“[One] of the most notable and charming women of the day…” and her “museum” – 13 Great Cumberland Place, London, W1
Both Theodore and Mabel Bent liked to style themselves ‘archaeologists’, and at times a case can be made that they were… and at others that they were anything but. But there can be no doubting they were truly exceptional travellers and explorers, regularly facing uncertainty and considerable hardships over a period of almost twenty years – ‘excavating’ where they could, usually in line with whatever Theodore’s current hobby-horse happened to be – early life in the Cyclades, the Phoenicians, the Queen of Sheba…
The Bents are an amazingly addictive couple and ‘the archaeology of the Bents’ is very much part of what the Bent Archive is all about. And now and then, once in twenty years of research, something truly remarkable, unique even, comes to light. The late summer of 2020 produced just such a discovery, beginning with an insignificant alert from the British Newspaper Archive saying that a quality women’s magazine, The Gentlewoman, had been added to its list of digital holdings, most of which originate from the British Library. Straightaway the search term ‘Theodore Bent’ (which will turn up either Mr or Mrs J. Theodore Bent) went in, and, just like an excavator in an opening trench, you wait to see if anything comes up. Bingo! There it was – The Gentlewoman – The Illustrated Weekly Journal for Gentlewomen, Vol. VII, Saturday, November 11, 1893, pages 621-622, Article title: Gentlewomen ‘At Home’, No. CLXXV, ‘Mrs. Theodore Bent… at 13, Great Cumberland Place’.
An astonishing discovery, and for us as intriguing as anything the Bents brought home to London from the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, or Arabia. And what makes the article so appealing is that it is the only piece unearthed so far that goes into any detail about the Bents’ archaeological and ethnographic finds that they had out on show in their London townhouse (an invitation and victim to the Blitz), 13 Great Cumberland Place, just a few hundred metres from Marble Arch. A further discovery is that the article also contains a very rare portrait of Mabel (which our research shows is by Henry Van der Weyde); there are also three unique photographs, sadly very dark, of the interior of their house.
This revelatory article from The Gentlewoman is now transcribed below and we make no apologies for its length – you can return to it as often as you like, and it is probably the first time for a hundred years it will have been re-read. Its context (and once more we have archaeology), reinforces the aura of celebrity the Bents had acquired following their 1891 trip to ‘Great Zimbabwe’, with Cecil Rhodes scheming behind him – and in a sense the great ‘Colossus’ made a minor one of Theodore, and Mabel too.
The last few paragraphs of the piece make reference to the 1893 scandal involving the controversy of whether women should continue being elected Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society – Mabel was in the proposed second cohort (22 or so had been elected thus far), but the RGS hierarchy managed to ban them from applying. It was a sorry story, not put right until 1913.
It is also worth noting that some of the dates mentioned in the article are inaccurate for some reason – perhaps Mabel’s memory let her down during the interview with the editor.
Nor does the article always make for happy reading – there are inclusions and stray finds that are unwelcome today, but which were the matrix of the day – the discovery that two ikons from the Patmos’ ‘Cave of the Apocalypse’ were removed is a shock (although Mabel in her diary records that at least one was ‘purchased’). Mabel died in 1929 and a few years previously she donated some of the artefacts she held most dear, those that reminded her most of happier times before Theodore’s early death in 1897, to the British Museum. All her remaining assets were bequeathed to her nieces, and her collections divided up, dispersed, sold off, reverting to anonymous items, and now in the main contextless, provenances lost. And the Patmos ikons? Where they are today, we don’t know. Let’s hope some future archaeologist turns them up and sees these little treasures returned to the Dodecanese…
… but let’s make a start on the transcription, and hand you over to Theodore and Mabel, in one of their cluttered drawing rooms, carriages rattling along in the street below, being interviewed by the editor of TheGentlewoman, Joseph Snell Wood. It is Autumn in London in 1893, an empire’s heyday, and the leaves in Hyde Park are changing colour…
Gentlewomen ‘At Home’, ‘Mrs. Theodore Bent… at 13, Great Cumberland Place’
Perhaps to most readers, the Bents are associated mostly with Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, especially the Cyclades (based on their bestseller on the region published in 1885).
