In the news once more, the seemingly persistent vicissitudes of the once-venerable Thos Cook & Sons (and all so symptomatic of British management for decades, especially in terms of brand stewardship) have sent the Bent Archive (late August 2019) back to Mabel’s diaries for references to the eponymous tour operator – for the couple, like thousands, tens of thousands, of travellers– relied upon Thomas Cook (1808-1892) for their occasional Nilotic episodes in the 1880s and ‘90s. The entrepreneur began his Egyptian tours in 1869.
Some background; Jan Morris, none better: “Thomas Cook, the booking clerk of the Empire… and ‘leave it to Cook’s’ had gone into the language. Cook’s had virtually invented modern tourism, and their brown mahogany offices, with their whirring fans and brass tellers’ cages, were landmarks of every imperial city. They held the concession for operating steamers on the River Nile: all the way up to Abu Simbel the banks of the river were populated by Cook’s dependents…’ (‘Pax Britannica, The Climax of an Empire’. London 1998, page 64)
The Bents’ first reference to the firm is in early 1885. Theodore and Mabel are off to explore the, then Turkish, Dodecanese, but opt to start with the steamer from Marseilles to Alexandria, via the Straits of Messina, and a brief detour to Egypt. Mabel busies herself with her diary:
“In the evening of Saturday [17th January 1885] we went out to see Stromboli. We could dimly distinguish the fire but when lightning swept low on the sea behind it the whole black form of the island was shown. We went very slowly, whistling through the Straits of Messina. We ought to have been in Alexandria on Tuesday but only got to the desired port about 2 o’clock on Wednesday [21st January], quite as glad to get into the Land of Egypt as ever the Children of Israel were to get out. We had our little feelings as we sat in a boat with a Union Jack and ‘Cook’s Tours’ upon it. We got through the custom-house very well and my box of photographic things was never opened anywhere though it was hastily put into a box with ‘Matière Explosive, Dynamite’ upon it.” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa’. Oxford 2012, page 6)
Moving on from the port of the famous Library, a few pages further in her diary Mabel details their sightseeing around Cairo – and, of course, at the Sphinx and its sentinels. Then, as now, tourists everywhere are suspended by their heels and well shaken; Mabel, in charge of the Bent coffers, is having none of it: “Monday 26th [January 1885]. By the bye, [Thomas] Cook, when asked, would send us to the Pyramids for £3 and I think we only paid £1 and 1 franc.” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa’. Oxford 2012, page 11)
The Bents’ first visit to Egypt was carefree and fun; Mabel’s diary pages read whimsically and breathless in 1885. Not so in 1898. Theodore’s (early, aged 45) death in May 1897 – Jubilee year – deprived Mabel of the focus for her life: the need to be somewhere else remained, but now with whom? And why? Typical of her she made plans immediately to visit Egypt on a ‘Cook’s’ tour in the winter of 1898 and chronicled the trip, ending with a return via Athens. The melancholy heading she gives this section of her diary is – ‘A lonely useless journey’. Her writing reveals her understandable depression. It makes unhappy reading, contrasting so markedly with her opening thrill of being in Cairo on that first visit with Theodore in 1885.
No doubt encouraged by her relatives, Mabel elected to put together for herself a ‘Cook’s Tour’ to Egypt and the Nile. But, often a mistake to revisit sites of earlier happiness, Mabel’s Egyptian pages echo a series of muted contrasts, sighs, and signs of near despair. That image of a confident, smiling Mabel climbing the Giza Pyramids on her birthday in 1885 is not the one that reappears as she groans ‘so sadly to Mr. Aulich’ of the Cairo Hôtel d’Angleterre, or rides ‘alone and unknown and unknowing’ around the great sites.
The famous travel company, however, is soon on the scene. They do their best to cheer her up: “Wednesday 19th [January 1898]. Port Said… We reached Ismailia about 10 p.m. I landed myself quite unaided and got to bed while the people [Thomas] Cook’s man was looking after, and a lady met by a government officer, were still in the custom house. I took a walk in the town next morning and started for Cairo… I was horrified by a note from Mr. Aulich, the manager of the Hôtel d’Angleterre, to say neither he nor the [Grand] Continental had a room and one had been taken in the Hôtel du Nil. I dined among many Germans, with their napkins tucked under their chins, leaving their elbows on the table and picking their teeth. My cupboard had such smoky coats hung in it that I dared not put in my dresses. Friday 21st [January 1898]. I went and groaned so sadly to Mr. Aulich that a garret was found for me – no bell or electric light – and thither I took myself before dinner. As I was in the Mouski, I thought I could walk in the bazaars so I put on my hat and made the best of my opportunity. Saturday 22nd [January 1898]. I went to Cook’s arsenal and chose a saddle to come with me with one of my own stirrups. On Saturday also I did all my final shopping and remembered when we were last here (or last but one). How we laughed …” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa’. Oxford 2012, page 268)
A few days later, Mabel takes, on one of Cook’s fantasy barges, to the river – that river – that has fed Egypt for millennia: “Tuesday 25th [January 1898]. Embarked on ‘Rameses III’, a very comfortable ship. I had a tiny cabin, the last one to starboard, but made myself very snug; the passengers chiefly American. About 20 English, of whom 13 with strong Scotch accents, and a few Germans. All the Germans for Wadi Halfa and none of the Americans or Scotch. Cook’s programme was carried out daily, it being announced at dinner the night before. It was very strange the first day riding alone and unknown and unknowing in such a troop. (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa’. Oxford 2012, page 269)
Mabel is writing on her Nile cruise boat. By 1904 the Cook Nile fleet comprised all these paddle-steamers (P.S.) for First Class passengers: ‘Rameses’ (236x30ft); ‘Rameses the Great’ (221x30ft); ‘Rameses III’ (200x28ft); ‘Amasis’ (170x20ft); ‘Prince Abbas’ (160×20 ft); ‘Tewfik’ (160x20ft); ‘Memnon’ (131x19ft). The steam ‘dahabeahs’ included the ‘Serapis’ (125x18ft); ‘Oonas’ (110x18ft); ‘Nitocris’ (103x15ft); and ‘Mena’ (100x18ft). Although Cook’s still have records for most of their steamers that travelled the Nile between 1890-4, they have no details for the period 1895-1900 and no booking records for Mabel’s journeys have been found (Cook’s Company Archivist, pers. comm., 2012).
Over the next few weeks (February 1898), Mabel makes several more references to Cooks as she visits the great sites and sights. The company, it seems, provides all comforts and care: “Thursday, February 3rd . Medinet Habou, Colossi, Dier el Bahàri, Gourna Ramesseum, and after tea I did the Luxor Temple alone; so nice and quiet and much less lonely than among so many strangers. Up to this we had awfully cold weather. I had, besides the Cook’s blanket and quilt, 2 blankets of my own, a shawl, dressing gown, newspaper, cloak and Ulster on my bed.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa. Oxford 2012, page 270)
On 22 February 1898 she has a visit by the famous man himself: “Reached Luxor Tuesday evening, but did not go to live ashore at the Luxor Hotel till Wednesday. Mr. Cook came on board that evening with Major and Mrs. Griffiths, off his dahabeyah ‘Cheops’, which we had been towing all day. (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa’. Oxford 2012, page 273)
Although with only a year to live, Mabel’s ‘Mr. Cook’ here is John Mason Cook (1834-1899), the only son of the founder, Thomas. The Luxor Hotel, to the east of Luxor Temple, was established by Cooks to accommodate the increasing number of tour groups along the Nile.
After Theodore’s death Mabel met the designer Moses Cotsworth in the Middle East and provided another Cook’s story. Moses had sailed to Beirut in December 1900 to visit the Sun Temple at Baalbek. In Beirut, he was ‘stranded in quarantine’ at Thomas Cook’s travel bureau. It was too late in the season for tourists to attempt the overland journey to Jerusalem and he was unable to afford a private guide. While waiting there he overheard a conversation between some other travellers who were also trying to attempt the same trip. Professor G. Frederick Wright and his son, Fred, were talking to Rossiter S. Scott from Baltimore, USA. They all wished to travel to Jerusalem. Wright invited Cotsworth to join their party as between them, and Scott, they could afford to hire a guide. The party set out for Damascus by the narrow-gauge railway over the mountains of Lebanon taking a slight detour for Cotsworth to visit Baalbek. By 17th December they had reached Damascus and organised a caravan of mules to carry them to Jerusalem. They had no tents but ‘depended on finding shelter wherever we should happen to be.’ In Hineh they sought shelter in the house of a Russian priest and had to remain there for two days to escape a snowstorm. Once on the move again they passed Lake Huleh where they were accosted by a Bedouin gentlemen who spoke English and asked them to drink coffee with him. The party then planned to visit the southern end of the Dead Sea. Wright recounted that ‘In this we were joined by Mrs. Theodore Bent, whose extensive travels with her husband in Ethiopia, southern Arabia, and Persia, had not only rendered her famous but fitted her in a peculiar manner to be a congenial and helpful travelling companion.’
Cook’s, of course, went bust inevitably and finally in September 2019 and future Mabels will no longer take to their beds, board, berths, flights, guides, and countless other services. Nor will their agents still greet them, smiling, at stations, harbour-sides, arrival gates, and pullman halts. Never more (unless reincarnated) will there be, Morris again, “Thomas Cook, the booking clerk of the Empire…”? All aboard? All abroad?
