“We cannot too much admire the persistence, courage, and cheerful endurance of hardships displayed by Mr. Bent and his plucky wife.” – The Manchester Guardian
“Mrs. Bent has compiled a work rich in information. Much is included of extreme utility. The volume with its good maps and illustrations and instructive appendices, will deservedly take its place in the category of recognized and authoritative books of travel.” – The World
“May we hope for more.” – The Outlook
In anyone’s list of the best twenty books in the English language on explorations in the Middle East you are likely to find Mabel and Theodore Bent’s Southern Arabia, published in London on 26 January 1900.
This ambitious work, compiled by Mabel from her ‘Chronicles‘ and the notebooks and articles published by Theodore before his untimely death in May 1897, a few days after returning from Aden, now commands high prices for its first edition, handsome as it is with its red cloth binding, sketches by Theodore, Mabel’s photographs, and numerous maps.
The book would have cost you 18 shillings, quite a sum in those days, over £40 now. However, you will need to find over £500, or as much as £1500, for a good original copy today (March 2021). On-demand editions, thankfully, are easy to find and there are also excellent, highly-recommended (and free) online versions (e.g. archive.org), and the Table of Contents is reproduced here from one.
The region absorbed Theodore Bent for the last few years of his short life and it is thus unsurprising that Mabel spent the next ten years or so, the first decade of the twentieth century, returning for lengthy stays in Palestine, making Jerusalem her base. It has to be said that these sojourns were challenging for Mrs Bent – she had no partner, she became involved in intrigue and controversy, she tried her hand at bookselling, at caring for Gordon’s spurious Garden Tomb (editing a guidebook to it in the 1920s); and there was the episode of her ride alone in the wilderness and her fall and broken leg, and then there is the mystery of the so-called Bethel Seal. And much must be seen within the context of her formative years – a difficult father, the painful death of her mother, the assumed suicide of her younger brother, the early death from typhoid of her elder brother… the need to be somewhere else can be well understood.
Strangest of all, was Mabel’s obsession – for such it seems – with the controversial movement, British Israelism, and she used her months in Jerusalem to research and write that tract of nonsense she published in 1908 under the title Anglo-Saxons from Palestine. However the book serves two good purposes, one is to illustrate just how absurd the concept was, and is, and the other is to provide, of all things, fourteen pages of reviews of her 1900 publication – Southern Arabia.
Next time you publish, try asking your editor if you can include fourteen pages of reviews of your last book, and a book on someone else’s list to boot! See what answer you get! But you are not Mabel Bent of course – she was something of an unmovable force, much respected for her courage and ‘pluck’, in mountains and deserts, and on horse, donkey, and camel.
Much of this is evident in what amounts to Mabel’s scrapbook of press cuttings on Southern Arabia, which we present for you via the link below. It is unlikely that they will have been read much since their publication. They are Mabel’s own selection, and she has judiciously edited them for negative remarks – a stinker (‘Man’, Vol. 1, 1901, 29-30) presumably by Arabist D. G. Hogarth, understandably, is not included, but he may well have had a pen in a couple of the others!
Reading them, with their focus on Aden, Bahrain, Yemen, Dhofar, Oman, Muscat, Sokotra, the Red Sea, etc., you could just as well switch the geography to the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, Africa, Iran, the western seaboard of India, or Iran – those other theatres of exploration engaging the Bents for twenty years. And not lost on you, with the sense that Mabel is underscoring each, will be all the old adjectives of Empire – the review from the Illustrated London News is, well, illustrative: “That lady’s high spirit and courage, the tact and cleverness with which she managed to bear her position, as the only female traveller must have been a great help to her conjugal partner. This book is her memorial of him and will be acceptable to many readers.”
