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. The Pale Abyssinian brings to life a fascinating character whom Bredin first came across in Ethiopia, and who is likely to rise from relative obscurity to be re-established as one of Britain′s most exotic heroes.
For such a significant explorer, James Bruce is hardly a household name is he? Why do you think he suffered such neglect?
I think it′s mainly because he was such an irritating man. The main problem was that he managed to make an enemy of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell and Horace Walpole, who were basically the arbiters of all 18th Century taste. While Bruce was alive, what happened was that Johnson and Boswell basically said he was a liar, and by the time it turned out he was telling the truth he was dead anyway. He also managed to discover the wrong source of the Nile: another big error - because it splits into two at Khartoum. He found the source of the Blue Nile and not the White Nile, the longer one. Although I contend that the Blue Nile is the source of the Nile, because that is where all the water comes from.
What first put you on to James Bruce?
Well to tell you the truth, I wanted to write a book about Ethiopia, and I was trying to find a British angle. I first came across Bruce when I was covering the rebel overthrow of Mengistu in 1991. You would keep on going to places and people would say, "First discovered by James Bruce." I had a vague inkling that I′d heard of him, but I couldn′t think how: it turned out that it was because of The Blue Nile, a book by Alan Moorhurst. I was astonished about how little was known about him. There was one biography about him in the fifties, which is pretty near impossible to get hold of, and the last one before that was in 1823 - so he′s not exactly famous. But they′re quiet proud of him in Ethiopia.
What inspired him to carry out this incredibly dangerous journey?
That′s an interesting point that I may or may not have got to the bottom of. He did all sorts of different things until he was in his thirties, trying to work out what he wanted to do with his life. He became a wine merchant at one point, and went off to inspect the vintages in various places and got a taste for travelling. I think it emerged as a result of his travels, then, that he wanted to go and do something exciting. The Nile was the big obsession, the search for the source of the Nile. It gradually came about that that was what he would do.
Bruce′s travels were made easier by the vast number of different languages he spoke; was this normal for the time?
He was an unbelievable linguist. Anywhere he went he picked up the language very quickly. He′d also done quite a lot of studying before he went to Ethiopia. Even before he got there he spoke Greek and Arabic. I think he spoke twelve languages in all. But it wasn′t just languages he was good at. He was incredibly good at cartography, botany, all that kind of thing; he wasn′t brilliant at any of them, but he was pretty good at all of them. I think that this is another reason why his contemporaries didn′t like him - because he was better at their jobs than they were.
The first thing he did was to make a map of the Red Sea. Was this planned or did the idea just come to him?
He took it upon himself to map the Red Sea. Getting into Ethiopia was very difficult and there were lots of delays before he got there, so he decided "right, I′ll chart the Red Sea while I′m here." When he came back, everybody presumed that this wasn′t a very good map, but at one point it ended up saving the British Army. He also made a treaty with the Bey in Cairo, which meant traffic for British Merchantmen in the Red Sea became a whole lot easier.
So after mapping the Red Sea, Bruce struck land at Massawa and set off up into the mountains to discover the source of the Nile?
Well, it wasn′t quite that easy. He only just got through Massawa with his life. Massawa was Ethiopia′s gateway on to the world. It was ostensibly under the Ottoman Empire, but it the Ottoman Empire wasn′t in particular good form at the time and it was looked after by one man, who had standing orders from the Ethiopians not to let anyone in. I think it took Bruce two months of negotiation getting through there. Massawa is one of the hottest places in the entire universe, it is really is unpleasantly hot. The mountains come down to ten miles inland and are really terrifying. Even today you do not drive up during the day, because you will not make it. When he got there, there was a hideous civil war raging; and he had to drag his quadrant up from the coast, facing various dangers on the way, bandits, flash floods, that sort of thing. He was incredibly bad at buying his way out of things. He was constantly being very pompous. I think his pomposity saved his life on many occasions, but he did often refuse to pay customs levees, which must have made life very difficult for his travelling companions.