Mabel’s diary extracts are from Volume 2 of her Chronicles.
Death of a noted Baildonian – Theodore Bent, 5 May 1897
Theodore Bent died on this day (5 May) in 1897. The adventurer was susceptible to malarial infections ever since his visit to Andros in the Cyclades in 1884. The diary of his wife Mabel, his permanent travel companion, records this initial event: “Wednesday [12 March 1884, Gavrio, Andros]. I did not go to bed or undress last night. I had no bed to go to and T’s temperature was a little over 104. I rolled myself up in my fur cloak and screwed myself up on the corner of the bed and would have been more comfortable if there had been no ﬂeas. The doctor came last night and this morning. He says it is from cold. I don’t know what it is… The doctor, who constantly strolled in and screamed at T, is only an old man with some knowledge of herbs. He wanted to give T kina and was not at all satisﬁed that quinine was the same thing.” [The Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol. 1, 50-51, Archaeopress 2006]
This predisposition did not prevent Bent from risking his health in dangerous conditions in the Levant, Africa and the Middle East for the next 13 years, until, on his last explorations, he and Mabel found themselves malaria victims and stretcher-cases east of Aden in the spring of 1897. Mabel’s book Southern Arabia (1900) has the full, and very sad story. Thanks to their long-term Anafiote dragoman, Matthew Simos, the couple were taken by boat back to Aden, where they recovered somewhat in the infirmary there (their hospital bill has outlasted them both).
After a few weeks they were fit enough to travel, and an unnamed steamer took them via Suez to Marseilles. It seems that southern France disagreed with Theodore and his malarial symptoms returned. Alarmed, Mable rushed with her patient by train and ferry to their London home, where he died a few days later on 5 May 1897. On Theodore’s death certificate, Dr A. Elliot M.D. registered that the cause of death was “Malaria 6 weeks, Pneumonia 5 days”. The recurrence of fever as the predominant symptom tends to suggest that Theodore’s illness on his final tour was more likely to have been malaria rather than other diseases such as pneumonia or dysentery, although it would be consistent with other infections such as typhoid: there would seem to be no reason to question the diagnosis.
His early death (he was just 45) prompted eulogies in America and Europe, such was his reputation as a cavalier explorer and archaeologist. His many achievements can be seen via this link. It seems appropriate to quote from (among dozens of obituaries) the following from his local newspaper, The Shipley Times of Saturday, 15 May 1897 (the town of Shipley is a few miles from Bradford and Baildon, where Theodore grew up; the paper also misinform us of Bent’s place of birth incidentally):
“Death of a noted Baildonian – The death recently took place at his house in Great Cumberland Place, London, of Mr Theodore Bent, the well-known traveller and archaeologist. He was the only son of the late Mr James Bent, of Baildon, and was born in 1852 in the house at Low Baildon now occupied by Mr Smith Feather. Mr Bent was educated at Malvern Wells, Repton School, and Wadham College, Oxford, where he took his honours in the history school. After his marriage, in 1877, to Mabel, daughter of the late Mr Robert Westley Hall-Dare, D.L., of Newtonbarry House, County Wexford, and Wennington House, Essex, he, with his energetic and accomplished wife, spent several months each year in exploring little known districts and sites, from which he never failed to reap a rich harvest of geographical and archaeological knowledge. Mr Bent was an excellent linguist; he spoke modern Greek like a native. One of his earliest visits was to the Republic of San-Marino, on which he wrote an interesting little volume. He travelled extensively in Greece and Asia Minor, and in 1885 published a volume on “The Cyclades; or life among the Insular Greeks”. He afterwards visited the Bahrein Islands, on which he contributed a paper to the Royal Geographical Society. Perhaps he is best known by his investigations of the Zimbabwe ruins in Mashonaland, which he and Mrs Bent visited in 1891. The narrative of this interesting expedition has gone through several editions. In 1893 they visited Abyssinia, and made some valuable investigations among the ruined cities of that country. The last and fatal visit was the third visit to Southern Arabia, where Mr Bent succeeded in adding considerably to our knowledge of the Hadramut country. In 1895-96 the western shores of the Red Sea and the north of Suakim was the scene of Mr and Mrs Bent’s explorations, and here amongst the coast some remarkable remains of old Roman gold workings were discovered. Thus year after year Mr Bent continued to do good work for archaeology and geography, and he has at last fallen a martyr to his zeal. Mr Bent’s death will be a great shock to a wide circle of friends, to whom his kindly, genial, unaffected disposition had greatly endeared him. He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and of the Royal Geographical Society; of the latter he had been a member of Council. On October 11th, 1894, Mr Bent delivered a lecture to the members of the Bradford Philosophical Society on his travels in Arabia.”
Mabel was devastated by the loss, and her own full potential as an explorer and photographer was never to materialise; she died in 1929. The couple are buried together in the Hall-Dare (Mabel’s Essex and Irish family) plot in St Mary’s, Theydon Bois. Go visit, take some flowers.
Thoughts of and for Beira. The terrible floods caused recently by Cyclone Ida in Zimbabwe and Mozambique have tragically inundated Beira, in the central region of the country, where the great Pungwe slides into the Indian Ocean. The Bents knew Beira in late 1891. Mabel Bent writes in her diary as their party heads down east to the sea, and home, from Umtali. Nature then, as now, cares nothing:
“[Wednesday, October 21st, 1891.] Ink all dried up. Hens too tough to eat. Rode among hills. I had a weary time as I had a toothache or neuralgia and felt many a time as if I would tie my horse to a tree and walk. We found no water for a long way; ridge after ridge we climbed, always hoping for water in the next valley. At last, having left the track to seek water, Theodore said, ‘We must go back to the last water’. But I cried, ‘Anything but to go back! I don’t care how far we go now onward to Beira’. ‘Very well. We’ll go on!’ said Theodore…” (Mabel Bent’s ‘Chronicles’, Vol 2, Africa, page 141)
At last the Bents reached the Pungwe. In their day the river was navigable the 40 km or so from Beira only as far as Mpanda’s village and Neves Ferreira – and then only in the right season – by a few small steamers (reminiscent of the ‘African Queen’ for those who know the book/movie). One of these was ‘The Agnes’: “a fine, comfortable, flat-bottomed vessel built after the style of those boats one meets with on European lakes. She is the property of Messrs. Johnson and Co.” (D.C. De Waal, (trans. J.H. Hofmeyr de Waal), ‘With Rhodes in Mashonaland’. 1896, Cape Town, page 142)
Mabel continues: “At 2 next day [15/16 November, 1891] we rowed in a boat with about 25 others to the ‘Agnes’ at Neves Ferreira and went ashore… We went on board about 6. There were only Mr. Maunde and ourselves 1st class, but we were not sorted into classes at all and masters and servants, black and white, all eat at the same table in relays, for the saloon is very small and cockroachey [sic]. At 8.30 the dozen mattresses were served out and I rigged up my hammock and we all slept on deck. I went to the saloon and Theodore held up my dressing gown, for there were people there, and I undressed and in the morning made my toilette in the same way. We started at 9, to stop at 12, but at 11 got stuck on sand, so had to stay till 8 when the tide rose. We reached Beira about 12. The river is not interesting, though here and there are pretty huts nestling among palms, bananas and mangroves. We saw many rhinoceri and only one crocodile. We crossed what seems a lake to get to Beira, a most horrid place with few houses and much sand.” (Mabel Bent’s ‘Chronicles’, Vol 2, Africa, page 158)
The popular Christian nurses Blennerhasset and Sleeman are a little more kindly about the place: “The said town [Beira]… may be described as a long flat reach of sand, over which a few tents were scattered. There were also two iron shanties, and that was all. The place looked, even from afar, the picture of desolation.” However they enjoyed the scene more two years later on their way out: “In 1893 we founds streets, stores, and charming houses of the American chalet type”. (R.A. Blennerhassett and L.A.L. Sleeman, ‘Adventures in Mashonaland, by Two Hospital Nurses’. 1893, London, pages 61, 324)
The Bents left poor Beira on the S.S. Norseman around 24th November 1891, for their home journey south and onwards to Cape Town and London.
The illustration is ‘The Agnes steaming up the Pungwe River’. From a sketch by ‘Mr. Doyle Glanville’. ‘The Illustrated London News’, 15 August 1891, page 202. Private collection.
Unmissable (if you can access it) – this 1958 episode of the BBC archaeology series ‘Buried Treasure’, in which Sir Mortimer Wheeler scrambles over the site of Great Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia). The 1891 explorer of this still-astonishing monument, Theodore Bent, is unfairly (only for this blog, of course) dismissed in Wheeler’s exposé as a ‘gullible antiquary’: Bent was paid to give some sort of explanation, and he did. ‘No ancient site in the world’, mutters Wheeler lugubriously through his pipe, ‘unless maybe for the Pyramids and Stonehenge, is more clogged than Zimbabwe with sticky romance…’ Wheeler explores the awe-inspiring stone ruins in the controversial company of Roger Summers, then Chairman of the Southern Rhodesia Historical Monuments Commission. The title of the episode is unhelpful – King Solomon’s Mines – but the programme is a delight for the fabulous black and white filming, and the sight of Wheeler in shorts chasing hippopotami. For modern interpretations of the Great Zimbabwe site, you must, of course, look elsewhere.