But Theodore and Mabel are remembered too, by those with time to explore the explorers, for their expeditions to Southern Arabia and Persia (including their astonishing ride, south-north, the length of Iran in 1889), and Africa (a dangerous trek down the west coast of the Red Sea in 1896; and extraordinary work for Cecil Rhodes at ‘Great Zimbabwe’ in 1891).
And in 1893, Abyssinia’s Aksum enticed them too, not to mention the mythical ‘Lioness of Gobedra’.
It’s no secret that the BBC’s World Service is full of secrets – waiting for adventurers to discover: adventurers like Theodore Bent. Currently (December 2020) in its treasure of a series, ‘The Forum’, there is an episode on the enigmatic stelae of Aksum – erstwhile capital of an Abyssinian region dated to some 2000 years ago, and frantically explored by Bent and his wife in 1893. The fact that the Bents are not referenced, however, is a serious academic omission (modern archaeologists are still condescending towards them), especially since the nearby and important site of Yeha was first identified by Bent.
The episode does refer to Aksum’s ‘stele 2’, removed by Mussolini for Rome in the manner of former despots and now happily returned, but not that it was actually photographed some 50 years earlier in situ by Mabel Bent and reproduced in their most readable adventure – ‘The Sacred City of the Ethiopians’. Despite this, the programme (with contributions by Niall Finneran, Solomon Woldekiros and Felege-Selam Solomon Yirga) is a must, as is the Bents’ account, easily findable for free on-line.
On 24 April 1885, British explorer Theodore Bent wrote from Syros in the Cyclades to Charles Thomas Newton, famous traveller himself and now Keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum (BM): “We returned from Karpathos yesterday and had hoped to catch a steamer which would have brought us and our things straight to England. Unfortunately we shall have to wait a week at least, and as we have so much plunder we cannot take the Marseilles route. I had hoped to have been in time for the Hellenic meeting, but of course now we shall not reach England till the middle of May. We were fairly successful in Karpathos, finding a large number of rock cut graves unopened which have produced pottery, etc., which, if not of the highest order, offer a good deal which I believe to be of a new character… Of quaint manners and customs I have got a fine collection, also of old Karpathiote dresses and jewelry… We had rather a rough time of it, Karpathos being very far behind the world in comforts, and decidedly we enjoyed ourselves best when living in our own tent. Mrs. Bent survives and is well and begs her kind regards. Yours very truly, J. Theodore Bent.” (Mabel Bent 2006: 123, fn. 74)
To draw attention to, and thank the BM for their great and newly re-vamped online database, and make a nod to Neil MacGregor’s seminal TV/radio series, and subsequent exhibition, at the same time, the Bent Archive is selecting four significant objects to feature from the several hundreds of items (752, no less, the BM claim, though some are duplicated) either donated to or sold by Theodore and Mabel Bent to the Museum over a period of five decades or so from the 1880s, beginning with the artifacts Bent brought home from the Cycladic island of Antiparos, then an almost abandoned islet, today a hipster destination for some of Europe’s silliest teenagers; the Bents would be amused. The fifth item, as we shall see, is one that got away… but it should be there.
For about twenty years, Theodore and Mabel Bent travelled to regions in the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, and Arabia, on the look out for things of archaeological and ethnographical interest (usually linked to Theodore’s current bonnet-bees and theories). Occasionally the British Museum contributed to the Bents’ travel costs on the understanding that the institution would get first refusal. We know that the museum also paid Theodore for certain acquisitions, but there were also donations from the Bents – in particular the large assemblage given by Mabel in 1926, a few years before her death (Theodore, alas, died early, in 1897).
The Museum’s archives (and elsewhere) contain much correspondence between Bent and their various curators and associated scholars, such as William Paton, Edward Lee Hicks, David Hogarth, Sir William Mitchell Ramsay, Charles Newton, Arthur Smith, Alexander Stuart Murray, Cecil Smith, William Henry Flower …
Good examples of these interactions include a letter from Theodore to the Keeper at the British Museum, dated 30 May 1884: “Dear Sir, Do you care to make me an offer for my figures, vases, ornaments, etc., from Antiparos? It occurs to me that a collection of this nature is rather lost in private hands. Yrs truly, J. Theodore Bent.” (Mabel Bent 2006: 46, fn. 49)
The BM archives also include the Museum’s day books and accession registers, fascinating records that bring you closer to collector and curator, in contexts of mutual scholarship, curiosity, and wonder.
