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

Review:

’A wonderful story, splendidly retold’ Anthony Daniels, Sunday Telegraph

’Bruce emerges from this penetrating and original study as one of the toughest, bravest, most effective and learned of British African pioneers’ Robert Carver, Times Literary Supplement

’An excellent account of the man and his travels... James Bruce was a larger-than-life character whose exploits deserved retelling and whose reputation sorely demanded rehabilitation. The Pale Abyssinian does both of them proud’ Michael Thompson-Noel, Financial Times

’The purpose of Bredin’s book is to restore Bruce’s reputation, but he does much more than that. He allows us to glimpse the barbarous splendour of a still-medieval Ethiopia’ Giles Milton, Mail on Sunday

’An interesting story dashingly told’ Philip Hensher, Spectator

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Published by HarperCollins (2000)
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