But let’s focus rather on the Queen’s Hotel, Kimberley; it still stands (at 10/12 Stockdale St). Well into its second century now it is not what it was, of course, but it stands for something. Theodore and Mabel Bent are on their way in early 1891 from Cape Town, by train, to explore the ruins of ‘Great Zimbabwe’ for Cecil Rhodes, and the couple stay at the hotel, a focal point and metaphor, from 26 February to 3 March 1891. The gables of the impressive structure, fashioned after the Dutch Cape Colonial style, bore the legend ‘1881 Queen’s Hotel’, carved in relief on inset panels. We clearly have a fancy brick edifice here, with elaborate, wrought iron verandas. At the time of the Bents’ stay the proprietor was probably one Henry Orkin, but the hotel’s prestige dates from the first phases of the diamond rush in the 1860s, and the later arrival of James and Catherine Jardine (Scots) from Pniel. Catherine bought the single plot, double-storey building and within a few years had added another twin double-storey structure to her hotel. But by the Bents’ arrival Catherine had retired back to Cape Town.
Kimberley, like it or not: the times were as they were, and all roads led to Rhodes. Arguably and extraordinarily, the diamonds from Kimberley (and gold from nearby) were used to buy what became Rhodesia, which went on to become Zimbabwe; and the wealth from these diamonds continues to circulate, somewhere – such forces don’t just disappear, we are talking Wagner here. Much of this (diamond Ring) story materialises within a couple of hundred metres of the Queen’s Hotel, Kimberley, in the second half of the 19th century, around the frenzied wheelers and dealers gravitating to southern Africa in search of fortunes, and totally heedless of the consequences of their activities, then and now. ‘Nothing in the external appearance… suggests either its fame or its wealth’, wrote Lord Randolph Churchill of Kimberley. Formerly ‘New Rush’, the town was named (June 1873) after John Wodehouse, 1st Earl of Kimberley, and became the capital of the Northern Cape. Few places on earth have generated, so quickly, so much power, greed and exploitation, beginning, in 1871, with a rough diamond of some 83 carats found on the farm called Vooruitzigt, belonging to the brothers De Beer. The story of how most of Kimberley’s mines were gradually acquired by Rhodes and his cockney, maverick sidekick, Barney Barnato, under the corporate banner of De Beers Consolidated Mines, is the stuff of legend and business-school texts. The great workings in the town, the ‘Big Hole’, are a tourist attraction still: ‘[One] of the most astonishing memorials to the impetus of avarice… [The] whole vast mess of the Big Hole was covered in a mesh of ropes, gently shimmering in the hot wind like an enormous spider’s web… The Big Hole, disused since 1914, became the largest man-made hole in the world – a mile round the top and nearly 700 feet deep’ (Jan Morris, ‘Pax Britannica, The Climax of an Empire’, 1998).
The Bents’ planned adventure of 1891 had been the talk of London’s Royal Geographical Society for several months: ‘Mr. Theodore Bent’s Expedition to Zimbabye: Mr. Bent left England last Friday (January 30th) on his mission to explore the strange ruined buildings in the gold region of South-east Africa. An unfortunate error in our note on this expedition in the January No. of the ‘Proceedings’ escaped correction in proof. It is the Chartered South African Company (not the East African) which has interested itself in Mr. Bent’s archaeological and topographical exploration. This company and our Society have each contributed a grant of 200l. towards the expenses of the expedition’ (‘Geographical Notes’, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Feb., 1891), 105).
Resting at the Queen’s Hotel for a few days, Theodore and Mabel acquired the assets needed for their expedition (north to ‘Great Zimbabwe’) from the ‘Colossus’’ Alberichian lieutenant, Rutherfoord Harris. Dr Frederick Rutherfoord Harris (1856–1920) had qualified in Edinburgh, moving to Kimberley ten years before Mabel meets him. His rise in Rhodes’s service was rapid. Brian Roberts (‘Cecil Rhodes. Flawed Colossus’, 1987) describes him as a ‘coarse, ambitious adventurer… [who] came to be regarded as a loudmouthed braggart and born intriguer, whose penchant for mischief-making caused Rhodes endless trouble.’ But he clearly had something, and after his master’s death he is back in England by 1905, where he was ‘associated with some few finance Cos… and entered the arena of British politics in 1900 as Conservative M.P. for the Monmouth Burghs… Dr. Harris is a keen dog fancier, and is very popular in South Wales, where he spends most of his time’ (W. H. Wills and R. J. Barrett, ‘The Anglo-African Who’s Who & Biographical Sketch-Book’, 1905). Wikipedia adds a sad coda – that his widow, Florence, “hanged herself three months after his death in 1920, apparently overcome by grief”.
But thirty years before, in mercantile Kimberley, C. H. Weatherley, the B.S.A.C. Secretary in London, on Rhodes’ instructions, had already prepared Dr Harris to expect the Bents: ‘The Company’s contribution (viz: £200) towards… expenses has been paid to Mr. Bent, who has also been promised the Company’s assistance in the arrangement of his finances in connection with which he yesterday handed me a cheque for £1000. This sum has been placed to the credit of the Kimberley Office account, to be paid by you to Mr. Bent… [Please] provide Mr. Bent with letters of introduction… to any other persons whom you think can render assistance to [him] in his important and interesting expedition’ (B.S.A.C. ‘Out’ Letters, Rhodes House, MSS. Afr. s. 70-84, Folio 262/3, 22 January 1891). The ‘expedition’ was indeed important to Rhodes – Bent’s theories on the ‘Great Zimbabwe’ site suited his colonial ambitions for the territory.
Thus set up, by the end of February 1891, the Bents had reached Kimberley, Mabel Bent recording the approach and arrival in her ‘Chronicles’, the indispensable diaries she kept for every year of the couple’s explorations: “We saw Miss Olive Schreiner, the authoress of the ‘Story of an African Farm’ and started at 8 on the 26th [February 1891] for Kimberley, which we reached next morning. The train goes very slowly and stops a good time outside each station and any time else that the driver pleases. Once it went off too soon, without us but kindly came back. Between Worcester and Matjiesfontein we had permission to travel on the cowcatcher over the Hex pass. It was a delightful break in the monotony of the journey over the Karoo desert… On reaching Kimberley [Friday, 27th February 1891] we found that Dr. Harris had engaged rooms for us at the Queen’s Hotel. He belongs to the British South Africa Co. and had been kindly buying our wagons and having them fitted up; also 36 oxen and provisions for four people for 6 months… We went down the De Beers diamond mine, 800 feet, dirty and disappointing, and also went into the compound where black people live for 4 months, only going to the mines – that was more interesting. Most men were dressed in blankets and they certainly seemed to have any amount of trousers, but they were nearly all spread out on the ground or hung up. All the store of diamonds was very wonderful to behold. Very few were comparatively white and many looked like lumps of gum Arabic… On Tuesday [3rd March 1891] we left Kimberley for Vryburg. The wagons were on the train and the oxen and all the provisions, so we took up 10 trucks. We travelled more slowly than ever. One could hear the grasshoppers above the noise of the train…” (Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol. 2, pages 47–49).
Such a place was Kimberley then, and the Queen’s Hotel in Stockdale St. The grasshoppers will, no doubt, remain when the diamonds have gone… honey take me dancing.
A superficially unremarkable photograph sent in recently by Anafi specialist Prof. Margaret Kenna contains a remarkable clue. The clue is a family name – Simos – on a plaque commemorating benefactors to the Association of Anafi Islanders (Greek Cyclades) in the early 1950s: a relatively prosperous family, thanks to one Matthaios Simos.
There is an archetype waiting for psychoanalysts to explore – the dragoman, the person you employ to facilitate your travel in foreign lands. Wiktionary helps here (if you want more, you are on your own): ‘From Middle English dragman, borrowed from Old French drugeman, from Medieval Latin dragumannus, from Byzantine Greek δραγομάνος (dragomános), from Arabic تُرْجُمَان (turjumān, “translator, interpreter”)’.
What type you get depends on your luck – from an Aristotle to a Zidane – and all travel narratives contain them, none more so than our great 19th-century accounts. And Theodore and Mabel Bent had an extraordinary one: not their first, Kostandinos Verviziotes (for the couple’s 1882/3 visit to Greece and Turkey), nor their second, George Phaedros from Smyrna, who started with the Bents as they left for the Cyclades in the winter of 1883. Theodore and Mabel engaged George on the recommendation of Mr Dennis at the Smyrna consulate. That he was only a moderate success may be inferred by Mabel’s initial lack of enthusiasm when he joins them again, at Ermoupolis, Syros, in December 1883. Apparently he enjoyed a drink, but he was also a grumbler and a terrible sailor – a distinct disadvantage when island-hopping, out of season, on small ﬁshing boats. By Naxos, a few weeks later, the Bents had had enough of him, and one day, high up in a mountain village, they ﬁnd themselves sitting in a warm room, and, “When Mr. Konstantinides our host came home he found 10 people drying their clothes, us two and Phaedros, Mr. Swan, and a man called Mantheos, a native of Anaphi who is to show Mr. Swan mines there…” George was dismissed on Naxos in January 1884 – with just five words in Mabel’s notebook: “We left Phaedros at Naxos”. The Bents went on, of course, to explore Anafi a few weeks later.