This is not the place to comment on the history of the Museum, collectors’ activities, or the acquisition policies current in the late 19th century. You will have your own thoughts and opinions.
The objects collected by the Bents are featured below, in a sort of virtual ‘The Bents at the BM’ mini-exhibition, by the date they were acquired by the Museum, and representing the main regions of the Bents’ fields of studies, as already mentioned – the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, and Arabia, over a period twenty years following their marriage in 1877. In most cases the BM item number consists in part of the year the piece was acquired from the Bents, i.e. Af1892,0714.144, denotes 1892 – in this instance when Theodore and Mabel returned out of Africa.
Thus, without further ado… “The Bents and the BM: in Five Objects”
Let’s make a start in the Greek Cyclades – the scene of Theodore’s first (1883/4) substantial ‘excavations’ (although his modus operandi bears little resemblance to the science of today and raises eyebrows, if not ire, still among archaeologists).
[Basic inventory details are provided, but there seems little point in repeating the detailed information on the artefacts given by the Museum, click through yourself to access it if you wish. We thought however that readers might like to get a little detail on the objects provided by the Bents themselves, either via Mabel’s diaries (her Chronicles), or Theodore’s publications.]
[Cultured female voice, slow, musical, dark, clear] “Object No. 1: Parian marble figure from Antiparos in the Greek Cyclades, 2700 BC-2500 BC“. The Cyclades provided Theodore Bent with his first theatre of operations and he ‘excavated’ at two sites on Antiparos, off Paros, in the winter of 1883/4. He brought home with him, and then sold to the BM, a largish assemblage of items, including a few of the iconic, now ubiquitous, and haunting, marble figurines. (There was skeletal material, too, now in the Natural History Museum.) Bent’s work on Antiparos paved the way for the realization that there was a distinct ‘Cycladic’ culture. Here is Mabel Bent’s diary entry at the time of their first dig: “Tuesday [18 December 1883]. Rode 1½ hour to the nearest point to Antiparos carrying only our night things and a card of introduction from Mr. Binney for Mr. R. Swan who has a calamine mine on this island. Crossed in about 10 minutes… Met Mr. Swan who more than fulfilled our warmest hopes. He took us to his house, and after resting told us that in making a road he had come upon a lot of graves and found a marble cup, broken etc. So, we manifesting a great wish to dig too, he got men and we opened 4. They were lined and paved with slabs of stone and the people must have been doubled up in them, they were so small; we only found, besides bones, 2 very rough marble symbols of men and women, little flat things and some broken pottery.” (Mabel Bent 2006: 21ff.)
[Cultured female voice, slow, musical, dark, clear] “Object No. 2: Limestone female figure from the Greek island of Karpathos. Possibly Neolithic.” The Bents spent several of the early months of 1885 in the island group now known as the Dodecanese, then Turkish, in the Eastern Mediterranean. Mabel refers to them as the ‘Sporades’. On Karpathos the couple acquire an extraordinary stone figure without parallel in Greece to this day, and she found her way to the British Museum in 1886. She was intact when she left the island; she is now in two halves but has been restored. Recently (2019) she was an extra, a stand-in, for the BM’s travelling exhibition linked to Neil MacGregor’s TV/radio series. Alas she never made a starring role in the English series; she would thus have returned the favour to the Bents, making them minor celebrities once more. But she would also have raised questions as to her pedigree best left in her boudoir. Are those arms not highly problematic? The BM may have assumed that she came from a tomb around Vrykounda in the north of the island, although elsewhere Theodore links it to Pigadia and Mabel’s diary seems to confirm this; what is for certain is that she is both fantastic and fantastical and deserves more study – if not a series of novels! “[Monday, 20 April 1885] The next excitement was getting the things at Pegadhia [Pigadia, Karpathos]… Manthaios [the Bents’ dragoman] set off to run to the house where was a very hideous statue, more than the size of a baby, half a mile off… At last I saw M tearing back with the burden on his shoulders and very soon they reached the ship and all was on board… When M appeared, Theodore could see that the statue showed behind and told him so, but he said ‘No matter’ and rushed on to the boat and then came back to say goodbye to the Turks. T saw them spot the statue and whisper together and shrug their shoulders, so now we are in possession of the most hideous thing ever made by human hands. We mean to deposit it in bond at the customhouse of Syra with all the cases and things we do not want…” (Mabel Bent 2006: 119ff.)