But no excuses are needed for drawing these lost glimpses of the Bents to your attention (the bibliographical references are incomplete, let us know if you want any specifically and we will try and help) – the notices will have reminded Mabel, of course, of her dead husband, and their fulfilled twenty years of adventures together, and, like all travel-addicts, her need to be somewhere else…
“The vivacity of her feminine humour, the keen observation of amusing little details, the lively recollection of droll anecdotes, and the brave wife’s spirit of comradeship in their frequent adventurous travels, grace with a peculiar charm the instructive revelation of much rare fresh learning which concerns the lore of historic antiquity, as well as the present condition of territories yet imperfectly known… That lady’s courage and high spirit, the tact and cleverness with which she managed to bear her position as the only female traveller, must have been a great help to her conjugal partner. This book is her memorial of him, acceptable to many readers who condole with her irreparable bereavement.” (The Illustrated London News, April 21, 1900, p. 556)
“[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’
In and out (just about) of the Wadi Hadramawt – Mabel of Arabia
A recent Aljazeera feature on the mud-castle skyscrapers of the Hadramawt diverts and transports instantaneously. These castles strung along Yemen’s Wadi Hadramawt, bewildering CGI confections all, still miraculously exist – at risk equally from age-old threats of internecine wars, and new ones, such as mud-dissolving floods, initiated by climate change.
But if we want, we can fade to sepia and go back and look at these castles through the eyes of cavalier Victorian travellers of the 1890s:
“… the only possible way of making explorations in Arabia is to take it piecemeal… by degrees to make a complete map by patching together the results of a number of isolated expeditions. Indeed, this is the only satisfactory way of seeing any country.” (writes Mabel Bent in 1900)
Hands up then if you’ve heard of Theodore and Mabel Bent (1852-1897 and 1847-1929 respectively)? Ok – a couple of you. Chances are you met them in the Greek Cyclades, right? – over a copy of Bent’s great 1885 guide to the islands (by the way, still the best English introduction to them).
But these Victorians travelled further, much further. For instance? – well, e.g., they were paid by Cecil Rhodes in 1891 to explore the remains of Great Zimbabwe; they also rode, south–north, the length of Iran in 1889; and trekked the Ethiopian highlands in 1893; etc., etc…
Perhaps, though, their greatest folie à deux comprised the three attempts they made on the Wadi Hadramawt, in the Yemen, ‘Arabia Felix’, between 1894 and 1897. Where? Picture Aden on a map, wiggle your finger east along the coast for a few centimetres, move the same finger inland, northish, for a couple more, and you about have it – in all, 200 km or so of the most spectacular valley-landscape you will ever see.
But of course you would be mad to try (check out the UK Foreign Office’s latest advice). Yemen is dangerous – in 1894 as now. In all probability, Mabel Bent, red-haired and no-nonsense, was the first western woman, voluntarily at least, ever to ride from the port of Mokulla up and into the Wadi Hadramawt, with its oases and fabulous cities of mud towers. An extraordinary adventure for an aristocratic Irishwoman, of the trout-brown Slaney River, Co. Wexford. (Theodore’s objectives for the expedition are beyond the scope of these short paragraphs, but they had something to do with the Queen of Sheba. Suffice it to say… his last trip killed him – Mabel got him home alive, somehow, in May 1897, to their house near London’s Marble Arch, where he shivered to death a few days later of malarial complications. He was 45, his wife was 50.)
Mabel’s diaries (she called them her ‘Chronicles’) have all been published (except for a missing volume – her trip to Ethiopia in early 1893). Here she is on her way east, to ‘the castle of the Sultan of Shibahm at Al Koton’ (al-Qatn); she took the photo you see here too.
Friday, 12th January 1894: “[Theodore and I] still proceed among limestone cliffs along the wadis … Our journey was seven hours, always along the valley, more like a plain it was so wide. We intended to go on to Al Khatan, where the Sultan of Shibahm lives, but a messenger came saying he expected to see us tomorrow and we were to encamp at Al Furuth. So when we reached that place, where there is a very beautiful well, shaded by palms and with four oxen, two at each side, drawing up water, we set up our five tents in the smoothest part of a ploughed field. Towards evening came two viziers, gaily dressed on fine horses, to welcome us: Salem bin Ali and Salem bin Abdullah, cousins.