There is a sad letter (in English) from George folded into Mabel’s 1883/4 diary asking for remuneration, and although diversionary, no apologies are given for including it here, just skip it if you wish:
[C/O British Consulate Smyrna 1st February /84] Dear Mr Bent I am happy to learn from your favours of 20th January which I received on the 30th of the same, that both you and Mrs Bent are quite well. I have been always thinking of you how you managed with the continuation of your excursion, and how you got on with the unusual rough winter of this year exposing yourselves so, to the mercy and providence I dare say of God. As regards my passage to Smyrna after we departed, you will please learn that your hopes did not prove as expected for I did not escape of what I was fearing. The wretched steamer ‘Eptanisos’ which took you from Naxos on Monday the 7th of January 1884, did not come back to that island to pick me up for Syra until Wednesday the 9th January, (and about noon) and subsequently she kept going so slow, that I missed the Messageries steamer for Smyrna which was leaving Syra (bound for that town) on the same day. I have been waiting consequently six days in Syra and was obliged to spend almost all the money you gave me at Naxos, (viz: the 100 francs) that is to say in expenses for the Hotel in Syra, in changing my broken and shabby hat, and in paying for my passage or fare ticket to Smyrna which brought me home almost penniless. And my wife had already spent also, what I had sent her from Syra in buying some necessary things for the house, with the cause of the holidays etc. So my friends who expected me to return quite a rich man, contemplating, in their idea and opinion that I was getting £T5 [Turkish pounds] per day in consideration of the winter season travelling, were quite disappointed to ﬁnd that I was obliged and in need to borrow money off them. Mr Dennis also told me that he did not think it was right for me to pay out of my pocket my passage to Syra and back and the expenses for the delay in waiting you in Syra etc., etc. As regards the salary I do not exactly appreciate the opinion of my friends, but I think it is fair that you should make a little allowance for the winter season, that is to say if you do not ﬁnd it so inconvenient, so as to make it worth my while, as I am a fellow with a family as you know. I left Syra on the evening of Monday 14th January. I don’t know where you have spent that fearful evening and night but it was in my destiny to ﬁnd myself in a most violent gale, but fortunately in a brave Arab steamer with Greek captains which was ﬁghting with the elements of the nature that night and stand up like a giant against them. All the plates and glasses are broken and the water found its way in to the cabins. We overtook a steamer called ‘Simiotis’ and saw her bow deeped into the water and we thought she was going to be lost but we learnt that she turned back to Tinos. We kept up but we suffered until we faced the Bay of Smyrna. The impression of that night is still very brisk in my memory. But the necessity of a man is superior to the impression of fear. Although I foresee still bad weather going to be, I made up my mind to come and accompany you again and to be at Syra on the 16th February with the hopes that we shall ahoy the caïques and you will pay for my passage, etc. Please send through Mr. Binney some money for my travelling expenses, etc., enabling me thus to make my start. With my best regards to Mrs. Bent and Mr. Swan. I remain yours sincerely… George Phaedros.
This proved a letter in a bottle however and no reply to him is referenced. Within a few days of Phaedros’ abandonment, a whiskery Ariadne on Naxos, and Matthaios Simos (Mabel Bent spells him a multitude of ways over the next ﬁfteen years, but ‘Manthaios’, awkwardly, seems to predominate) gets the top job as dragoman for the Bents, and begins a partnership – friendship really – with Theodore and Mabel that continues until 1897 and Theodore’s death. Missing only two or three seasons, Theodore (using the English telegraph station at Ermoupolis to reach him) wires Matthaios from London that he might be, on such and such a date, at Syros, or Rhodes, or Chios, or Alexandria, or Port Said, or wherever, to act as their translator, guide, cook, lodgings ofﬁcer, victualler, foreman and general factotum. This small and wiry islander, who waited to marry until he had finished his career with the Bents, having by then sufficient resources, ‘plusios’ even, and a good catch. (As was the case with so many young Greeks who ventured far afield to escape difficult conditions back home.) Matthaios left his footprints in the sands of Southern Arabia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Socotra, Yemen, as well as all around the Aegean.
It is fascinating to see in print and photographs how such a relationship developed. In his great book “The Cyclades”, this is Theodore in 1885: ‘My ﬁrst experiences [of the islands] were made with the assistance of a dragoman; but, on better acquaintance with the language, I learnt to despise his services, and took as servant a native of one of the islands, who became invaluable in assisting me to discover points of folklore which without him it would have been impossible to arrive at.’
In the Community ofﬁces of Anaﬁ, two hours’ ferry ride away and a little southeast of Santorini, the early registers of births (men only) record the arrival of Matthaios in 1846, son of a subsistence farmer, like nearly every other child. The chance that led him to Naxos and a meeting with the Bents in 1884, aged nearly forty, alters his life (there is a later reference by Theodore that he might have had a tobacco shop on the island as a younger man). In Mabel’s 1897 ‘Chronicle’, the year of her husband’s death, there is a list of travel costs payable, in Theodore’s hand. Matthaios’ wages for the trip to Socotra and Aden are £50, about £5000 today, and a huge sum for a Cycladic farmer at the turn of the 19th century; he is able to effectively retire to Anaﬁ, marry, have a family (his descendants are now in Athens and no Simoses remain on the island), and tell of his adventures in foreign lands as dragoman and friend to an extraordinary English couple. He died in the mid-1930s, ﬁve years after Mabel’s death.
Mabel took his photograph on several occasions, the final one in Bent’s last camp, on Socotra in 1897: Theodore is on the left, taking down notes for his arcane dictionary of Socotran dialects. As well as their assistant Ammar, an unmistakable English figure in a topee, one Ernest Bennett, sits to the right. And between the two, just in the background, and alas not clear, stands a middle-aged man in his working clothes… this is Matthaios Simos. (There is also another splendid image of him sitting on a Sudanese camel.)
There was another serendipitous meeting for Matthaios Simos. The writer Vincent Scott O’Connor travelled in the Cyclades in the 1920s and found his way to Anaﬁ. O’Connor had a copy of Bent’s book on the islands and jumped at the chance of an interview with Theodore’s famous (at least on Anaﬁ) dragoman. He records him one evening, up in Chora, “The story-teller relaxed from his labours; a ﬁne little old man with a curved nose and clean-cut features…” Manthaios tells of how he ‘saved’ the Bents from pirates on Samos in 1886: “At Samos,” he said, “there were pirates, who had made up their minds to kidnap the English travellers, and for that reason my master was unable to leave the island. It was I who circumnavigated their wiles… But it was not in these isles that we had our greatest adventures, it was in Arabia… Mrs. Bent was always eager to press on. One night we slept in a damp spot, and while there I had a dream in which I saw two horses and a chariot in Anaphe; but there was no driver, and one of the horses fell down and died. The chariot was overturned. My interpretation of the dream was that this portended a disaster to our party. But Bent only laughed at my fears. He said dreams were nothing but dreams. Nevertheless, as I expected, Mrs. Bent fell seriously ill of a fever which each day grew worse. She could ride no more, and the Arabs refused to carry a Christian, especially a woman. But the Sheikh put his shoulder to one end of the litter, as I did to the other; and so we carried her till the rest of them became ashamed and each took his turn. We arrived at the sea and the Sheikh sent out some milk for the lady, but she was so ill that she could not retain it and daily she became worse; yet she went on, saying that it was only a little fever, and she would not hear of our abandoning the journey… I decided then to act upon my own initiative, and a dhow having come into the harbour, I spoke to the Captain and contracted with him to take us to Aden. Then, for I knew how obstinate are these English, I went to Bent and said, ‘Kyrios, why not take ship to Aden?’ ‘Nonsense,’ he replied, ‘you know very well that there is no ship.’ ‘Maybe, Kyrios, but suppose that there were one, would you take it?’ ‘Well! Yes,’ he said, ‘I would, for she is very ill.’ I took him to the top of a hill and showed him the Dhow at anchor! So we started; but on arriving at Aden, there was a ‘quarantine’ and Madame was not allowed to land. The Governor however intervened in her favour and a doctor came at once to see her. He was only just in time, but her life was saved. It was after this that Bent himself began the illness that ended in his death… All were agreed that here was a great traveller, one like unto Odysseus himself.”
And the same, of course, must be said of the dragomános extraordinaire, Matthaios Simos, of Anafi in the Cyclades, and all points south-east!
This extremely rare photograph shows Mabel Bent taking tea with Moses Cotsworth and party in the Palestinian hinterland in 1900/1 (Moses Cotsworth collection, unknown photographer. Photo reproduced with the kind permission of Rare Books and Special Collections, Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, University of British Columbia).
“Dear Sir William…Thank you for sending me the flower pictures. I like them very much. Of course I know there is nothing to find in Palestine that is new. I was there the winter before last and camped out by myself 10 weeks in Moab and Haura. I had my own tents and no dragoman. This winter I only got to Jebel Usdum and arrived in Jerusalem with a broken leg, my horse having fallen on me in the wilderness of Judea. My sister Mrs. Bagenal came from Ireland and fetched me from the hospital where I was for 7 weeks. I cannot walk yet but am getting on well and my leg is quite straight and long I am thankful to say…Yours truly Mabel V.A. Bent” (Letter from Mabel to Thiselton-Dyer, 19 April 1901 (Kew Archives: Directors’ Correspondence)).