[Cultured female voice, slow, musical, dark, clear] “Object No. 3: Cast; sculpture, made of plaster; in form of a bird sitting on top of a pedestal. Late 19th-early 20th century copy of medieval? African original.” When Greek and Turkish lands became too tricky for the Bents to wander and wonder over, they set off in other directions, south and southeast. In 1889 they were to be found digging in the ‘Mounds of Ali‘ in Bahrain, before returning to London via a south-north ride the length of Persia. At the end of 1890, Bent came under the inescapable gravitational pull of Cecil Rhodes, and by the summer of 1891 he and Mabel were thousands of miles away south, exploring the fabled ruins of ‘Great Zimbabwe‘, from where they shipped hundreds of artifacts back to London, mounting an exhibition of the choicest things in their home near Marble Arch in early 1892. Included were a few of the iconic black soapstone birds which would grace any museum, anywhere. Rhodes had other plans for the best items, however, and he had maintained rights to them; after the exhibition they were repackaged and sent to him in Cape Town. Some of the things, especially the mesmerizing, totemic birds, he took immediately to his house at Groote Schuur, but they later flew to museums in South Africa and Zimbabwe. It seems the Bents, or the BM, had casts made of one or more of the original soapstone ‘beams’ on which the elegant birds perched, and Mabel kept it before giving it to the BM again in 1926, in all likelihood. The original is now back in Africa, and although just a cast, the artifact is unique and significant enough to merit a place in this assemblage now. The Bents’ Great-Zimbabwe-tour finds (largely ethnographic) represent the largest element of the collections they sold or gave to the BM, literally hundreds of things now in store, as much bric-à-brac as anything else. Mabel waxes lyrical on first seeing one of these beams: “[Friday, 5 June 1891]. After breakfast we hurried to Zimbáboe as they pronounce it, also Zimbágowe. I rode Beauty [her horse] with a trooper’s saddle, as my saddle was packed. I was glad to get dry through the dewy grass, which came high above the top of my parasol. We left two wagons to follow. First we climbed up the hill, or rather the principal hill near, full in every cranny and on every detached rock, of huts and a large quantity of people. There are ruins all over the top; all the ends of the walls are rounded, both up on the hill and down in the round ruin. I mean to abstain from a description of the ruins, for they will be described elsewhere when we have worked at them a little. Our souls were gladdened by some long stones carved over and one with a strange bird at the end…” (Mabel Bent 2012: 85)
[Cultured female voice, slow, musical, dark, clear] “Object No. 4: Painting depicting the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and scenes from the life of Bishop Selama. Painted on cotton, hand-woven in two sections, stitched together centrally top to bottom. Ethiopia, Adwa: Church of the Saviour of the World. 19th. c. copy ?” In London once more, via Lisbon, from Mashonaland and South Africa, in early February 1892, Theodore was a minor celebrity. He had come home with crates of finds from ‘Great Zimbabwe’ and a theory that no one for the moment could gainsay about prehistoric Southern Arabian influence, trade and power. Research by Theodore in London and in the Lisbon archives, and correspondence on inscriptions and possible architectural similarities between features in Mashonaland and Marib (Yemen), introduced Theodore to the little-explored interior of Ethiopia, and its evocative ‘capital’ Aksum (Axum).