“[The viziers came to greet us] about 7.30 next morning. We had all stayed in bed till it was quite light and they brought two extra horses… While the camels were loaded a lot of women came to see me and I sat in a chair and took off my gloves at their request and let them hand my hands round. They asked to see my head, so then they got my hair down, dived their fingers down my collar, tried to open the front of my dress and take my boots off and turned up my gaiters…
“We principal personages set out, leaving camels, etc., to follow… in ½ hour we arrived and were delighted with the appearance of this town of towers in the morning light, and the tallest, whitest and most decorated, shining against the precipitous mountains, was pointed out as our future home, and we all wondered what should next befall us and whether this was the farthest point of our journey or if we could get onward…” [The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol 3, Arabia, p.165 ff]
A few years later, after Theodore’s death, Mabel writes up the same event in her tribute book to her husband – Southern Arabia: “Like a fairy palace of the Arabian Nights, white as a wedding cake, and with as many battlements and pinnacles, with its windows painted red, the colour being made from red sandstone, and its balustrades decorated with the inevitable chevron pattern, the castle of Al Koton rears its battlemented towers above the neighbouring brown houses and expanse of palm groves; behind it rise the steep red rocks of the encircling mountains, the whole forming a scene of Oriental beauty difficult to describe in words. This lovely building, shining in the morning light against the dark precipitous mountains, was pointed out to us as our future abode.” (Southern Arabia, 1900, p. 111)
There we have it then, not Ludwig of Bavaria, but Mabel of Arabia, and the fantasy castles she wondered at some 130 years ago, and still, miraculously, standing.
Coda: “This war has to end” said President Biden the other day (Feb 2021), and “we’re ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen”. What will this mean and how can it end? Theodore and Mabel Bent were travelling in this extraordinary region in the 1890s, as a recent post in writer Jen Barclay’s blog outlines…
“And now I think we are among the most remarkable people in this world. Fancy going all the way to Bombay and departing thence without ever landing!” (from Mabel Bent’s Chronicle of 1889)
We begin our essay on Theodore and Mabel Bent and India not at the Taj Mahal, nor the Ellora Caves, but in leafy Brookwood Cemetery (Surrey, UK), an hour from London, on May 24, 1904:
“And why, it may be asked, were so many Indian and English friends gathered… in such a place on a dismal day in a downpour of rain? The day was dismal, and rightly so, for the obsequies were being performed of Mr. Jamsetdjee Nusserwanjee Tata, the foremost citizen, taken all round, that India has produced during the long period of British rule over the most cultured and civilised people east of Suez…”
For it seems, indeed, that Mabel Bent, and perhaps Theodore too, although dead and buried himself these seven years, was a friend, or at least an acquaintance, of the extraordinary Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata (1839-1904), the pioneer Indian industrialist who founded the Tata Group, India’s largest conglomerate company (as at 2021).
And in the same periodical that reports the industrialist’s funeral – the Voice of India, Saturday, 18 June 1904 (p. 583) – we have an image of Mabel, bearing flowers, her long red hair tucked under a black hat:
“From Mr. N.J. Moola I have received the following list of inscriptions attached to the wonderfully beautiful and choice flowers that were an eloquent expression of the affection in which Mr. Tata was held…”
And included in this list we find: ‘With deep sympathy, from Mrs. Theodore Bent.’
To be able to associate Mabel, the archetypal Victorian, with the legendary ‘Father of Indian Industry’ seems somehow an unusual but fanfaring introduction to the Bents and India, with all the dynamics and symbolism in play between the nations at the end of the 19th century. India meant something, and meant adventures in and around the region for the Bents.
In all, our couple made three trips to India – not the London, ten-hour flight to Mumbai of today, but then, of course, traversing several seas (the Suez Canal was opened to navigation on 17 November, 1869). Let it be known, Theodore never expressed any sustained interest in exploring or excavating regionally in India, nor to travel and write about its culture; it seems the idea of the land was just too big for him to provide any focus or purchase, and there was something, too, in his psychology, that did not fit. And yet, such was the meaning of India, it would have been extraordinary indeed were he never to have set foot on the Asian continent. Thus, concisely, we can condense their trips to India into: one business meeting (1895), two transit stops (1889 and 1894), and one brief tourist excursion (1895).
But it was India nevertheless.
Theodore wrote no articles directly relating to these visits, the name ‘India’ appearing in just one title. For Mabel, her diary entries are strangely muted (as we shall read in a moment): there is no colour, no sensory Indian overload, as if British control of the ports they landed at and left from, without much exploration, had thrown an odd English and subfusc wash over everything.