Theodore’s death in May 1897 – Jubilee year – deprived Mabel of the focus for her life: the need to be somewhere else remained, but now with whom? And why? Typical of her she made plans immediately to visit Egypt on a ‘Cook’s’ tour in the winter of 1898 and chronicled the trip, ending with a return via Athens. The journey provides the concluding episode in this volume, and the heading she gives it – ‘A lonely useless journey’ – reveals her understandable depression. It makes unhappy reading, contrasting so markedly with her opening thrill of being in Cairo on that first visit with Theodore in 1885.
She wrote no more ‘Chronicles’, or at least there are no more in the archives, and on her return to London set about assembling the monograph her husband never lived to complete on his Arabian theories and researches, many of which sprang from their explorations in Mashonaland in 1891. She completed it in eighteen months: driven on by her loss, and inspired by her notebooks, she could be travelling again with Theodore.
The publication by Mabel of ‘Southern Arabia’ (1900) heralded for its surviving author a slow but inevitable decline and a melancholy sequence of years of loneliness and confusion until her death in 1929.
Still wishing to escape the English weather, Mabel opted to spend several winters in Palestine and Jerusalem. There she embroiled herself in troublesome expatriate intrigue and Anglican fundamentalism, and met Gertrude Bell, who informed her parents by letter: ‘I … met … Mrs. Theodore Bent the widow of the Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, a thin stiff little Englishwoman [sic], I don’t like her very much.’ And again two weeks later: ‘I met Mrs. Theodore Bent, but having thrown down the Salaam, as we say in my tongue, I rapidly fled, for I do not like her. She is the sort of woman the refrain of whose conversation is: “You see, I have seen things so much more interesting” or “I have seen so many of these, only bigger and older”… I wonder if Theodore Bent liked her.’
On her second solo trip to Palestine in 1900/01, Mabel joined a caravan to visit some sites referenced in the Scriptures, but inexplicably opted to go off on her own, and so doing fell off her mount and broke her leg; hence the above letter to her friend, the Director at Kew.
Now, thanks to help from Anna Cook, the researcher on Moses Cotsworth, we have more information on Mabel’s accident, as recounted by the geologist George Frederick Wright, whose caravan it was that she joined. The (lengthy) extract that follows from his autobiography has probably never seen the light of day since its publication in 1916.
“At Jerusalem we were met by my Old Andover friend, Selah Merrill, then United States consul. His experience in the survey of the country east of the Jordan, and his long residence in Jerusalem, were of great service in our subsequent excursions in Palestine. After visiting Jericho and the region around we planned, under his direction, a trip to the unfrequented south end of the Dead Sea. In this we were joined by Mrs. Theodore Bent, whose extensive travels with her husband in Ethiopia, southern Arabia, and Persia, had not only rendered her famous but fitted her in a peculiar manner to be a congenial and helpful traveling companion. She had her own tent and equipment and her own dragoman, and her presence added greatly to the interest of the trip.
“After stopping a day at Hebron, we passed along the heights till we descended to the shore of the Dead Sea at the north end of Jebel Usdum, through the Wadi Zuweirah. Here we found indications that, during the rainy season, tremendous floods of water rushed down from the heights of southern Palestine, through all the wadies. Such had been the force of the temporary torrents here, that, over a delta pushed out by the stream and covering an area of two or three square miles, frequent boulders a foot or more in diameter had been propelled a long distance over a level surface. At the time of our visit, the height of the water in the Dead Sea was such that it everywhere washed the foot of Salt Mountain (Jebel Usdum), making it impossible for us to walk along the shore…
“Near the mouth of Wadi Zuweirah, we observed a nearly complete section of the 600-foot terrace of fine material, displaying the laminae deposited by successive floods during the high level maintained by the water throughout the Glacial epoch. From these it was clear that this flooded condition continued for several thousand years. On the road along the west shore to Ain Jiddy (En-gedi) we observed (as already indicated) ten or twelve abandoned shore lines, consisting of coarse material where the shore was too steep, and the waves had been too strong to let fine sediment settle.
“From all the evidence at command it appears that, at the climax of the Glacial epoch, the water in this valley rose to an elevation of 1,400 feet above the present level of the Dead Sea, gradually declining thereafter to the 600-foot level, where it remained for a long period, at the close of which it again gradually declined to its present level, uncovering the vast sedimentary deposits which meanwhile had accumulated over the valley of the Jordan, north of Jericho.
“Our ride from Ain Jiddy to Bethlehem was notable in more respects than one. The steep climb (of 4,000 feet) up the ascent from the sea to the summit of the plateau was abrupt enough to make one’s head dizzy. But as the zigzag path brought us to higher and higher levels, the backward view towards the mountains of Moab, and towards both the north and the south end of the Dead Sea, was as enchanting as it was impressive. Across the sea, up the valley of the Arnon, we could see the heights above Aroer and Dibon, and back of El Lisan, the heights about Rabbah and Moab, and. those about Kir of Moab, while the extensive deltas coming into the Dead Sea along the whole shore south of us fully confirmed our inferences concerning their effect in encroaching upon its original evaporating area.
“After passing through the wilderness of Jeruel and past Tekoah, as we were approaching Bethlehem, a little before sundown, the men of our party wished to hurry on to get another sight of the scenes amidst which Christ was born. As Mrs. Bent was already familiar with those scenes, she preferred to come along more slowly with the caravan, and told us to go on without any concern for her safety. But soon after arriving at Bethlehem, the sheik who accompanied our party overtook us, and told us that Mrs. Bent had fallen from her horse and suffered severe injury; whereupon we all started back over the rocky pathway, to render the assistance that seemed to be needed.
“On reaching a point where two paths to Bethlehem separated, we were told by a native that he thought our party had proceeded along the other path from that we had taken, and that it would be found to have already reached its destination before us. We therefore returned to Bethlehem. But, soon after, the dragoman came in great haste, saying that Mrs. Bent had indeed fallen from her horse and broken a limb, and that he had left her unprotected in an open field to await assistance. Again, therefore, but accompanied by six strong natives with a large woolen blanket, on which to convey her, we proceeded to the place where the accident occurred. Here we found her where she had been lying for about two hours under the clear starlight. But, instead of complaining, she averred that it was providential that she had been allowed to rest so long before undertaking the painful journey made necessary by the accident; and that all the while she had been occupied with the thought that she was gazing upon the same constellations in the heavens from which the angel of the Lord had appeared to the shepherds to announce the Saviour’s birth.
“The task of giving her relief was not altogether a simple one. The surrounding rocky pastures did not yield any vegetable growth from which a splint could be made to stiffen the broken leg. An inspiration, however, came to my son, who suggested that we could take her parasol for one side and the sound limb for the other, and with the girdle of one of the men bind them together so that the journey could be effected safely. No sooner said than done. The sufferer was laid upon the blanket and slowly carried to Bethlehem by the strong arms of our native escort. From here she was conveyed by carriage to Jerusalem where we arrived between one and two o’clock in the morning, taking her to the English hospital, of which she had been a liberal patron, and where she was acquainted with all the staff; but, alas! this hospital was established exclusively for Jews, and as she was not one they refused to admit her, advising her to go down to the hospital conducted by German sisters. This, however, she flatly refused to do, declaring that rather than do that she would camp on the steps of the English hospital. At this two of the lady members of the staff, who were her special friends, vacated their room and she was provided for.
“Respecting the sequel, we would simply say that her limb was successfully set, and with cheerful confidence she assured us that she would reach London before we did and that we must be sure to call upon her there. She did indeed reach London before we left the city, but it was on the last day of our stay, and, as our tickets had been purchased for the noon train going to Plymouth, we were unable to accept her invitation to dine that evening. Some years afterwards, however, when visiting the city with Mrs. Wright, we found her at home, and had great enjoyment in repeatedly visiting her and studying the rare collections with which she had filled her house upon returning from the various expeditions in which she had accompanied her artistic husband.
“[Some time later pausing] at Rome, Florence, and Genoa, we entered France through Turin by way of the Mount Cenis tunnel, and, after a short stop in Paris, reached London, where I met again the large circle of geologists and archaeologists who had entertained me on my first visit to England… Returning to London, we engaged passage on a steamer from Southampton, just in time, as before remarked, to miss meeting Mrs. Bent, our unfortunate traveling companion in Palestine.” [From: ‘The Story of my life and work’ by Wright, G. Frederick (George Frederick), 1838-1921; Oberlin, Ohio, Bibliotheca Sacra Company, 1916 (including pages page 324 and 328/29. The link to the book is https://archive.org/stream/ ).