The Bents’ 1883 tour of the region was ultimately unsuccessful due to local unrest, exacerbated by the colonial ambitions of the Italians. By far the most interesting of the artifacts Bent brought back was this large painting of the Crucifixion, he bought for ‘Ten pieces of silver’ from the Church of the Saviour of the World, Adwa. Bent describes the transaction in the book that resulted from the journey: “It was here… that I espied a picture cast on one side, for the colours were somewhat faded, which I faintly hoped to acquire. At first our offers were received with contempt, but again and again we sent our interpreter, and with him ten pieces of silver, the sight of which eventually overcame the priest’s dread of mutilation, and the evening before our final departure from Adoua the picture was ours. Our interpreter himself was terrified at what he had done, ‘We must not breathe a word of the transaction, even to the Italians,’ he said ; ‘we must bury the treasure at the bottom of our deepest bag ‘ ; and to all these regulations we gladly acquiesced, for we knew the great difficulty of acquiring these things in Abyssinia, and the danger to which we all should be exposed if our transaction should be discovered, and I am pretty nearly sure that this picture which is now in the British Museum is the first of its kind which has reached Europe…” (The Sacred City of the Ethiopians, 1893, pp. 129-33)
[Cultured female voice, slow, musical, dark, clear] “Object No. 5: A pottery stamp/clay seal from the Wadi Hadramaut, Yemen, aka ‘The Bethel Seal’? Used presumably by a merchant for designating ownership, or contents, of traded merchandise. Date uncertain.” It must be quickly said that this is a deceit; it is a mystery object that should have been given by Mabel with a few other artifacts from the Wadi Hadramaut (Yemen) in 1926, but was not, and thereby hangs a tale worth the telling.
The Bents are admired for their three attempts to traverse the dangerous Wadi Hadramaut in the Yemen, from west to east and down to the Gulf of Aden, from 1894-7. The final trip cost Theodore his life. The couple were travelling on horses and camels and were restricted in what they could bring away with them and the largest collection consisted of hundreds of botanical specimens, reasonably light, now in the Herbarium, Kew.
Mabel has left us in her diary some idea as to how acquisitions were made along the way: “On Saturday the 13th [January 1894], the day after our arrival, at 8 o’clock, the Sultan, Theodore, Saleh and a groom on the four horses, and I on [my horse] Basha, and a vizier on a camel with a soldier, and the soldiers on foot, rode about five miles to a good old ruin (Al Gran), but embedded in an inhabited house so that excavation would be impossible; from a very well cut scrap of ornament we thought it to be a temple, and it is perhaps from this temple that a kind of small stone trough has been brought, with a dedication, rather long, in Sabean, which Theodore has nearly deciphered – a trough with a spout coming to England. Two stones have been brought us by camels at the Sultan’s orders.” (Mabel Bent 2010: 167)
The Bents returned in 1894 from the Hadramaut with the modest lump of clay – the stamp/seal in question. It featured with a small collection of other items on page 436 of the Bents’ great book on Southern Arabia (1900), including the ‘trough’ Mabel mentions above. Then, rather like a great ring, the seal disappeared from view – until it reappeared in an archaeologist’s shovel in the late 1950s at a site at Beitin, Biblical Bethel, Palestine, and the scene of Mabel Bent’s accident in the early 1900s, when she broke a leg in the wilderness, riding, unaccountably, on her own.
But was it the same modest lump of clay, or another, identical artifact? Today it (or both?) is/are lost, and a debate has waxed and waned over the mystery ever since. A strong argument is made that Mabel, distressed, widowed, mourning her late husband and her lost life as an explorer, ceremoniously placed the stamp in a deposit at Bethel in the early 1900s as a tribute to Theodore – not caring if it were ever found again or not – the significance of the site being that it marked the end of a frankincense route (the resin being one of his passions) that began thousands of miles away in the Wadi Hadramaut – and thus Theodore could rest easily, his journey over; the love of a grieving widow.
As a coda, perhaps the Bents’ acquisitions no longer quite justify the hyperbole appearing in Mabel’s interview to The Hearth and Home (2 November 1893) before leaving for Arabia: “Gifted with great artistic taste, Mrs. Bent’s personal collection of curiosities include many beautiful things brought from abroad, and, as our readers are doubtless aware, ‘The Bent Collection’ in the British Museum is one of the most interesting in that venerable building.”
Other finds: Very much smaller collections of the Bents’ acquisitions can be found in: the V&A, London; the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford; as well as in Cape Town, Harare, Istanbul, and elsewhere.
Don’t overlook, too, the wonderful, though small, collection of dried plants in the Herbarium, Kew Gardens. Most of the specimens were collected by Kew’s William Lunt, who travelled to the Hadramaut with the Bents in 1894, but there is some additional material from their later expeditions. Kew’s super online catalogue (with some illustrations) makes a great start.
