African tour 2

Mabel and Theodore Bent at ‘Great Zimbabwe’: February – December 1891

Perhaps the writer to begin the story of Theodore ‘Great Zimbabwe’ Bent is his friend Rider Haggard:

‘The world is full of ruins, but few of them have an origin so utterly lost in mystery as those of Zimbabwe in South Central Africa. Who built them? What purpose did they serve?… The labours and skilled observation of the late Mr. Theodore Bent, whose death is so great a loss to all interested in such matters, have shown almost beyond question that Zimbabwe was once an inland Phœnician city… But if actual proof is lacking, it is scarcely to be doubted… that it was the presence of payable gold reefs worked by slave labour which tempted the Phœnician merchants and chapmen, contrary to their custom, to travel so far from the sea and establish themselves inland. Perhaps the city Zimboe was the Ophir spoken of in the first Book of Kings…’

The next heavyweight, if not colossos, speaking for Theodore, has to be fellow Oxford graduate, Cecil Rhodes:

Cecil Rhodes, one of Theodore's backers at Great Zimbabwe (photo: The Bent Archive)
Cecil Rhodes, one of Theodore’s backers at Great Zimbabwe (photo: The Bent Archive)

‘If I am worn out please remember never abandon Mashonaland it is the key to Central Africa, it is very healthy, full of gold and dominates the situation. You have got it and believe me keep it; it is worth more than all your other African possessions it is simply full of gold reefs. As to alluvial I think the old Phœnicians worked that out. You will find that Zimbabye is an old Phœnician residence and everything points to Sofala being the place from which Hiram fetched his gold. The word ‘peacocks’ in the bible may be read as parrots and amongst the stone ornaments from Zimbabye are green parrots the common bird of that district, for the rest you have gold and ivory also the fact that Zimbabye is built of hewn stone without mortar… but I must not anticipate Bents [sic] discoveries he will be angry and start another theory in order to maintain originality.’

The significance of Great Zimbabwe and how to use these monuments to the best advantage of his new territories occupied Rhodes’s mind. It seems he called on some of his London contacts and staff to work on the matter for him over a period of a few weeks and the result was, for Theodore Bent, decisive. The activity culminated in a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in London on 24 November 1890. It was a meeting to which Bent had come briefed and within a few months he and Mabel were away trekking in South Africa, minor characters in Rhodes’s grand schemes for his nascent country.

A short summary explores the background to Theodore’s recruitment for the challenge of exploring Great Zimbabwe, and an outcome that, to this day, has him central to a long-running controversy over the site: even to the extent that his name appears in archaeology textbooks that include chapters on ‘racism’.

Mabel’s previous 1885 Chronicle, after detailing the couple’s brief interlude in Cairo, goes on to find the explorers continuing their work in the Eastern Mediterranean – the focus of Theodore’s interests until 1889. During this period he was a ceaseless lecturer and writer of popular and academic articles, as well as a busy Committee member for the Anthropological and Geographical Sections of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Notice in ‘The American Journal of Archaeology and of the History of the Fine Arts’ (Vol. 7, No. 4 (Dec., 1891), pp. 476-566) of Bent’s work at Great Zimbabwe, indicating his prestige in the US.

By 1889 the type of unlicensed and unscientific excavations specialized in by Theodore were becoming less welcomed by the authorities of both Greece and Turkey, and it was more prudent for him, in the short term at least, to explore elsewhere. The explorers sought a new focus for their research: preferably a British-controlled focus. In the winter of 1878, the British Captain E. L. Durand had undertaken tentative explorations among the extensive ’Ali grave mounds on the small island of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf and the British Museum offered a grant towards the costs of further surveys on the island. Theodore, no doubt having read Durand’s work (1880) was curious about various long-standing theories and Classical references that seemed to link Bahrain with the Phoenicians, and in turn to the movement of early peoples around the eastern Mediterranean (an interest of Theodore’s that was soon to become an overriding one).