PS: On her stretcher journey to eventual hospitalisation in Jerusalem, Mabel would have shut her eyes and been transported back four years to the last time she was rescued, terribly sick with malaria, east of Aden. Also stretchered to Aden, her husband never survives the ordeal, dying in London a few days after arriving home in 1897. Here are the memories she must have relived in the form of some lines from Mabel’s own diary:
‘I felt quite unable to move or stir but on we must go; we had no water and what we had had the day before was like porter. I could not ride, of course, so they said they would carry me. I was dressed up in a skirt and a jacket, my shoes and stockings, a handkerchief tied on my hair, which was put back by one hairpiece and became a hot wet mat, not to be fought with for many a day to come! Of course I could not use my pith helmet lying down. I lay outside, while my bed was strengthened in various ways with tent pegs and the tent poles tied to it and an awning of blanket made. I dreaded very much the roughness of the road and the unevenness of step of my bearers, but off they set at a rapid pace and kept perfect step all the time. They changed from shoulder to shoulder without my feeling it…
‘Sometimes I passed or was passed by the camels, which seemed to be winding about over rocks and hills, but I went over these ways too. The last time we passed I thought it very unlike Theodore never to give me a look but stare straight before him, but then I did not know of his miserable condition. There was a delightful sea wind which came over my head, stronger and stronger, and just seemed to keep me alive. They carried me headfirst. I did not think they would be pleased if I constantly asked how far we were off still, so I only said civil things, but right glad was I, at last, after 15 or 16 miles to find myself in the thick of a rushing, roaring rabble rout of men, women and children, not a thing I really like in general but now it told of the end of my weary journey.’ [From ‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent, Volume lll: Southern Arabia and Persia’, page 322. Oxford, Archaeopress, 2010]
PPS: However, could this also be a photo of Mabel, perhaps, taken at around the same time at Karnak on the banks of the Nile? Thanks again to Anna Cook, we have a possible image of her from Moses Cotsworth’s pamphlet ‘The Fixed Yearal’ (available online from archive.com), which was probably published around 1914. It shows a woman in travel attire (does the hat match the photo above?), in shade alas, on the right, in front of one of the Karnak pillars. We have no proof that it is her, but Anna Cook, the Cotsworth specialist pins a note to it: “But he [Cotsworth] only travelled to Egypt around November/December 1900 and had his camera stolen so I suspect that the photos were given to him by Professor Wright – his travelling companion. I know that Wright was a widower who travelled with his son and that Cotsworth’s wife was at home in England so really Mabel is the only woman that was around in the right place at the right time and we know that she did travel with Wright and Cotsworth for a time.” (Anna Cook, pers. com., 01/2019)
We do have an earlier Karnak extract from Mabel’s diary: “[Monday] January 31st . When I reached Luxor I was asked to join a party consisting of Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Sebag-Montefiore, Mr. and Mrs. W. Wilson (who were travelling together) and Mrs. and Miss Wibbs [?], one a doctor, and have a special dragoman, Abdul el Kawab, a very good man. We went in the only two carriages to see Karnak by moonlight, a truly awe inspiring sight. [Tuesday] February 1st . We went again by the light of the sun and came back to luncheon.” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent, Vol 2, The African Journeys’, page 270, Archaeopress 2012)
However this is a year before Cotsworth went to Karnak to take his calendar readings; Mabel, recently widowed, was on Nile cruise run by Thomas Cook and did not proceed to Jerusalem that year – she was lonely and cut short her tour, returning to London via Athens (she headed her diary ‘A lonely useless journey). But let’s make a case for her meeting Cotsworth, feeling less lonely, in the winter of 1899/1900 and deciding to join his party for another Nile cruise and then onwards to the Palestinian wilds (where she broke her leg! See above).
‘It was splendid being up there’ – Mabel climbing the Great Pyramid of Giza on her birthday – Wednesday 28 January 1885.
Some Pyramid scalers in 1885 (the year of Mabel’s ascent), by J. Pascal Sébah. Obviously clambering all over them was the thing to do back then; it is not recommended today.
In January 1885, before leaving for a tour of the Dodecanese, Theodore and Mable made a tourist trip to Egypt, taking in, of course, the Pyramids: the Great Pyramid (also known as the ‘Pyramid of Cheops’ and constructed around 2500 BCE), and the smaller Khafre and Menkaure Pyramids. The Sphinx squats in the complex’s eastern quarter.
The visit to the Pyramids coincided with Mabel’s 38th birthday (she was born at Beauparc, Co. Meath, on 28 January 1847) and she went to tea as guests of Frederick and Jessie Head (the wealthy daughter of Australian magnate John D. Mclean) at their stylish home, Mena House, below the Pyramids. (Their house still forms part of the Mena Hotel, the Heads buying their home in 1883, a year after their wedding in Wells, Somerset). Mabel does not record whether Frederick was much out of breath after their visit, or feeling unwell, but in any event within a few months he is dead, and poor Jessie (far from actually poor) sold up to another wealthy couple, the Locke-Kings, who turned the house into a fancy hotel – and it remains one to this day.
Mabel, of course, logs the event in her ‘Chronicle’ for the day. We may assume from her reference to ‘steps’ ‘3 or 4 feet high’ that it was the Great Pyramid she felt moved to attempt. Possibly just because it was there:
[Thursday] Jan. 29th . I had such a great many birthday treats yesterday, one in particular that I shall never forget unless extreme old age robs me of my memory… A little after 5 we set off for the Pyramids with the gun lent by the porter and enough cartridges for a whole battle. We saw the Pyramids against the sunset sky, a very plain one – all the colours of the rainbow fading and blending one into the other and very few tiny specks of cloud. The simplicity of it suited the Pyramids so well.
… After dinner we went out in the bright moonlight and Theodore… went to visit the Sphinx but I preferred to go up the Pyramid, as I had not done it on Monday… I scrambled up all alone. At first it was very hard and I had to crawl, putting one knee up first, as the steps are 3 or 4 feet high, regardless of bruised knees or shins and I felt quite convinced I must have very little stockings left but I am in a position to send a testimonial to the stocking maker. I did not feel a bit frightened or giddy or obliged to keep my face to the Pyramid but looked up and down. My companions were quite out of sight and it felt odd to be alone with the Pyramid and the moon. I shouted up several times ‘Are you near the top?’ ‘Oh! Not nearly’ came down. Then ‘Am I half way up?’ ‘No Mem’ came up. So I gave up asking. It seemed so long and I wondered how it could be possible to get down… I did not get at all breathless.
I wondered if ‘Fair Rhodope who as the story tells’ sat on the top of the Pyramid, delighting all beholders, was a poor creature whose clothes had got torn off in the ascent and who could not get down. I thought of the dangers and difficulties in ‘Murray’ and ‘Baedeker’ and determined to read about them and tremble tomorrow, and I banished scornfully a very passing thought of the silk elbows of the only smart frock I have with me, and joyfully and proudly reached the summit, a strangely dressed figure – Hat, silk and velvet brocade body, white lace fichu over it and a blue cloth petticoat with a wide scarlet band, which I quite vainly tried to conceal by tying a black lace scarf round it; the skirt had been discarded before starting.
It was splendid being up there and I think it very very unlikely that any other person has been up by moonlight on his birthday before. I wished for a fire escape! Mr. Head and I came down together, sitting and slipping, sometimes having to put two hands together and jump and were glad indeed to reach the bottom safely … We had some tea and got home after a most delightful evening at 1 o’clock.
The Head’s residence below the Pyramids, where the Bents had tea, Mina House. Today a boutique hotel on a larger scale; the original house constituting the modern hotel’s dining areas.
For those needing a reference to Mabel’s ‘Fair Rhodope’, we must turn to the lines of Thomas Moore:
‘Fair Rhodope, as story tells,/ The bright unearthly nymph, who dwells/ ‘Mid sunless gold and jewels hid,/ The Lady of the Pyramid!’ (1827, ‘The Epicurean’).
Mabel’s lines are from the Egyptian entries in her ‘Travel Chronicles’, Vol. 2, pages 11-13 (Archaeopress, Oxford, 2012).
The photographs include one of some Pyramid scalers in 1885 (the year of Mabel’s ascent), by J. Pascal Sébah. Obviously clambering all over them was the thing to do back then; it is not recommended today.
The other photo is of the Head’s residence below the Pyramids, where the Bents had tea, Mina House. Today a boutique hotel on a larger scale; the original house constituting the modern hotel’s dining areas.
Harare being in the news (November 2017), here is Mabel’s sketchy account of their brief sojourn there in September 1891. Mabel and Theodore were at the ‘Nwanetsi’ river on 18 May 1891 and were soon camped by the Umfuli, some 40km due south of ‘Fort Salisbury’. Cecil Rhodes’s exploring ‘Pioneers’ (see later) had decided to halt their expedition between the kopye, called by the Mashonas ‘Harari’, and the river Makubisi, and to build their base there. The fort took its name from Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (1830-1903), then Prime Minister. Later, F. C. Selous recorded: ‘It is a matter of history that on the 11th of September 1890 the British flag was hoisted at Fort Salisbury, on the banks of the Makubisi river, and the expedition to Mashunaland thus satisfactorily brought to an end.’ The modern historian Tawse Jolie elaborates: ‘A full-dress parade was called at 10 a.m., 13th September, 1890, the seven-pounder gun fired a Royal Salute, Canon Balfour said a prayer, and the British Flag, the Union Jack, was hoisted by Lieut. Tyndale-Biscoe of the Pioneer Column.’ The site of course is now the modern capital of Zimbabwe – Harare.
