The Pale Abyssinian: The Life of James Bruce, African Explorer and Adventurer

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9780002556712: The Pale Abyssinian: The Life of James Bruce, African Explorer and Adventurer

The biography of one of Britain’s greatest explorers by a brilliant young writer.

The achievements of James Bruce are the stuff of legends. In a time when Africa was an unexplored blank on the map, he discovered the source of the Blue Nile, lived with the Emperor of Abyssinia at court in Gondar, commanded the Emperor’s horse guard in battle and fell in love with a princess.

After twelve years of travels, and having cheated death on countless occasions, Bruce returned to England from his Herculean adventures only to be ridiculed and despised as a fake by Samuel Johnson and the rest of literary London. It was only when explorers penetrated the African Interior one hundred years later and were asked if they were friends with a man called Bruce, that it was finally confirmed that Bruce really had achieved what he had claimed.

The Pale Abyssinian is the brilliantly told story of a man’s battle against almost insurmountable odds in a world nobody in Europe knew existed. Born in 1730, the son of a Scottish laird, James Bruce was an enormous man of six foot four with dark red hair, and he had to use all of his bearing and his wits to survive the ferocious physical battles and vicious intrigues at court in Abyssinia (Ethiopia today). His biographer, Miles Bredin, through ingenious detective work both in Bruce’s journals and in Ethiopia itself, has also unearthed a darker mission behind his travels: a secret quest to find the lost Ark of the Covenant.

A highly talented and daring young writer, Miles Bredin has created a stunning account of the life and adventures of an extraordinary man. The Pale Abyssinian will re-establish once and for all the name of one of Britain’s greatest explorers who penetrated the African Interior over a century before the likes of Stanley, Livingstone and Burton set foot on the continent.

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Review:

How is it that James Bruce is not better known? His is the most extraordinary life story, a tale of adventure and derring-do in the grand old tradition. We think of the 19th-century David Livingstone as a great African explorer but Livingstone himself called Bruce "a greater traveller than any of us", a man who explored the sources of the River Nile a hundred years earlier. Near the beginning of this marvellous biography Bredin summarises his subject's travels: "Bruce had crossed the Nubian Desert, climbed the bandit-bedevilled mountains of Abyssinia, been shipwrecked off the North African coast and sentenced to death in Sudan. He had lived with the rulers of undiscovered kingdoms and slept with their daughters, been granted titles and lands by barbarian warlords and had then returned--more or less intact--to the place of his birth, a small town near the Firth of Forth. So extraordinary were Bruce's adventures that he was widely disbelieved by polite British society on his return and stigmatised as a liar. Yet Bredin has been able, by travelling Bruce's way, to demonstrate just how much of this fantastical adventure story is actually true.

Bredin's wonderful enthusiasm for his subject and his subject's odyssey shines on every page of this biography. Some of the emphases perhaps stray a little into the realm of the cranky. His chapter 5, for instance, speculates about the lost Ark of the Covenant, believed by some to be in Abyssinia (Bredin concedes that he has drawn heavily on Graham Hancock's The Sign and the Seal: A Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant for this section). But in general the reader is swept along by Bruce's overpowering personality and his amazing adventures. --Adam Roberts

From the Back Cover:

"This great man; the wonder of his age, the terror of married men, and a constant lover."

The achievements of James Bruce, one of the great explorers, are the stuff of legends. In a time when Africa was viewed as a hostile, unutterably alien continent, he travelled to Abyssinia, discovered the source of the Blue Nile, lived with the emperor of Abyssinia at court in Gondar, commanded the Emperor's horse guard in battle and fell in love with a princess. There is even evidence to suggest that he was on the track of the Ark of the Covenant. Wherever he went he inspired fanatical loyalty, won admiration for his humanity, and left heartbroken women behind him.

Born in 1730, James Bruce was an enormous man of six foot four, with dark red hair, who could ride like an Arab and shoot partridge from the saddle at a gallop. He was also a polyglot who prepared for his travels by studying many languages, including Arabic and the Ethiopian liturgical language Geez. While at court he needed all his physical prowess and his wits to survive the ferocious battles and intrigues that surrounded the Emperor.

On his return from Abyssinia he was feted throughout Europe, and expected fame and fortune to meet him in Britain. The reality was very different. A vain, proud man, his manner was too frightening and his stories too bizarre; he was soon dismissed as a fantasist, and ridiculed and despised as a fake by Samuel Johnson and the rest of London society. Hurt, he retired to his native Scotland, where he wrote the book of his travels. The truth was only revealed many years after his death, when later travellers to Abyssinia were to corroborate his story.

Miles Bredin has travelled in Bruce's footsteps, and drawn on Bruce's previously unstudied journals and notebooks, to create a stunning account of the life and adventures of an extraordinary man. 'The Pale Abyssinan' will re-establish once and for all the name of one of Britain's most exotic heroes.

Miles Bredin, born in London in 1965, has written for most of the British national newspapers, and from 1990 to 1992 was United Press International's East Africa bureau chief. His first book 'Blood on the tracks; A Rail Journey from Angola to Mozambique' was published in 1994.

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