This watercolour was painted by an unknown artist from an engraving featured in James Bruce's account of his journeys in North Africa tracing the Blue Nile from 1768 to 1773.
The original image by Bruce was reproduced as an engraving in his publication ‘Travels to discover the source of the Nile, in the years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773’, which was eventually published in five lavishly illustrated volumes in 1790.
SignificanceIn addition to travelling to the source of the Blue Nile, James Bruce's book actually covers over ten years of his time spent in the north of Africa. His knowledge was a significant contribution in the early years to the understanding in Europe of the region and led the way for many other expeditions to follow.
HistoryJames Bruce was born in 1730 and heir to Kinnard House in Stirlingshire. Whilst he studied law and later became involved in the wine trade, Bruce left both fields to become consul to Algiers in 1762. He had developed a strong interest in the art and culture of Northern Africa and once in Algiers he learnt Arabic and through travels throughout the north and the Aegean and Levant regions, Bruce managed to acquire a knowledge of the different societies, tribal groups and various customs of the area. He decided in 1768 to determine the source of the Blue Nile which he rightly suspected lay in Ethiopia.
On arrival in the city Gondar Bruce again immersed himself in the history and life of the country. At the time the country was experiencing notable political unrest and Bruce recorded this in his journals as well.
Bruce reached the source, Lake Tana, in November 1770 but it would not be until 20 years later that he would publish the full account of his extraordinary travels.
In regard to the Shekh of the Beni Koreish as depicted in this image, part of what James Bruce says:
"They [Beni Koreish] mostly lived in towns, such as Mecca, Tajef, and Medina, especially after the expulsion of the Jews and the establishment of his [Mahomet's] own empire. Many also of these who came over to Beja and the eastern part of Nubia, continued their practice of living in small towns or villages, and were distinguished by the name Jaheleen..These Jaheleen are, as I have said, truly noble Arabs of the race of Beni Koreish... Their prince was nevertheless but the Shekh to all the Arabs, to who they paid a sufficient strength to keep up order and inforce his decrees on public matters. As far as economical ones, each tribe was under the government of its own Shekh, old men, fathers and families in each clan.."
(page 456, Bruce, James 'Travels to discover the Source of the Nile, in the years 1768, 1769, 1770 , 1771, 1772 and 1773', 1790.' )