Let’s hear from Mabel:
‘Tuesday, September 8th . We reached Fort Salisbury about 8 o’clock a.m. A man was sent on, riding, to enquire where we were to stop, for we hoped to be spared from the public outspan. We thought we should never arrive. We were half dressed and I was wrapped in a cloak. We drove all through the trading part, which is very extensive and consists of round huts, a few square houses being built, wagons and tents of all sorts, and booths and bowers grouped round a long, low, wooded hill. Then through the camp and past the fort and on to the civilian part and Dr. Harris said we were to outspan in that neighbourhood – the hospital and nuns’ dwellings being beyond. Before we had stopped, we were greeted by Dr. Harris and Captain Nesbitt and we and Mr. Swan were invited to take our meals at their mess during our stay. This invitation is of great monetary benefit to us, besides we could not get the food even if we did pay for it. Provisions are frightfully dear and scarce. Sugar 3/- a lb, milk 5/6 a tin, jam 4/6 a lb, ham 4/6 a lb, and everything is in proportion. A pair of common hinges 7/-, 1⁄4 lb of tin tacks 11/6, and 1 lb of paint 35/-. As for meat, it is very hard to get, and a worn out ox just crawled up in a wagon is really so tough that one can’t get ones teeth through it, and those we left in our camp got none…
‘After breakfast we began in real earnest sorting our baggage; some for England via Cape Town; 2 to go down the Busi with us and be sent by B.S.A. wagons to Umtali’s to meet us; 3 to go to Matoko’s; 4 to be sold; 5 to take to the Mazoe River. The bucksail was made into a tent for packing, but we were very much impeded and had two give up at times on account of the ferocious wind which raged all the time of our stay and brought layers of dirt into the baggage. All our white men sought places and all found them. Mr. King is to open a store for the Co. at the Mazoe River. We stayed till Tuesday morning. We saw a great many friends. Two days I had tea with the nuns who also came several times to see us. Mr. Stokes also, and an old friend of Mr. Swan’s, Mr. Macfarlane. Mr. Swan and I had tea in both these huts. Major Browne had walked in the last 30 miles and we had visits in our tent all day. One night (Thursday) [10 September 1891] we dined at the officers’ mess. They had made the dinner table so pretty with Mr. Coope’s puggaree, yellow silk, and ostrich feathers. The fatted calf had died and was served up in 6 quite different ways: cutlets, tongue, roast, pie, and 2 others. In the dining room is a hat rack – 6 rhinoceros horns…
‘Constable, our cook at Zimbabwe, was engaged by Dr. Harris for the civilian mess. He is abominable to us. Instead of coming forward like an honest man and counting on out our enamelled iron and kitchen things, we have to wring them out of him cup by cup. When we ask for things he says they are gone to the auctioneer but the list shows the contrary. The last day he kept out of the way and on Tuesday morning, though we were up at dawn, he had already cleared out. I suppose when we get back tomorrow evening that there will be a row. The auction is for Saturday. Besides our own affairs, there has been on last Saturday the First Annual Dinner on Occupation Day. Theodore was invited. The Pioneers hate Dr. Harris and Major Tye. The Chairman, Mr. Bird, made the rudest of speeches, which Dr. Harris ably responded to and most pluckily. The Pioneers had many grievances but some must have been trivial indeed. One of them was that a notice was put up at Zimbabwe forbidding anyone to remove antiquities. No such notice was put up, yet more than once it was complained of and one man said he had seen it. They managed to make Dr. Harris tell a lie for the pleasure of confounding him. When he said he had had official news from Cape Town that Mr. Rhodes was coming to Tuli, they told him it was a lie for he was coming by the Pungwe, they having concealed the news from Tuesday to Saturday on purpose…
‘Saturday 19th [September, 1891]. Our sale took place this morning but we do not know the result quite yet. Some of the things seem to have gone high enough: whisky £2 a bottle and brandy £3. We afterwards were quite satisfied. Some people certainly got good bargains, but then so did we: A [quart] of spirits of wine £1.10; 1 doz. 1⁄2 [bottles] champagne £1.5….’
The much put-upon ‘Dr Harris’ is Rhodes’s local top man, Dr Frederick Rutherfoord Harris (1856-1920). Qualifying in Edinburgh he had moved to Kimberley ten years before Mabel meets him. His rise in Rhodes’s service was rapid. He has been described as a ‘coarse, ambitious adventurer…[who] came to be regarded as a loudmouthed braggart and born intriguer whose penchant for mischief-making caused Rhodes endless trouble.’ He is back in England by 1905, where he was ‘associated with some few finance Cos…and entered the arena of British politics in 1900 as Conservative M.P. for the Monmouth Burghs…Dr. Harris is a keen dog fancier, and is very popular in South Wales, where he spends most of his time.’ (1905)
Much conspicuous by his absence from Mabel’s pages is Dr Leander Starr Jameson (1853-1917). His exploits for Rhodes, his patron, are legion, none more so than the infamous ‘Raid’ of December 1895, and he was by Rhodes’s side when he died in 1902. By September 1891 Rhodes had appointed him as his deputy in Mashonaland and he arrived a few days after the Bents had left Fort Salisbury. Rhodes himself and his party arrived at the mouth of the Pungwe on 26 September 1891, and headed west to Fort Salisbury as Theodore and Mabel were about to move east – they missed crossing paths when the Bents made their detour north. Earlier, however, they did encounter another of Rhodes’s great marshals and later philanthropist, Alfred Beit (1853-1906). Born in Hamburg to a well-to-do family, he arrived in Kimberley in 1875 to deal in diamonds and within a few years had become Rhodes’s colleague and ally and one of the four principal founders of De Beers. Diamonds and gold provided the capital on which Rhodes’s associates thrived, but the Barberton fields in the eastern Transvaal (as mentioned by Mabel) promised much but delivered little. Beit died soon after Rhodes and left his fortune as the Beit Trust which focused on educational projects in Zimbabwe.
A little more in the way of background
Under the concession negotiated by Charles Rudd (13 October 1888) for rights from Chief Lobengula to develop the territory of ‘Mashonaland’, Cecil Rhodes, via his British South Africa Company, quickly assembled in 1890 a small armed force (‘The Pioneer Column’) to annex the lands. The force assembled in May on one of Rhodes’s farms outside Kimberley and by 28 June they were at Macloutsie camp. Headed overall by Col. E. G. Pennefather and Sir John Willoughby the troopers mainly comprised well-connected young adventurers, given promises of grants of land by Rhodes. The contingent crossed the Tuli River and headed roughly north, over 600km of difficult terrain, towards Mount Hampden. Here they established a base (12 September 1890) that became known as Fort Salisbury, then Salisbury, and now Harare, capital of modern Zimbabwe.
Rhodes, the great puppet master, had plans for Theodore, too, with his agents working behind the scenes to persuade him and Mabel to explore/excavate the monument known as ‘Great Zimbabwe’ and have it written up as being ‘Phoenician’ (or at least non-African) in origin. After exploring the Great Zimbabwe ruins in the summer of 1891, Theodore’s party made its way north to Fort Salisbury, before detouring to explore some gold workings, deliver tribute to a nearby chief, and then descend, via the Pungwe valley, to the sea at Beira for their voyage home to England, via Lisbon.
Mabel was seeing the ‘capital’ of course in its very early months. Jan Morris provides a snapshot: ‘Until 1891 it had been a bachelor community and half its citizens indulged in African mistresses. Since then many white women had arrived, and the town had acquired a streaky veneer of decorum…The social centre of the colony was Government House, a pleasant rambling bungalow in the Indian manner…There were Fred Selous…Mother Patrick, the saintly young superior of the Dominican Sisters…Major ‘Maori’ Browne…ill-explained aristocrats like Lord George Deerhurst, who ran a butcher’s shop on Pioneer Street, or the Vicomte de la Panouse, popularly known as the Count…’ Theodore and Mabel encounter most of these characters at one time or another on their year-long adventure.
Before the Pungwe (late October 1891) and the journey home, the Bents enjoy a few days’ rest at Umtali with the companionship of a trio of celebrity British nurses recently arrived there (also courtesy of Rhodes’s benevolence) – Rosanna Blennerhassett, Lucy Sleeman, and Beryl Welby. Two of the three compile later a popular account of their adventures; they recall the Bents’ brief sojourn and Theodore’s latest thoughts on the monuments: ‘He was fresh from those strange Mashonaland ruins which have given rise to so much conjecture. Mr. Bent supposed them to be extremely ancient. He told us that, without consulting the archives at Lisbon, he could not give a decided opinion on their origin. At that time he seemed to believe them to be the ruins of a temple and fortress. There, he thought, weird rights had been solemnised and fierce battles fought… Mr. Selous differed entirely from this view. He believes the ruins to be comparatively modern, and the remains of native work… [He] is probably the best authority on the subject, knowing Africa as thoroughly as he does, and being able to converse with the native as easily as with an Englishman, whilst Mr. Bent could neither speak nor understand the language. But Mr. Bent appeared certain that the Portuguese only could throw light on the problem. He said that the Portuguese had certainly been all over the country, and that a Portuguese archaeologist who would devote himself to the subject would find the archives, of Lisbon, and very likely of other old cities, rich in most interesting materials.’
