorter and easier. There was no reason to go through Sennaar except in search of the Ark.’

There is, however, a different and, in my opinion, no less plausible explanation for the route Bruce chose. He was, very consciously, covering the same ground as the French physician Charles-Jacques Poncet, who had entered Ethiopia by the Sennaar route, and left by the Massawa one. He had found the Western route particularly interesting. It had taken him to such places as Helaoue, described by him as ‘very pleasant’, answering ‘fully to its name, which signifies ‘a country of sweetness’. ‘Here,’ he adds, ‘are to be seen a great number of gardens, water’d with brooks, and a world of palm trees, which preserve a continual verdure.’

Bredin is much interested in Bruce’s love life and preoccupied with the traveller’s relations with Princess Esther, daughter of the redoubtable Empress Mentwab, and wife of the universally feared Ras Michael, who was for most of Bruce’s time in Ethiopia the most powerful person in the land. The author of the Travels claims that he cured Esther’s three sons of smallpox, and declares that it was impossible to see or talk with her ‘without being attached to her for ever’. This caused his previous biographer, J.M. Reid, to remark that his fellow Scot was ‘at least half in love with Esther’. Neither Bruce nor Reid, however, suggests that relations between traveller and princess went any further. If they had, there would probably have been trouble with Esther’s husband, who by then had done away with two emperors in succession, not to mention ordering numerous executions of lesser mortals.

In recent times, however, a different story has emerged at Qwesqwam (rendered by Bruce as Koscam), on the outskirts of Gondar. This was the residence of Empress Mentwab, where Bruce spent part of his stay, and which is now in ruins. A local cleric there now regales tourists, as I have myself several times witnessed, by conjuring up a sexual relationship between Bruce and Esther. (This ‘informant’ of Bredin’s, or one of his predecessors, had earlier linked Bruce with Esther’s mother Mentwab, but was perhaps discouraged on learning that the latter was old enough to have been the traveller’s mother, too.) Pointing to the ruins near the centre of the royal compound, he shows where he thinks Bruce resided, where he supposedly slept with the princess, where he went to the loo, and where he allegedly kept his books. The author of The Pale Abyssinian, his interest aroused, duly confessed that he was ‘writing a book about Bruce and would like to know anything I could about him’. The cleric accordingly gave him an appointment for the next day, when he showed up with four friends. They claimed that their knowledge of Bruce and Esther ‘had been passed down to them by their novice masters but, since all their books had been burnt or stolen at Magdala’ – a reference to the looting of Emperor Tewodros’s capital by the British expedition of 1867-68 – ‘they could give me no written proof of this knowledge.’ It does not seem to have occurred either to them or to Bredin that the looted manuscripts, comprising mainly religious works (the return of which is now demanded in Ethiopia), would scarcely have thrown light on Esther’s supposed illicit affair.