In 1790, the account of his travels, which had long been looked for with anxiety, appeared in five quarto volumes, with plates, maps and charts. The extraordinary events and discoveries which they contained, occasioned many to doubt the truth and accuracy of Bruce; and some went so far as to assert, that he had never even been in Abyssinia. Recent travelers, however, and among them Mr. Salt, one of his most hostile sceptics, have confirmed the greater part of his assertions relative to that country, though many of them still remain doubtful and unauthenticated. Such was the effect of the reports circulated against his work, that, according to Dr. Clarke, a short time after its publication, several copies were sold in Dublin -for waste paper. Being, however, translated into French, his book was widely circulated on the continent; and he had made arrangements for printing an octavo edition, when, on the 26th of April 1794, he fell down the stairs of his mansion at Kinnaird, while in the act of handing a lady to dinner, and expired the following morning.
The person of Mr. Bruce being nearly six feet four inches in height, and of great muscular strength, was well suited to the enterprises he undertook and the dangers he encountered. Though his hair was a dark red, his countenance had a handsome cast; and though he possessed great urbanity of manners, his mien was dignified, and almost haughty. He paid particular attention to his dress, especially during his travels, the fatigue and danger of which never prevented him from appearing in the most elegant costume of the different countries he visited. He was an excellent horseman and swimmer, and an unerring marksman; and, for his skill in the latter capacity, was mistaken by the barbarians, who were unaquainted with the use of fire-arms, for a magician. In addition to his numerous literary accomplishments, he acquired considerable knowledge of physic and surgery, which he practiced with great success in Africa and Abyssinia. He possessed a mind prudent and vigorous, and a spirit untameable by danger or disappointment, so that he was enabled finally to ensure the success of his most ambitious projects. In Abyssinia he discovered a plant very serviceable in cases of dysentery and brought the seeds of it to England, where it is known by the name of Brucea, having been so called by Sir Joseph Banks, in honor of its finder. An island in the Red Sea, on the coast of Abyssinia, also bears his name.
The doubt which prevailed respecting the truth of his narratives, was in a great degree owing to the habit he had of telling his own exploits, which he embellished with a coloring of romance calculated to weaken the credulity of his hearers. His account of his travels became the subject of much disputation; and Dr. Vincent, who defended it, allowed that Bruce was in some instances mistaken, by aspiring to knowledge and science which he had not sufficiently examined; though, he adds, his work throughout bears internal marks of veracity, in all instances where he was not deceived himself; and his observations were the best which a man, furnished with such instruments, and struggling for his life, could obtain.' He was often pompous and ostentatious, especially in his character of consul. The Bey of Cairo, having, after a long conversation, ordered him a purse of sequins, he declined accepting any thing more than a single orange, saying to the Bey, who requested to know his reason, am an Englishman, and the servant of the greatest king in Europe: it is not the custom of my country to receive pecuniary gratuities from foreign princes without the approbation of our sovereign.' In alluding to his pictures of Palmyra and Balbec, which are in the king's library at Kew, he used to speak of them as the most magnificent presents ever made in that line by a subject to a sovereign.' It has been said, however, that he received for these drawings the sum of L2000. He was descended, on his mother's side, from Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, a circumstance he was excessively proud of; and he once said to a friend, that he was entitled to give his servants royal livery.' He occupied much of the latter part of his life in the formation of a museum, in his own house, which contained many rare and valuable curiosities.