Their first Asian visit was in December 1889 – in a dramatic volte face and characteristic burst of energy and enthusiasm from Theodore that was to launch the couple out of their Eastern-Mediterranean orbit – having been denied further rights to ‘explore’ in either Greece or Turkey – and project them thousands of kilometres eastwards, for Bahrain, then under British and India Office protection, and with Theodore at relative liberty therefore to shovel-and-pick his way there through the ‘Mounds of Ali’. His fuel for this foray was an interest he had by the end of the 1890s in various long-standing theories and Classical references that seemed to link Bahrain with the Phoenicians, and in turn to the movement of early peoples around the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond – perhaps the theme that could be said to be the pivot of his short life’s work; his means of taking himself and his wife to Bahrain was via a slow boat from Karachi, then in India and under the British Raj. But their first port of call was to be Bombay.
The summer of 1888 was taken up, as usual, with Theodore conducting a busy schedule of talks and lectures in England and Scotland, as well as a non-stop programme of article-writing and publishing. Late summer was the time for extended holidays in Ireland and northern England, seeing family and friends, and so it was not until after Christmas 1888 that Theodore and Mabel had everything in place to leave London. Through Suez, and changing at Aden, they reached Mumbai (then Bombay) after three weeks, and immediately left for Karachi and a cruise up the eastern side of the Persian Gulf; making a brief halt at Muscat, before crossing to Bushire, arriving there on 1 February 1889. From there they crossed the Gulf once more to reach Bahrain. (Their finds there, now in the British Museum, were modest and the couple spent only two weeks on the island.) By the end of February 1889 the couple are leaving again for Bushire, Mabel adding in her diary: ‘having passed 40 days and 40 nights of our precious time on the sea, we then and there made up our minds to return over land…’ And with this throwaway remark, Mabel announces the couple’s epic ride of some 2000 km through Persia, the first leg of their journey home to Marble Arch.
But let us now peer over Mabel’s shoulder and read her ‘Chronicle’ while she writes on the “British India S.S. Pemba, January 21st 1889, Monday. Passing Gujarat, India”
“I now for the first time [Monday, 21st January 1889] feel tempted to bring forth this book, as I am so soon to get off the beaten track. Theodore and I left London on December 28th (Friday) in the P.&O.S.S. Rosetta, not a very comfortable or clean ship and landed at Naples (Saturday) on the way and changed at Aden (Monday), with no time to land, to the P.&O. Assam, which, though smaller, is wider and has much better passenger accommodation and was very clean.
“We reached Bombay on Sunday 20th [January 1889] after a roughish time in the Indian Ocean, passing on Saturday the American racing yacht Coronet going round the world. There were few passengers on the ‘Assam’. And now I think we are among the most remarkable people in this world. Fancy going all the way to Bombay and departing thence without ever landing! We found the tender of the British India waiting hungrily for us and were carried off with the mails at once. This [i.e. the ‘Pemba’] is a very small ship and only one passenger for Kurrachi 1st class, but quantities of odd deck passengers dressed and the reverse. We have a cabin next to the little ladies’ cabin and their bath and all in communication, so Theodore has a dressing room and we are most comfortable. We are to call at several places on our way to Bushire. The sea is very calm and it is nice and cool and we are passing a coast like Holland with palms, or rather coconut trees.
“We reached Kurrachi on Wednesday 23rd [January 1889] about 2 o’clock, and being tempted by the thought of 2 nights ashore, landed. We were surprised at the immense fleet of huge sailing boats which surrounded the ship instead of the usual little ones, but we were a good way out. They are building a new lighthouse further back and on lower ground but higher in itself, as the present one is being shaken by the guns on Manora Point.
“On landing on the bunder, or quay, we took a carriage for Reynold’s Hotel. After leaving the bunder, where various shipping buildings are, we drove for a mile or more along the bund, or embankment, across water and in about 6 miles we reached our destination. All around is arid and sandy but they are making a fierce fight to rear up some dusty plantains, palms, pepper trees, etc. The hotel was a great disappointment as the establishment is just a one-storeyed bungalow with a veranda all round and everyone’s door opening on to it and most with no kind of blind to prevent the inmates being beheld by outsiders. We found ourselves, when night came, in this case and so without ceremony flitted to a suite next door with imitation coloured glass. There was a dressing room behind and a built bath cemented in a bathroom beyond. All was very untidy and wretched and when night came we wished ourselves on board the ‘Pemba’.
