BRUCE, ROBERT GEORGE, military engineer; b. probably in Scotland, son of – Bruce and Margaret Hay; d. 8 April 1779 in London, England.
Robert George Bruce joined the Board of Ordnance in Great Britain as a practitioner engineer in December 1755; when the engineers were accorded military status in 1757 he received an ensign’s rank. Later that year he took part in the abortive expedition against the French naval arsenal of Rochefort. He was promoted lieutenant in 1758 and captain-lieutenant in 1759, and in the summer of 1761 he received a posting to Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia.
When Annapolis Royal became the British capital of Nova Scotia in 1710, the Board of Ordnance had assumed responsibility for its fortifications. During the 1730s and 1740s it authorized repairs to meet various emergencies, but the financial base to rebuild the crumbling earthworks in a more permanent fashion was lacking. After the martial situation eased in the late 1750s, however, the board was able to examine the state of Nova Scotia’s defences, and in the process it gave Annapolis Royal a degree of attention it had never enjoyed during the period of conflict. Bruce was dispatched from England with orders to report on the condition of the old fort and recommend necessary improvements.
Bruce’s North American experiences began inauspiciously with the capture of his ship by a French privateer and the consequent loss of his instruments and personal effects. He reached Annapolis Royal in July and shortly thereafter reported to the board that the fort was in a “most ruinous condition.” He recommended an ambitious proposal to rebuild the earthen walls and bastions in stone. No action was taken on this proposal for nearly two years while the board considered it; in the interim Bruce occupied his time inspecting forts Frederick (Saint John, N.B.) and Cumberland (near Sackville, N.B.), surveying on the Saint John River, and assisting his engineer colleagues Samuel Beardsley, John Marr, and William Spry at Halifax.
Approval to begin work at Annapolis Royal was received early in 1763, and by the summer Bruce had commenced extensive masonry foundations for a new fort. He negotiated contracts for construction materials with the Boston firm of Apthorp and Hancock and with local suppliers so that the Annapolis area experienced a period of brisk trade. The local labour shortage was solved by employing Acadians who had escaped deportation in 1755 and who had been allowed to remain as nominal prisoners. This activity brought a measure of prosperity to the former capital; wages rose, sub-contractors flourished, and lumber prices exceeded those at Halifax. Bruce, apparently an affable employer with a “kind disposition,” virtually ruled at Annapolis, the engineers, overseers, and labourers outnumbering the regular garrison. By 1766 £15,000 worth of ordnance supplies, nearly half the estimated cost of the ambitious project, were stockpiled at the fort. In that year, however, continuing peace and tightened financial controls caught up with the Board of Ordnance; all work on Nova Scotian fortifications was halted and Bruce returned home. By 1770 almost no sign of his labours remained, the supplies having been dispersed, the new buildings dismantled and shipped to St John’s, Newfoundland, and the costly masonry walls removed.
Bruce’s career with the Board of Ordnance after his return to England is largely unknown. He was promoted captain in 1774. By 1778 he was in Dominica, where a small group of British engineers, including Gother Mann*, was building extensive fortifications. He had probably been there for several years, for he had acquired “estates and Plantations” by the time he made his will in February 1778. In it he bequeathed what appears to have been a good-sized fortune to a score of relatives and female acquaintances in both Britain and Dominica. He had been married, but his wife had apparently died in Dominica.
The defences of Dominica, although costly, were woefully undermanned, and the island fell quickly to a French invasion in September 1778. By the following April Bruce was back in London, where he died under pitiable circumstances. The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that his death was a result of his fourth attempt at suicide in one day. His servant and attending physician had dressed his wounds from the previous attempts but had trustingly left him alone in his house “in a seeming composure.” “Nothing but phrenzy,” reported the Magazine, “could occasion this melancholy catastrophe,” since Bruce had “just married an amiable young lady, and had himself a plentiful fortune.”
While his efforts in Nova Scotia apparently came to nothing, Bruce had some significance beyond his role as a casualty of the military parsimony that followed the Seven Years’ War. He was representative of a new brand of professional engineer which was beginning to appear in the British army: formally trained in comparison with his predecessors, well versed in financial procedures, concerned with the proper planning of fortifications, and insistent on sound surveys. He and his colleagues such as Beardsley, Marr, and Spry reveal in their correspondence a growing, almost ebullient esprit de corps arising from their identical training at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, shared experiences, and common disdain for the regular army. Six plans prepared by Bruce or under his direction survive to attest to the high standard of draftsmanship that was becoming the rule among the younger royal engineers of that day.
Clements Library, Thomas Gage papers, American series, 11, R. G. Bruce to Gage, 26 Dec. 1763; 50, William Fenwick to Colonel Cunningham, 24 March 1766. PRO, Prob. 11/1054, ff.357–59; WO 34/12, William Forster to Jeffrey Amherst, 21 Aug. 1763; 47/58, f.21; 47/59, f.118; 47/62, f.113; 55/1558, pt.3, ff.55–56; 55/1820, pt.3, f.11; pt.5, f.7 (mfm. at PAC). Gentleman’s Magazine, 1779, 211. Roll of officers of the corps of Royal Engineers from 1660 to 1898 . . . , ed. R. F. Edwards (Chatham, Eng., 1898), 5, 7. Porter, History of Royal Engineers, I, 182–83.