It should also be remembered that in the late 19th century London’s Natural History Museum legally remained a department of the British Museum with the formal name ‘British Museum (Natural History)’. Thus the select assemblage of molluscs, insects and reptiles the Bents collected was gradually transferred to their care, e.g. we know that Mabel presented her collection of 186 “land and freshwater shells from the island of Socotra, including several new species”. Importantly, the skeletal material Bent removed from two sites on Cycladic Antiparos in 1884 are stored there.
(In 1926, a few years before she died (1929), Mabel had a sort out of the things she still treasured in her London home. This explains why many of the inventory numbers in the above museums have a 1926 date.)
Like most explorers, let us presume, Theodore Bent was protective and proud of his achievements – setting difficult targets, being first, or among the very first. And in his list of hard things done, right up there is his first foray of 1894 (January-March) deep into Southern Arabia, the Yemeni interior – the breath-taking Wadi Hadhramaut – unforgiving, challenging, alien, romantic.
Some background. By 1894 Bent stood out in a crowd; a respected and spur-earned explorer – FSA, FRGS, and winner of the Balloon Society’s prestigious gold medal. Most readers associate the Bents with the Eastern Mediterranean and their researches there, and these readers get no further than the Cyclades or Dodecanese. Yet this region represents only a third of their travels, and we must not overlook them, too, in the dusts and deserts of Africa and Arabia.
For their early 1893 season, Theodore and Mabel headed for the north-east of the Horn of Africa, looking for possible clues in the civilisations of early Ethiopians that might link Mashonaland’s ruins (modern Zimbabwe) of ‘Great Zimbabwe’, the couple’s quest in 1891, to the very old trade routes that led into Egypt, to the west, and to Southern Arabia to the east. Clues would include early ‘Arabian’ (Sabaean primarily) inscriptions from ancient Aksum (its royal family claiming descent from Menelik, the son of the Queen of Sheba, who had the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem hidden in his capital). And it was, in a way, the Queen of Sheba who beguiled Theodore for the last five years of his short life.
Back in London from the Red Sea by the early summer of 1893, Theodore lectured widely, announcing that he had now evidence from Zimbabwe and Ethiopia of the remains of a Sabaean ‘civilisation’ from the vast peninsula of Southern Arabia, out-posting down the east coast of Africa. Bent hoped soon to be able to “reconstruct the history of a once mighty commercial race, which was contemporaneous with the best days of Egypt, Greece and Rome, and which provided the ancient world with most of its most valued luxuries.” Included with these luxuries were the exotic resins of frankincense and myrrh; it was the search for them, and the many routes they were transported along, that were the themes of Theodore’s articles and lectures in the summer of 1893.
By summer’s end, Theodore was in a position to begin preparing a large expedition to Southern Arabia and the Wadi Hadhramaut (Hadramawt or Hadramout) itself the following season, a party that would include his wife Mabel, of course, as well as his Sancho Panza-like assistant, the Anafiot Matthew Simos, a young botanist from Kew, William Lunt (1871-1904), “Baÿoumi, known to us as Mahmoud, an Arab, who came on at Alexandria. He is provided by the Madras Museum as our Zoologist”, and the highly accomplished Indian surveyor/cartographer, Imam Sharif, whose later map of the region is a delight to this day.
A few weeks before setting off (via Marseilles, Suez and Aden), the Bents had sent out a press release (they were unabashed self-publicists): “Mr. Theodore Bent has almost completed his arrangements for his journey to the Hadhramaut country, in Southern Arabia, which he proposes to explore this winter. He starts about the end of next month for Aden, and will then proceed along the coast to Makulla, which is to be his starting point into the interior. The extensive region of Hadhramaut is but little known, and Mr. Bent proposes to make as thorough a survey as possible of the country. He, himself, will pay particular attention to the archæology of the districts, and he will probably be accompanied by a native Indian surveyor, as well as by specialists in botany and zoology. Mr. Bent, who will, as on all his journeys, be accompanied by Mrs. Bent, hopes to be back in England by May or June of next year.” (The Manchester Guardian, 22 October 1893.)