In your research you carried out a twofold journey in search of Bruce. First of all, you had the physical journey itself and then you had to go through his journals and all the writings about him. Which was more revealing of the man?
Going through his letters and diaries was absolutely amazing. I was incredibly lucky that I got a fellowship at Yale. I went and sat in this incredibly beautiful building reading this stuff. The Boswell stuff is edited at Yale, the Walpole Diaries are edited at Yale, and the third biggest library in America is at Yale.I had the most unbelievable facilities at my fingertips, and because I′d got this fellowship I could ring up these experts and they′d drop everything and answer my queries, which was fabulous. The original reason for doing the book was because I wanted go and spend some time in Ethiopia. Quite how helpful it was for the book is debatable, but I had a very good time. It means that we got the brilliant photographs for the book, and being able to sit in the castle in Gondar reading Bruce′s travels, and actually being in the room that he was describing was amazing.
Bruce′s diaries themselves must be fascinating. But how much of them can we believe?
You can read his diaries and read what he was doing from day to day and it′s unlikely that he would have been lying to his diary every night. But you can also tell from his diaries that he got things terribly mixed up when he was writing his book. I was amazed how truthful he was, when you put everything together. He puts in some bits that I wouldn′t have put in. There was a battle that he was involved in where he got hit on the head by a rock, which is the most ridiculous of injuries. In the middle of a battle when everybody is being shot by Muskets and hit with arrows right, left and centre, and he gets banged on the head by a rock. He walked across the desert, his feet falling apart and having a hideous time, and arrived in Khartoum and saw this huge bloody river coming down on the left-hand side, which was the White Nile: personally I wouldn′t have mentioned it in my book. He was a lot more truthful than I expected him to be, to be honest. And yet he does get things wrong and gets things in the wrong order, but I don′t even know how intentional that was. I just don′t think he checked his notes very often. The book that he wrote could have done with a little editing; it was five volumes. He just wrote about absolutely everything he saw.
So why was he so completely disbelieved when he got home?
He came back with some completely outlandish stories about Ethiopians cutting raw meat off the sides of cows and things. I think that′s probably true, but they found it fairly unlikely. He courted controversy by telling these exciting stories, when he came back. When they weren′t believed rather than toning them down a bit, he went into high dudgeon and disappeared off to Scotland. This thing with Johnson and Boswell was, I think, the key. Boswell was considered to be an expert on Corsica, and was known as "Corsican Boswell" - which sounds a bit pathetic, compared to "Abyssinian Bruce". Johnson was considered to be the world′s expert on Ethiopia after Rasselas. Also, the first book that Johnson ever published was a French translation of a book by one of the Jesuit missionaries who had lived in Ethiopia 150 years earlier; so he had actually written two books about Ethiopia. And since no one had been there for a century, he was considered to be the expert. So when Bruce came back saying he′d been there, he got into trouble; he was also rude about the Jesuits, who Johnson thought were a good thing.
How easy would it be for a determined tourist to recreate the journey, to repeat the journey that Bruce made from Massawa to the source of the Blue Nile?
You′d have to be pretty bloody determined, because there are a couple of wars in the way at the moment. I didn′t do the journey entirely at the same time, because there were problems getting into Sudan. I′ve actually done it in different directions. I couldn′t cross the Ethiopian/Sudanese border. I′m actually persona non grata in Sudan, which made things difficult. But luckily I′ve got a different passport. The Ethiopians and Eritreans are having a really unpleasant war; so crossing over that border is impossible. You could go to all the places in Ethiopia that he was at, and you could go to all the places in Eritrea that he was at, but you′d have to it separately.
You′ve worked as a street trader in Paris and as an antique lace dealer in London, and as a journalist. How did you first become a journalist?
I couldn′t think of anything else to do, and had a few friends who were journalists who managed to get me some work on a couple of newspapers and I managed to keep my head just above water. I was very lucky. I was doing a shift on the Standard when a job turned up at ES Magazine. It started out from that.
What took you to Africa?
I was chasing after my girlfriend, who had gone to find herself in Kenya.
About Miles Bredin