“The cantonment road was near, also many others intersecting the sandy plain all 40 feet wide and one with footpaths fully 20. This led past the bungalows of officers, each in a compound, which made the road very long and dull, and it was very hot too. On Thursday [24th January 1889] we drove to the city about 4 miles off and nearer the sea and discovered the native town and wandered up and down narrow streets full of people intermixed with cows and passed several baths where people were washing themselves outside the buildings.
“We departed at dawn on Friday [25th January 1889] and drove down to the bunder and were off after breakfast, now the only 1st class. Friday night we stopped 3 miles out from Gwadar in Beloochistan, so of course saw nothing, and on Sunday morning, 27th [January 1889] early, found ourselves at Muscat in Arabia.”
Five years on – Karachi revisited: Bound for India a second time
For 1895, the Bents have decided to make a second attempt to penetrate regions of Yemeni Hadramaut, this time approaching from the south-east, via Muscat again and the coast of modern Oman. Their first trek into the Wadi Hadramaut, in 1894, was only partially successful, and on their return they soon made plans to try again. Mabel’s previous Chronicle had ended in an upbeat tone with ‘and if we possibly can we’ll go back’. In any event they only had a few months (and, as said before, they normally took a break in mid-summer to visit family and friends in England and Ireland) to seek backing and make all the necessary preparations, including informing the ‘media’. Ultimately Theodore was ready to issue a ‘press release’ to The Times (31 October 1894): “Mr. Theodore Bent informs Reuter’s Agency that he and Mrs. Bent are about to start another scientific expedition to Southern Arabia. Leaving Marseilles by Messageries steamer on November 12, they will proceed to Kurrachee, whence they will tranship to Muscat.”
For a first-hand account, we have an extract from Mabel’s classic book on their Arabian adventures – Southern Arabia (1900) – in which she explains (p. 228 ff):
“My husband again, to our great satisfaction, had Imam Sharif, Khan Bahadur [expedition cartographer of note on their last trip], placed at his disposal; and, as the longest way round was the quickest and best, we determined to make our final preparations in India, and meet him and his men at Karachi.”
But let’s at this point switch back to Mabel’s diaries, and her entry for: “Saturday 15th December, 1894. The Residency, Muscat. As it is now nearly a fortnight since I have seen a white woman, I think it time to start my writing. We left England [Friday] Nov. 9th  and after 2 nights at Boulogne embarked at Marseilles on [Monday] the 12th [November 1894] on board the M.M.S.S. ‘Ava’. We had a good passage and warm, seeing Etna smoking on the way, and about 2 days after had a great white squall; I daresay in connection with the earthquakes. We transshipped at Aden to ‘La Seyne’, Theodore going ashore to see about the camp furniture left there 7 months ago.
“We reached Kurrachee on the morning of [Thursday] the 29th [November 1894] and a letter came on board from Mr. James, the Commissioner, asking us to stay at Government House, saying he was going to the Durbar at Lahore, but his sister, Mrs. Pottinger, would entertain us – and so she did, most kindly. She is so pretty and charming, I do not know which of us was most in love with her…
“We remained at Kurrachee till Monday night after dinner. We drove out every evening and one morning went to the bazaars. I bought a lot of toe rings of various shapes, silver with blue and green enamel. They were weighed against rupees and 2 annas added to each rupee. One day we went to call on 2 brides and bridegrooms, Mr. and Mrs. McIver Campbell and Mr. and Mrs. Thornton. The ladies, Miss Grimes and Miss Moody, had come out to our steamer, been married that day, and were passing their honeymoon together at Reynold’s Hotel, amid the pity of all beholders. We embarked [Monday 3rd/Tuesday 4th December 1894] on the B.I.S.N.S.S. Chanda with a little plum pudding Mrs. Pottinger had had made and mixed and stirred by herself and us, and Mr. Ireland, a young invalid officer who was being taken care of at Government House, and her young nephew, Mr. A. James. We were 3 days on the Chanda, a clean little ship with a very clever nice Captain Whitehead, and on Thursday morning [6th December 1894] we reached Muscat…”
A third and final return to India
Alas, this expedition along the Oman coast also turns out to be less than successful – although the couple made some remarkable discoveries. The fastness that was the ‘Wadi Hadhramout’ again resisted the Bents’ advances and the party found itself stranded at Sheher, on Yemen’s south coast, in late January 1895, in vain hoping to strike northwards into the Wadi area, or, failing that, to return to Muscat to explore further there.