Geopolitical factors were by then more favourable east of Suez: the great canal was open, and Aden, the brilliant choice as the British key to the southern Red Sea, was developing apace. Accordingly, by February 1899, Theodore found himself digging in Bahrain. His finds were modest, but illustrative. Bearing in mind all the efforts of getting there (via India), the couple in fact only spent fourteen days on the island – it very soon occurred to Theodore that he was wasting his season with uninteresting finds. By the end of February the couple leave again for Bushire across the Persian Gulf, Mabel adding in her diary: ‘[Having] passed 40 days and 40 nights of our precious time on the sea, we then and there made up our minds to return over land…’ With this throwaway remark, Mabel announces an epic ride towards home of some 2000 kilometres through Iran. Few would take it on today.

Extract from the article in ‘L’Ami des monuments et des arts’ (1891, vol. 5, pp. 355-63) on Bent’s work at Great Zimbabwe, indicating the level of interest of his researches internationally.

On his return to London in June 1899, the research Theodore undertook into Persian history, and the two weeks spent digging among the ‘Phœnicians’ in Bahrain, seem to have been sufficient to land him the plum job as first official surveyor/excavator of Rhodes’s Zimbabwe ruins in 1891. He was keen to do it – at the beginning of 1890 there was no real focus to his work as a freelance explorer and his career (and future funding) necessitated discoveries, momentum, and publications.

Back from Bahrain and Persia, and before any prospect of central Africa, Theodore was immediately working hard, writing up his results, breaking off for family visits to Ireland and the north of England (especially Sutton Hall, near Macclesfield). After that it was time to think of his 1890/1 campaign. Cecil Smith of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum suggested to Theodore that he might find it worthwhile to excavate around the Black Sea coastal town of Bourgas (Bulgaria). He would need authorization, and Smith recommended that he should contact Henry Howard Molyneux Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon, who might both be able to effect an introduction and assist financially.

Theodore visited the Earl at Highclere (aka ‘Downton Abbey’, of course) in October 1889 but the political situation in Bulgaria and the sensitivity to freelance excavations made such an expedition ultimately unattractive to the explorer. Rhodes and Carnarvon were close and indications of Theodore’s need for a ‘project’ may well first have come to Rhodes’s attention via Highclere.

The Bents had returned to London by early May 1890 from a final survey of the Turkish littoral, with relatively little to present in the way of finds. However thanks to his lectures, association memberships, and, by now, scores of published papers, magazine articles and newspaper editorial reports (he was a committed self-publicist), Theodore was by now an established ‘expert’ and regular at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), which had become, naturally enough, the focus for his activities and contacts. For the last few seasons that Society had awarded him grants towards his expeditionary costs. In November 1889 Theodore had presented a paper on his ‘Phœnician’ Bahrain finds, and the months previously were spent researching into what was then understood about this early and highly mobile and influential population of traders and settlers. The (later) activities of the Persian dynasties would also have provided reading material for Bent at this time. This research was put to one side while the couple returned to Turkey in early 1890, but it resurfaced that winter following reports by Rhodes’s Pioneers after visiting Mauch’s stone-built ruins near Fort Victoria.

Theodore would have been as curious as any of his RGS colleagues at the reports but, amazingly, as late as 6 November 1890, he was still planning yet another visit to the Eastern Mediterranean. He wrote, successfully, to the RGS Council asking for £100 towards the exploration of another part of south-western Turkey, from Alanya and into Pamphylia. However, within a few weeks he was writing again, this time asking for ‘permission to transfer the grant given me for Asia Minor towards… [a] systematic survey of the ruins in Mashonaland.’