The Iron Age (1100–650 BC) of Southern Arabia, primarily of interest to Theodore, is marked by a network of competing city-states and pre-Islamic kingdoms (Sabaean, Awsanian, Minaean, Qatabanian, Hadramautian and Himyarite). Distinguished by the appearance of early writing, the Sabaeans rose to prominence, based at Marib by the 5th century BC, their influence extending throughout the western Hadhramaut. Notwithstanding a brief annexation by the kingdom of Aksum (in modern Ethiopia) around 500 BC, keen for more control of the area’s rich natural resources, Shabwa remained a centre of culture and learning until its eventual decline around the 5th century AD and the ascendancy of the highland-Yemen Himyarites, followed by periods of Sassanian (eastern) and Roman/Byzantine (western) power, before the rise of Islam (c. 650 AD).
For Theodore and his contemporaries the Hadhramaut was represented by the eponymous wadi/valley system in today’s eastern Yemen. As for its physical geography, the region extends over 600 km from west to east, consisting of a narrow, arid coastal plain, a broad plateau averaging 1400 m in height, a bewildering maze of deeply sunken wadis, and a final escarpment that abuts the great desert to the north. These uncompromising, awe-inspiring landscapes have facilitated movements of people over the millennia, and the objective of Theodore’s mission in 1894 was to penetrate the said Wadi Hadhramaut (approaching from the south, via Al-Makulla on the coast) and, ultimately descending south–east, to reach the Indian Ocean again at Sayhut.
Although ‘Europeans’ had been sailing and exploiting the coastlines of Arabia for hundreds of years, Britain’s need in the early 19th century to secure its sea-lanes to India and the Persian Gulf precipitated a brilliant campaign of coastal surveys that effectively drifted from Aden to Muscat. The captains and officers of British vessels wrote and eventually reported back to London on their findings – strategic, botanic, folkloric.
Dependence on their ships meant that these men (and of the women, Mabel Bent, not Lady Anne Blunt, not Freya Stark, not Kate Humble even, was, we think, the first willing Western woman to do so – how many hundreds have unwillingly seen the moon and stars there?) were unable to venture far inland, and it was not until as late as 1843 that the borders of the Hadhramaut interior were reached by the German Baron Adolf von Wrede in 1843. As for the great mud-brick cities of the main Wadi Hadhramaut itself, they were not visited until 50 years later, and by another German, Leo Hirsch, who, by great coincidence, was covering some of the same trails as the Bents, and just a few months ahead of them in 1894: therefore ‘to these two parties the credit of the discovery of the Wadi Hadhramaut itself belongs.’ (generally for this background, see Hogarth 1905: 206-225)
Some achievement – unarguably the area is more dangerous now than at the time of the Bents’ visits (they were to make three concerted attempts). Today the region is fatal for tourists; there are pirates off Aden and in January 2008 two Belgian and two Yemeni nationals were shot dead, with four other Belgians seriously injured, in an incident in the Hadhramaut. As a result, the UK government issued a warning that would have stopped the Bents in their tracks (well, perhaps): ‘We advise against all but essential travel to the Governorates of Sa’dah, Ma’rib and Hadhramaut due to the threat of terrorism and tribal violence. You should take all the necessary steps to protect your safety, and you should make sure that you have confidence in your individual security arrangements. You should maintain a high level of vigilance in public places and exercise caution, particularly outside urban areas.’ (N.B. the lizards are harmless.)
Mabel often boasted later of an incident on this 1894 adventure when they were “Besieged by crowds calling us pigs and dogs and gavers, and one day they said ‘come down off your camels and we’ll cut your throats’. I drew [our] interpreter aside and said ‘Tell them when they ask you not to be afraid, for… if wanted, our Queen would have taken [the country] long before we were born, and if she wanted it now she would not send 8 subjects unarmed for the business…’” (The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol. 3, 2010: 346).
Understandably, the Bents looked on their adventures in the Hadhramaut with considerable pride, even though they never completely realized their objective to traverse the wadi west–east, and arrive, their considerable gear and large party on camels, mules and horse, trekking south, weeks later back at the sea, not so far from the borders of modern Oman.