Mabel’s expedition Chronicle of around this date is haphazard and, understandably, rather depressed. Something happens, and, as in nowhere else in her twenty years of diary-keeping, the detailed notes of the couple’s travels disappear. We get a few lines from the Yemeni south coast before moving with her on board the Imperator for Mumbai:
“[About Wednesday, 30th January 1895, Sheher] … The next 2 days there were great negotiations and plannings as to our future course. One plan was to go hence to Inat in the Wadi Hadhramout, down to Kabre Hud and Bir Borhut and thence to the Mosila Wadi; eastward and back by the coast to this place and then try to go westward. But the other is to us preferable; to go along the coast, first up Mosila and into the Hadhramout and then try to go west, without coming here again. Of course there are so many delays of all sorts that we shall be here some days yet. The one pleasure we can enjoy is a quiet walk along the shore covered with pretty shells and birds…
“A good long time has elapsed since I wrote and I resume my Chronicle. Sunday, February 17th . And hardly can I write for the shaking of the very empty Austrian Lloyd S.S. ‘Imperator’ bound for Bombay. After a good deal of illusory delay, the Sultan Hussein declared he could not answer in any way for our safety if we went anywhere and so we at first thought of going to Muscat in a dhow and going to the Jebel Akhdar, as we had intended if it had not been for Imam Sheriff’s illness, but with the wind blowing N.E. it would have taken fully a month. We then must have gone round by India to get home and all our steamer clothes were at Aden. So as soon as we could we hired a dhow and embarked thereupon at about 1 o’clock for Aden…”
Back on dry land, we know the Bents were in Aden again by Wednesday, 13 February 1895. On that date Theodore wrote a ‘press release’ via the Royal Geographical Society, which was published in The Times of 1 March, announcing that ‘The party… went on to Sheher… Last year the people were very friendly to Mr. Bent’s party and promised to take them on a tour into the interior, but the season was too far advanced. To Mr. Bent’s surprise, however they received him and his party very coldly, absolutely refused to let them go outside the town, and told them that for the future no European would be allowed to enter the Hadramaut… Although it is evident Mr. Bent has not been able to carry out what would have been an expedition of the first magnitude, still it would seem that his journey will not be without interesting and novel results. His latest letter is dated from Aden, February 13, and he expects to be home about the middle of April.’
And they will come home via India; and Mabel’s few lines above are all we have of the Bents’ last trip there. Why did Mabel not keep up her diary? They would have reached Bombay on the Imperator (a lovely ship of 4140 tons, launched in September 1886 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Austrian Lloyd Shipping Company) by the end of February 1895, and we know the two of them were back in London by the end of April.
The Manchester Guardian of 25 April 1895 carried another report: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent have returned to London after spending the winter in exploring some of the little known or entirely unknown valleys of Southeastern Arabia. The flying trip which Mr. Bent made to India to see Colonel Holdich, the head of the Indian Survey, as to some unexpected difficulties, presumably of official origin, thrown in the way of the realisation of his plans for visiting the Eastern Hadramaut Valley, was unfortunately unsuccessful, as Colonel Holdich was absent on frontier business…’
Allowing for a two- or three-week journey back to England, Theodore and Mabel would have remained three or four weeks in India. As we have read above, one mission Theodore had in the country was to try and find his friend the great ‘Superintendent of Frontier Surveys in British India’, Colonel Sir Thomas H. Holdich, intending to elicit his support for one further expedition to the Hadramaut.
But Mabel’s above note, about needing Aden again to collect their personal effects, including ‘steamer clothes’ prior to making for Bombay, leads indirectly to one last bit of classic tourism and sightseeing – the fabled Ellora Caves. It looks, however, as if Mabel never went along; indeed, the only reference we have to the trip comes after Mabel’s death in 1929; prompted by her obituary in the Times, a letter appears in the same newspaper a few days later. This letter, of 6 July 1929, is from Mrs Julia Marie Tate, of 76 Queensborough Terrace, Hyde Park, London, widow of William Jacob Tate, in which she wistfully recalls:
“… a vivid picture of a moonlit night as clear as day off Aden, watching Arabian ‘sampans’ unloading tents and quantities of camp ‘saman’ [personal effects]. Presently their owners climbed up, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent. A few months before [i.e. the winter of 1894/5] we had called at their [London] house in Great Cumberland-place to learn their whereabouts, but the butler knew nothing, only that they were ‘somewhere in the Indian Ocean.’ This improvised meeting brought about the fulfilment of a cherished desire of theirs when my husband took his old schoolfellow to see the wonder caves of Ellora. This was their last reunion on earth.”