Mabel Bent, possibly taken in Cape Town in 1891. “Mrs. Theodore Bent, another woman whose appearance suggests rather the drawing room than the trackless desert, has outstripped many a male explorer in her daring and her defiance of fatigue and danger… Mrs. Bent, it may be interesting to add, travels in a ‘tweed coat and skirt coming well over the knees, breeches, gaiters, and shoes.’ She wears a pith hat and always sleeps in a hammock.” [‘The Washington Times’, Sunday, November 1, 1903] (The Bent Archive).
Something had happened between early November and December 1889 to change his mind. Within, it seems, barely a month Rhodes’s influential agents had fixed on Bent as the man likely to take on the job of exploring these ruins and inclined in advance not to be thinking of them as having been built by local peoples. This was Rhodes’s priority, and, happily, all Bent’s inclinations were towards establishing distant cultural and trading contacts centred on the Levantine littoral and its associated destinations and markets. The decisive factor was E. A. Maund’s RGS lecture given on 24 November 1890 (see Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, n.s. v.13 (1891), pp. 1-21) at which Theodore was both present and prepared. Maund’s talk, illustrated by recent photographs, was delivered just six weeks after Fort Salisbury had been established. It was a blatant public-relations coup to accentuate the security, wealth, appeal and opportunities of Rhodes’s new lands, for which settlers were urgently required. Sitting down, Maund called upon the dour and reluctant ‘Mashonaland’ (a regional name for part of modern Zimbabwe) veteran, George A Philips (‘an old hunter in these parts’), to add some sense of melodrama to the evening. As something of an academic counterweight Theodore delivered a bizarre theory (he adapted it subsequently) of a ‘Persian’ involvement with the stone ruins. ‘But [Theodore adds] of course this theory is open to doubt, and I am perfectly certain that nothing definite will ever be found out about these forts until they are thoroughly dug out and investigated, when perhaps some inscription will be found that will prove that both Mr. Maund and I are quite wrong.’

As he was delivering the opinion ‘until they are thoroughly dug out and investigated’, Theodore might have caught Maund’s eye. It is hard to believe otherwise than that he had already been hired, or was very close to being so, by Rhodes and that he and Mabel would need to prepare immediately for South Africa.

A section of Theodore's map in southern Africa (photo: The Bent Archive).
A section of Theodore’s map in southern Africa (photo: The Bent Archive).

As was Bent’s custom, he promptly sent out what amounts to a press release to the media announcing his plans. This report in the American Register of Saturday, 13 December 1890 is typical of many: “At a meeting of the council of the Royal Geographical Society it was agreed to contribute £200 [about £10,000 today] to Mr. Theodore Bent for the purpose of exploring the remarkable ruins in Mashonaland about which so much has recently been heard in connection with the British South African Pioneer Expedition. The ruins have been known since the sixteenth century, and been described by Karl Mauch and others, but no systematic examination and excavations have ever been carried out. This Mr. Bent will undertake, and it is hoped he will thus be able to throw light on the origin of these mysterious buildings.”

Zimbabwe ruins by Thomas Baines. From ‘The Gold Regions of South Eastern Africa’ (1877, opposite p.122) (

Other ramblers who stumbled around the regions of Great Zimbabwe in the 1860s and ’70s include the relatively unsung Thomas Baines (1820–1875), who wrote up his mineral explorations in the compass-sweeping and posthumous The Gold Regions of South Eastern Africa (1877). He lies buried in Durban, having died there on 8 May 1875, and while it is inconceivable that the Bents had not read his work, perhaps even having a copy with them in their ox-cart, Theodore makes no reference to him in his Mashonaland book, nor does Mabel mention a visit to his grave when they reached this South African port at the end of November 1891 on their way home: “We reached Durban… and stayed 4 days at the Royal Hotel, where we were most comfortable. One day Mr. John Cross, the proprietor, took us a drive in his dogcart with cream-coloured ponies and took us to tea in an arbour at the hotel at Umgeni. The Governor sent us an invitation to stay at the Government House at Maritzburg, but though he had been enquiring for us for a month, our arrival was not discovered till too late in the newspapers, so we could not go. Landing at Durban was very exciting; it was so very rough we feared we should have to stay out all night.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent, Vol. 2, Oxford, 2012, p. 159)

Of the hardships Baines preferred, and which the Bents often endured, there is this summary in the Introduction to his book (xviii): “Baines died unmarried, although eminently formed by nature for a domestic life. He always hesitated to ask any woman to share with him the discomforts of his wandering career. He left nothing behind save the regrets of a numerous and attached body of friends, his pictures, and the works which will always place him in the foremost rank of Explorers in South Africa.”

