A. L. Bruce Estates was one of three largest owners of agricultural estates in colonial Nyasaland. Alexander Low Bruce, the son-in-law of David Livingstone, acquired a large estate at Magomero in the Shire Highlands of Nyasaland in 1893, together with two smaller ones. On his death, these estates were to operate as a trust to bring Christianity and Commerce to Central Africa. However his two sons later formed a commercial company which bought the estates from the trust. The company gained a reputation for the harsh exploitation and ill-treatment of its tenants under a labour system known by the African term “thangata“, which operated in the plantation cultivation of cotton and tobacco. This exploitation was one of the causes of the 1915 uprising led by John Chilembwe, which resulted in the deaths of three of the company’s European employees. After the failure of its own cotton and tobacco plantations, the company forced its tenants to grow tobacco rather than food on their own land and significantly underpaid them. Following almost three decades of losses, the Magomero estate was in poor condition, but the company was able to sell it at a profit between 1949 and 1952 because the government needed land for resettlement of African former tenants evicted from private estates. The company was liquidated in 1959.
Alexander Low Bruce was born in Edinburgh in 1839, the son of Robert Bruce and Ann Low, and he attended the Royal High School there. After leaving school, he went to work for the brewing firm of William Younger and Company at the age of 19. In his 20s, Bruce worked in the firm’s London office and in promoting its activities in North America. In 1876, he became a partner and joint manager of the main Edinburgh brewery. In 1887, Alexander Low Bruce became Deputy Chairman of Younger’s, and he had other significant financial interests. Bruce was an active member of the Liberal Party until the Irish Home Rule crisis of 1886 split the party and he became a leading Scottish member of the Liberal Unionist Party.
Bruce married twice; by his first wife he had three children, Agnes (b. 1865), Robert (b. 1867) and Daniel (b. 1869), all born when he was living in Islington, Middlesex. In 1875, Alexander Low Bruce’s second marriage was to Agnes (1847–1912), the daughter of David Livingstone and his wife Mary (née Moffat). The Bruces had four children, David Livingstone Bruce (1877–1915), Mary Livingstone Bruce (1879–1883), Alexander Livingstone Bruce (1881–1954) and Annie Livingstone Bruce (1883–1954) who married Thomas Russell in 1909. Alexander Low Bruce shared Livingstone’s views on the role of legitimate trade in combating the East African slave trade and, after his marriage to Agnes Livingstone, Bruce’s interests turned towards the support of commercial and missionary organisations in East and Central Africa, and in 1888 he visited Kuruman, where Robert Moffat established his mission, and where his wife had been born. He was a founding member of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and became a director of the African Lakes Company, which had interests in what is now Malawi, and of the Imperial British East Africa Company, with interests in Kenya.