It is easy to see the nurses preferring Selous to Theodore. Frederick Courtenay Selous (1851-1917) fits this casual aside here as a rhinoceros might a garden shed: RGS Founder’s-medal-winner (1893), big game hunter, trail blazer, road builder, cartographer, diplomat, emissary, naturalist, writer. Legend has it that he was the one to break the news to Rhodes of the death, by an explosion of alcohol, of his brother Herbert. Born in 1851, Selous – ‘well over medium height, with fair pointed beard and massive thighs and legs, it was his fine blue eyes, which were extraordinarily clear and limpid, that most attracted attention.’ – first began to haunt Mashonaland when he was twenty. His subsequent reputation brought him to Rhodes’s attention and after having been involved in the ‘negotiations’ to acquire Mashona territories, he was recruited (and well incentivized) to guide the Pioneers to a site near modern Harare (Fort Salisbury), which was to become Rhodesia’s capital – a site that Selous himself had singled out from his previous explorations in the area. Press reports did not exaggerate when they wrote that Selous had ‘done more than any other man to bring Mashonaland into notice, and is credited, together with Cecil Rhodes, with having contributed most to the creation of Rhodesia’. Of his exploits, Selous himself opined that: ‘Such undertakings as the expedition to and occupation of Mashonaland cannot but foster the love of adventure and enterprise, and tend to keep our national spirit young and vigorous’, and that the ‘opening up of Mashunaland seems like a dream, and I have played a not unimportant in it all, I am pleased to say. The road to Mashunaland is now being called the ‘Selous Road,’ and I hope the name will endure, though I don’t suppose it will.’ Selous did very well out of Rhodes, who rewarded him with a large cash payment, 8,500 prime Mashonaland hectares, and 100 De Beers shares. By June 1892 the adventurer can write to his mother that ‘I can live on the £330 a year which my de Beers shares produce.’ By 1900, surprisingly, he had retired to a fine home in semi-rural England (Worplesdon, Surrey), but with the coming of the First World War, at the age of sixty-four, he joined the ‘Legion of Frontiersmen’ as captain and left to serve in East Africa. The big game hunter fell himself to a German sniper’s bullet to the head on 4 January 1917 on the edge of the Rufiji River. His grave is close by, in the Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania, topped with stone and brass. There would be no Mashonaland routes taken by Theodore and Mabel that were unknown to F. C. Selous. His beautifully bound books, in their original editions, were extremely popular in his day. (A rumour he did little to refute was that he was the model for Haggard’s Alan Quartermain; Theodore being another, by the way.)
Selous, it seems, avoided the Bents that September in camp Salisbury. As ever, he had things to do. Such was the food crisis (alluded to by Mabel in her diary) that Selous was given the task of guiding in the relief column in. One morning Theodore (as he relates in his great book ‘The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland’, page 283) espies the legendary figure ‘hurriedly dispatched to bring up the waggons at any cost. A few weeks later we heard that they had arrived, and the danger which had threatened the infant Fort Salisbury was averted’.
PS: Mabel writes home to Co. Wexford from Harare, September 1891
…and, by chance, we have a letter home to Co. Wexford, from Mabel. It is headed ‘Umfouli R[iver], September 5th 1891, finished 9th [September] at Fort Salisbury’
My dearest Faneen & L[oodleloo], Iva & E[thel]
I was in the midst of a letter but implored the cart to wait while I shut it up as I knew it was long since you had news. I wonder if you saw the telegram I sent from Fort Victoria in answer to one to report progress.
Well I will go on where I left off. We dined sitting on our bedding and soon went to bed, pretty tired. The days very hot and the nights sometimes dreadfully cold. It is rather hard on one not having some servant but we had no means of getting one. We meant to take a B.S.A.[C.] man as interpreter, but he was ill and we waited 2 days then took our head man, Meredith, who can talk Zulu, and one of our 9 [local men] could understand him, so we got on very well. We can say a few things now ourselves; so the wagons were in command of Alfred, no. 1 driver. Constable, cook, a black, leader [and] no. 2 driver of our wagon, and O’Leary, a man who is having a passage given; he feeding himself (not really though). He has been with us since May, digging at Z[imbabwe].
Since Fort V[ictoria], where a leader and driver left, we have been short of a leader and hoped to get one from Major Browne, who would have been glad to save his food and pay, as he has lost so many oxen, but he is so much behind and we can’t [wait?], so we get on without. A leader is the lowest. He puts on the break [sic], drags the oxen into the right path, for they have no other guide, and takes it in turns with the other leader to go and herd the oxen when grazing. 2 naked [local men], or rather with 2 little skin aprons apiece, drive the donkeys and horses.
We shall be so sorry to have to sell the latter at Fort Salisbury. No one can catch them so well as I, particularly mine, which races away, but they always come to get bread. We have been to some new large unknown ruins, Matindela, and discovered others of which we could find no name. We must sell the horses if we go down the P[ungwe River], because one bite of the tsetse fly would kill them at once and we shall get at least £350 for them. The donkeys do not die till the beginning of the rainy season.
We hear dreadful accounts of how the porters forsake you in the worst place if you do not comply with exorbitant demands. But we have 7 donkeys. It is about 400 miles. At Fort S[alisbury] we shall sell the wagons for little and the oxen for much and divide our clothes, sell some and carry what is absolutely necessary for the steamer from Beira to the Cape, and buy there, for the clothes, etc., we send down won’t be there in time to meet us.
September 8th  We arrived this morning sending a rider on to ask where we were to outspan, for we are very privileged persons, so we are quite away from the public outspan, which is like a dirty farmyard and between the military and civilian quarters. We arrived neatly dressed and were met by invitations to luncheon and breakfast. Very nice not to have to wait till ours was unpacked. There is very little food here: jam 3/6 a pot, and milk – but you can’t buy it – 4/6; ham 4/6 a lb. We have more ruins to see, but our plans are not made till this afternoon. The camp is on half rations.
We have now settled to go down the Busi, and the latter part, each in our own canoe. We are going first to Matoko’s, then to Makori’s; and to Matoko’s we are to be the bearers of the £40 of presents annually given, so are sure of a very good reception. We are to take a trooper with us and Meredith and Alfred, a driver, as personal cook, a very nice fellow, 10 donkeys and 2 of the Makalankas we have had for more than a month, besides other carriers.
We are invited to take all our meals at the mess – a very substantial money saving now. If it weren’t that we are permitted to draw rations we could not get enough food – no milk or meat. So now our men have a good opportunity of seeing that ‘Wilful waste makes woeful want’.
Dr. Harris, who is head here now, is much pleased with Mr. Swan’s beautifully made maps. Well you see that we are doing well, but alas! When the oxen came in this evening one has lung sickness, so we don’t mean to let that be known and hope to sell the others tomorrow. At the mouth of the Busi we shall go down to the Cape to see the library there and call in Lisbon on the way and hope to be home the beginning of December.
There are no ladies here, but one or two traders’ wives and the nuns. How wonderful it is how the Jesuits get in everywhere…
The rest of the letter is missing, but Mabel used to sign off as ‘Your most loving Mabel’, so let’s do that here.
The ‘Mr. Swan’ referred to is the Bents’ particular friend Robert McNair Wilson Swan (1858-1904). The Swan brothers were mining emery in the Cyclades in 1883/4 when the Bents met them. He contributed an odd section in Bent’s Zimbabwe monograph on the subject of measurements and other data relating to the ruins, and not much taken into account today. He died, a rather sad figure it seems, in the Far East.
(Swan, Robert McNair Wilson, 1858-1904)
Sister: Ethel Constance Mary Bagenal (née Hall-Dare, d. 1930). She had married Lieutenant Beauchamp Frederick Bagenal in 1870 and the couple had 5 children. Their family residences at Bagenalstown and Benekerry (Co. Carlow) were very close to the Hall-Dares at Newtonbarry (now Bunclody) (Co. Wexford).
Sister: Olivia (Iva) Frances Grafton Johnston (née Hall-Dare, d. 1926) lived in Bournemouth (Theydon Lodge, Boscombe) on the south coast of England. Called Iva by her family she was the third wife of the Reverend Richard Johnston (1816-1906) from Kilmore, Co. Armagh (d. 1906). They married in 1883 when he was nearly 70 and Olivia was about 40. The couple moved later to Bath after Richard’s retirement from his Kilmore parish church.
Sister: Frances Maria Hobson (née Hall-Dare), known to one and all as Faneen (b. 1852) married the Reverend Edward Waller Hobson (b. 1851) on 11 June 1891. (He played rugby for Ireland in his youth and went on to have a successful career in the Church of Ireland.) During the writing of this letter the couple were based at Moy, Co. Tyrone (1881-1895); the rectory of St James’ all but abuts the church. All Mabel’s letters were meant for circulation among her sisters and other relatives.
Aunt: Olivia Frances Lambart (‘Loodleloo’), sister of Mabel’s mother, Frances Anne Catharine Hall-Dare (née Lambart, d. 1862). A spinster, Loodleloo was in effect the children’s guardian following the death of both their parents (their father Robert Westley Hall-Dare (b. 1817) having died in April 1866). She died on 9 July 1898, a heavy blow for Mabel (and her sisters), just fourteen months after the death of Theodore in May 1897.
1) Detail of Map: ‘Part of Matabele, Mashona and Manica Land, illustrating the journey of Theodore Bent, Esq. from Shoshong to the Pungwe River.’ (Fort Salisbury (Harare) is roughly at Lat. 18/Long. 31) From ‘Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society’, Vol. 14, No. 5 (May 1892), facing page 298. Private collection.
2) ‘Crossing a stream. The Pioneer Corps of the British South Africa Company on the way to Mashonaland’. Cover illustration (detail) from The Graphic, 25 October 1890. Private collection.
3) A plan of Fort Salisbury as Mabel and Theodore would very likely have encountered it in September 1891.