The three larger vessels travelled on by the Bents for their journey to and from South Africa in 1891, beginning with the ‘Garth Castle’ (top).

The Bents’ total journey comprised (after the steamer to Cape Town): by train to Kimberly, ox-cart and horses to Fort Victoria, ‘Great Zimbabwe’ and its vicinity, Fort Salisbury and its vicinity, Umtali, the Pungwe River, Beira (Mozambique), and from there the regular steamers sailing south and round to Cape Town once more (before the long voyage home to London, via Lisbon).

In a letter published in The Times, on January 14, 1892, Bent refers to the caravan of 15 cases of acquisitions he is sending home, many of which are in the British Museum today: “I may add that 15 cases of our finds are now on their way from the interior, also a large collection of native objects, which I hope may arrive in England almost as soon as we do…”

The Bents arrived back from Africa, via Madeira and Lisbon, at the end of January 1892. Theodore’s prime consideration was the talk he was to give (‘illustrated with dissolving views from photographs taken by Mrs. Bent’) to the Royal Geographical Society on 24 February. He was preparing for it as early as October 1891 while still in the field, as the RGS advance notice recalls:

‘The programme for the coming winter season of the Royal Geographical Society is now partly arranged. As the Society depends for so many of its attractions on wandering stars, whose comings and goings are always more or less uncertain, an entire programme is never ready at the opening of the season, but already three or four interesting evenings are promised… But certainly one of the most interesting and at the same time most popular evenings will be that devoted to the account given by Mr. Theodore Bent of his journey to Zimbabye and his study of the strange ruins which he went out to examine. I may say, by the way, that news has just been received from Mr. Bent that he has discovered unmistakeable signs of the working of the old mines in the vicinity of Zimbabye many centuries ago. Crucibles and other articles connected with the pursuit of the precious metal have been found, and it is quite clear from the scraps of information that reach us that Mr. Bent’s story, when it is told in detail by himself, will be both fascinating and instructive.’

The lecture Bent gave was a triumph, with Theodore’s name uttered in the same few breaths, no less, as Stanley’s by the RGS President, Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff:

‘This is very much the largest meeting that we have had since the great gathering to welcome Stanley in the Albert Hall [5 May 1890]. You came expecting a great deal from Mr. Bent; you have not been disappointed, and I know that I have your mandate to return your most sincere thanks to him and also to Mrs. Bent, who was so excellent an assistant to him, and to whom we owe a great deal of the pleasure of this evening, for I understand Mrs. Bent did all the photographs.’

[Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff GCSI CIE PC FRS (1829-1906). The grand man’s diary of 27 November 1889 recollects: “Mr. Theodore Bent came down to dine and sleep. I have been glancing the last day or two at his book on the Cyclades, without feeling inclined to follow him to the fever-stricken Melos, the hideous Santorin, or for that matter to any of  ‘Those Edens of the Eastern wave’. [The quotation from Byron’s The Giaour of 1813 being an appropriate touch.])

It did not take the Bents long to arrange the exhibition of the Zimbabwe finds in their London home at 13 Great Cumberland Place:

‘Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent’s party was successful and interesting. Her sister, Mrs. Hobson, and a few intimate friends assisted Mr. Bent and his fellow-traveller, Mr. Swan, in explaining the relics to the learned and unlearned, to the latter of whom the trophies from the Great Zimbabwe might otherwise have seemed just so many rudely-carved old stones, instead of being silent witnesses of the ancient civilisation and worship traced out by Mr. Bent in the wonderful walled fortresses of Central Africa, carrying back one’s thoughts to that heroine of ancient history, the Queen of Sheba. Even the most unarchaeological were impressed by the fact that there is nothing like these remains in the British Museum.’ (‘The Folkestone Chronicle and Advertiser’, Saturday April 9, 1892)

The couple were now celebrities and Theodore promptly gave an interview to the Illustrated London News:

‘The expedition in Makalangaland from which Mr. J. Theodore Bent has just returned, and the results of which he has embodied in a paper read recently before the Royal Geographical Society is likely to open up a rich and well stored garner to the archaeologist. Mr. Bent, with his wife, was away from England exactly a year. During his journey… he not only thoroughly explored the great Zimbabwe ruins, but also trod parts of the country hitherto untrod by Europeans… [He] is not unwilling to talk freely of his remarkable journey, and a representative of the Illustrated London News called upon him last week, and learned some interesting facts… “I was sent out, you may know,” said Mr. Bent, “by the South African Company and by the Royal Geographical Society… to examine and excavate the great Zimbabwe ruin… I was accompanied by Mrs. Bent, who endured with great heroism the hardships of the journey… Our principal treasures we found in a corner of the fortress now used by a petty chief on the hill as a cattle kraal. Of these some of the most perfect are the birds used to decorate the outer wall of the temple… In M’toko’s country, it would, perhaps, amuse you to hear that Mrs. Bent created undisguised astonishment and alarm. Here few white men have penetrated as yet, and at every village my wife had to take down her hair and show its length, and the report of this extraordinary possession travelled so much faster than we did that on our arrival in many villages we were greeted with cries of Hair! Hair!”’

(That the doings of the Bents attracted considerable British public interest is reflected in the fact that at least 34 regional newspapers recorded the Bents’ arrival at Fort Salisbury, and 30 that the couple’s ‘treasures’ from Great Zimbabwe had landed and were on their way to London, and eventually the British Museum, where most of the ethnographic materials are now stored. The more desirable items (i.e. the iconic soapstone birds) went back to Cecil Rhodes and Cape Town museums.)

On their brief stopover in Cape Town, on Friday, 11 December 1891, before the journey home, via Lisbon, the Bents dined with Cecil Rhodes. Mabel does not record the conversation but it would have ranged widely, with Rhodes no doubt satisfied at the explorer’s developing theories based on an ancient and ‘exotic’ explanation for the various zimbabwe ruins. Around the dinner table, on that Friday evening, plans must have been laid for Theodore to assemble an exhibition of his finds, focussing on the sensational soapstone birds and gold-associated artefacts, at the Bents’ London home – Rhodes was keen to intensify his public relations campaign for Mashonaland as soon as possible and lent some of his own acquisitions. Others, such as E. A. Maund, also allowed their finds to travel to Marble Arch for the show in the spring of 1892. The national press were quick to cover it. For residents of the capital there were reports such as this in the Athenæum:

‘Mr. Theodore Bent has brought home with him from Mashonaland an exceedingly interesting collection of objects from the ruins of the ancient Zimbabwe, which he went out to examine last spring at the joint expense of the Royal Geographical Society and the British South Africa Company. These he has mean time arranged in his house in Great Cumberland Street. Later on, we understand, they will form the nucleus of a special African exhibition of a much more comprehensive character. The objects which first strike the visitor to Mr. Bent’s collection are the four bird forms perched on the top of slender soapstone monoliths beautifully smooth and polished…’

Four scenes from Great Zimbabwe, based on Mabel's photographs (photo: The Bent Archive)
Four scenes from Great Zimbabwe, based on Mabel’s photographs (photo: The Bent Archive)

Although the prize items in the Bents’ collection were the famous soapstone birds, the chance find of a possible inscription on the rim of a clay bowl provided the opportunity for Bent to make contact with the famous Orientalist Eduard Glaser (1855-1908), the leading expert on Arabian and related scripts; this contact was to prove extremely helpful in terms of future discoveries made by the Bents in Ethiopia and Yemen a few years later.

By the spring of 1892 Theodore had the material he needed (from his hundreds of finds, his subsequent research in Lisbon (where he consulted the academic Jaime Batalha Reis (1847-1934)) and London, and the couple’s various notebooks) to produce his several publications relating to their Mashonaland expedition, the most significant of which was his bestselling monograph The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland. (The title of the book was a play on Hugh Mulleneux Walmsley’s romance, The Ruined Cities of Zululand, although it was missed by most.)