Imagine then, disembarking from the fine P&O steamer Kaisar i Hind at Marseilles in the third week of April 1894, resting and waiting there a few days for a train to Calais and the Dover ferry for home, his surprise, nay outrage, on reading in a copy of The Graphic, waiting for him poste restante, a flippant account by three boys in an article that could have come straight from a rag mag (by the tone of some of its paragraphs), boasting that this trio of pranksters had got to the Hadhramaut first! The piece is redeemed only by some astonishingly fine sketches done by one of them…
Here is a cut-and-paste flavour of the boys’ breathless account in The Graphic; Theodore’s outrage is palpable: “The territory traversed by the Bent expedition, recently noticed in the English and other journals, is more circumscribed than Mr. Bent probably supposed before starting… There is nothing but rock and dust, soda and sulphur, fever and sunstroke. If an enterprising Bedouin, or even Mr. Bent succeeds in finding in that country something that is useful or important, he will deserve great credit… These facts may, perhaps, be found of interest; and they may be relied upon as accurate, seeing that the writer [Paton], with two other Englishmen [the Molesworth boys], has just returned from traversing the same ground which Mr. Bent is now exploring… Our friend [M. Jacques de Zogab], who had taken the steamer back to Aden on the 3rd [December 1893], gladly offered Mr. Bent and his companions a passage on the return voyage to Hadramaut. He landed them at Mokullah on the 17th, and picked us up at Shehr on the 18th, so that we had no opportunity of putting our experience at Mr. Bent’s disposal [!]. It was not till we then received accumulated letters that we learned from enclosed journalistic reports of Mr. Bent’s communication about his expedition, that our position as pioneers of that region would obtain imprimatur of such authority [!!]. We may mention that in a cairn on the summit of Chub-thub will be found a scroll bearing the signatures of H.B. Molesworth and Guy Molesworth; while in the Palace at Ghraïl is a mural picture representing our State entry into that city, and signed Frederick Noel Paton… The writer of the above points out that he traversed the ground which Mr. Bent proposed to explore, and it is interesting to note that, according to the latest intelligence received from Aden, Mr. Theodore Bent and his party on the 3rd inst. reached Shehr (or Sheher), on the coast to the north-east of Mokullah, the point from which the expedition commenced its march into the interior. Mr. and Mrs. Bent and the other members of the party were in good health…” (The Exploration of Southern Arabia – A Journey in the Hadramaut, by F. Noel Paton; The Graphic, 31 March 1894, pp. 370 ff.). Outrageous stuff!
Apoplectic probably, Theodore demanded a right of reply immediately from their hotel (the “Hôtel du Louvre and de la Paix (otherwise pay)” – and got one; it is reproduced in full from The Graphic of 5 May 1894, page 518: “The Exploration of the Hadramaut – Mr. Theodore Bent, writing from Marseilles with reference to an article in The Graphic of March 31, says:- ‘I should be much obliged if you will kindly correct certain statements therein contained concerning my expedition to the Hadramaut. Your correspondent, Mr. Noel Paton, did not traverse the ground which we proposed to explore,’ only going twelve miles inland, whereas the Hadramaut does not begin until 120 miles inland, and the coast line has nothing to do with that district. Our exploration of the Hadramaut in no way has to do with the part of the country traversed by Mr. Noel Paton.’” So there.
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.
The Bents’ travel companion on their final trip, Ernest Bennett, gives an early warning of trouble ahead: “One of our party [Theodore] had no less than four attacks of [malarial] fever during two months; and even if we escaped actual fever, we invariably experienced… a miserable feeling of lassitude and debility”. (‘Two Months in Sokotra’, Longman’s Magazine. v. 30 (May-Oct. 1897), p.408.
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; and we know too that, like a camel, he could exist on very little, as Mabel writes in her Tilos (the Dodecanese) journal in 1885: “… off [M] went bearing his coat, half a kid in one hand and a tied up bundle with his favourite scraps for his own eating. He is certainly cheap to feed. He eats all the fishes’ heads and yesterday lunched of cold lights.”)
For a glimpse of Anafi in the late 1970s, there is a wonderful video freely available we can recommend. The decades between 1884, and the Bents’ visit, and the making of the video, all seem to melt away, and much of what you see is how Theodore and Mabel would remember this extraordinary Cycladic isle.
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!