A rare surviving example of Mabel Bent’s photography – Chief Mugabe from Great Zimbabwe (detail, National Archive, Harare); a reproduction of this image was prepared for Bent’s 1892 monograph (p.67).

With astonishing rapidity by all concerned the first edition appeared in November 1892, having been written, printed and lavishly bound in barely nine months. Disseminating Theodore’s genuinely held, but unsubstantiated theories, the book was soon sold out. A new (and cheaper) edition was prepared for August 1893, with subsequent reprints in both January 1895 and 1896, and a final edition in March 1902. Franklin White’s ‘Notes On The Great Zimbabwe Elliptical Ruin’, published in the  1905 Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (Vol.35, 39-47), and the appearance of Randall-MacIver’s volume in 1906, with his opinions on the ‘modern’ nature of the material, undermined Theodore’s theory (and future sales of his book, although it is readily available today in a variety of formats). The original Prefaces of the editions of the 1890s are valuable in that they were augmented by Theodore, quick to refer to fresh evidence that seemed to back his findings.

It is worth noting that shortly after the Bent party had descended from the highlands of Mashonaland to coastal Mozambique, the Anglo-American Times of Friday, 20 November 1891 issued an alarming report: “The following notice has been received from the Emigrants’ Information Office:- ‘Cases of sickness and destitution having occurred among British subjects at the port of Beira, in South-Eastern Africa, persons intending to go to Mashonaland via that port, are warned that the route is at present impracticable owing to the rainy season and the prevalence of tsetse fly, and that, when reported open, it should only be used by those who have ample means to enable them to return if necessary to a British colony. The port of Beira is most unhealthy; detention there for a considerable time is often unavoidable, and there are no funds available for the relief and repatriation of British immigrants.’” It is another stark reminder of the perils the Bents continuously, and with great bravura, faced.

But let’s have now an apocryphal aside by Cecil Rhodes from more of the Diary of the Right Hon. Sir Mountstuart E. Grant Duff (see above), this time for 13 March 1897 (just a few months before the untimely death of Theodore Bent):

“The Breakfast Club met at Herschel’s, Acton, Lyall, Trevelyan, Courtney, Mackenzie Wallace and Frederick Leveson-Gower being present. Acton confirmed a story which I had heard, but not from himself, to the effect that Mr. Rhodes had asked him: ‘Why does not Mr. Theodore Bent say that the Zimbabwe ruins are Phoenician?’ Acton replied: ‘Because he is not quite sure that they are.’ ‘Ah!’ said the other, ‘that is not the way that Empires are founded.’” [Sir Mountstuart E. Grant Duff, ‘Notes from a Diary, 1896 to January 23, 1901’; vol. 1, p.185. London, John Murray, 1905]

The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland remains a fair read. Although not Bent’s best (The Cyclades and Aksum take precedence), its adventurousness, topicality, and large number of illustrations and photographs made it one of the books of the year.

We can draw to an end with a few lines from C.H. Read’s review of Randall-MacIver’s findings on the site:

“Mr. Theodore Bent, a traveller of experience with some archaeological knowledge [sic], was so convinced that the ruins of Zimbabwe were the work of early immigrants from Asia that he made a painful but fruitless journey into Southern Arabia to find their prototypes. There can be no question that in his case, as with others holding similar opinions, his judgment was, perhaps unconsciously, formed in advance, and was not the outcome of unprejudiced investigations on the spot.” (Read, C. H. (1906). 47, Review of Mediaeval Rhodesia, by D. Randall-MacIver]. Man, 6, 74-76)

For a recent study of Bent’s finds from South Africa and where they can be seen there today, including the iconic soapstone birds, see E. Matenga, The Soapstone Birds of Great Zimbabwe. Archaeological Heritage, Religion and Politics in Postcolonial Zimbabwe and the Return of Cultural Property. Institutionen för arkeologi och antik historia. Studies in Global Archaeology 16. Uppsala, 2011.

(A great place to start for a bibliography on the region of Great Zimbabwe is Paul Hubbard’s Zimbabwean Archaeology to 2005)