It is remarkably odd that Mabel makes no mention of this trip to the ‘wonder caves’ – was she ill? Or prevented somehow from going? Did it cause such resentment that she refused to chronicle the stay in Mumbai, and the long journey home by sea? Her regret at missing out on this excursion – then as now one of India’s greatest tourist attractions – can be imagined, for she was not easily denied. Also unusual is the fact that Theodore also wrote nothing about the visit to the caves (a trip that would have necessitated several nights away from his wife) – he did have much else on his mind, but perhaps also he had no desire to bring up the matter again and avoid any breakfast-table ill will!
And his companion? William Jacob Tate (1853-1899) was at Repton School with Theodore in the late 1860s. He joined the Indian Civil Service but had to retire early on account of his health and died just two years after Theodore in December 1899, at the age of 46. Mabel and Mrs Tate perhaps remained in town while Theodore and his old school friend visited the Ellora cave complex of monasteries and temples carved in the basalt cliffs north of Aurangabad (Maharashtra State), some 300 km north-east of Mumbai – “Reached from Nandgaon (G.I.P. Railway) by tonga, holding three passengers… Visitors are advised to take a sufficient supply of provisions and liquors for the trip.’ (Thomas Cook: India Burma and Ceylon : information for travellers and residents (1898, p. 79)
As for Mrs Tate, she can be forgiven her unseen tears in her letter to the Times. A stone in the Kemmel Chateau Military Cemetery Heuvelland, Belgium, is inscribed: ‘Tate, Lieutenant, William Louis, 3rd Bn., Royal Fusiliers. Killed in action 13 March 1915. Age 24. Eldest son of the late William Jacob Tate, I.C.S., and of Mrs. Julia Marie Tate.’ And the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial has this: ‘Tate, Captain, Frederick Herman, Mentioned in Despatches, 10th Bn., King’s Royal Rifle Corps. 11 August 1917. Age 22. Son of Mrs. Tate… the late W.J. Tate.’
The old steamer on her westward bearing leaves Bombay in her wake. No amount of meditation in the Ellora Caves, or anywhere else, will ease such wounds, be it for Tate or Tata: ‘With deep sympathy, from Mrs. Theodore Bent.’
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.
Nowruz (or “no rooz” for Mabel), a moveable feast, is the Persian New Year, and the Bents found themselves caught up in the celebrations for it in the Spring of 1899, during their amazing journey on horseback, south–north, through Persia that year. Theodore wrote a piece on it; Mabel makes several references to it in her ‘Chronicle’ – they were even introduced to the Shah, who takes an obvious shine to Theodore’s wife. Nowruz 2020, by the way, is March 20th.
Eight Western New Years out of fourteen saw the intrepid Bents on the road somewhere, or at sea, leaving freezing, foggy England (and their fine townhouse near Marble Arch) in their dust either for the Eastern Med, Africa, or wider Arabia, where they would spend three months or so exploring for antiquities, customs, costumes, folklore, and any other material Theodore could weave into a book, article or lantern-slide talk (based on Mabel’s photos).
Trekking, the Bents seem too preoccupied or tired to do too much in the way of celebrations, and they were moderate in their habits anyway. Perhaps the two occasions they were at sea on comfortable steamers might have been more jolly; but Mabel makes no mention.
If you have an idle few minutes you can follow the couple via these interactive maps on our site.
For those who enjoy lists, here is where the Bents celebrated, or slept through, New Year’s Eve away from London, between 1883–1896 (Theodore’s last New Year – health? It brought him none; he died of malarial complications in May 1897, at only 45).
New Year’s Eve 1883 – Naxos in the Cyclades
New Year’s Eve 1888 – On their way to Aden on the P&O Rosetta
New Year’s Eve 1891 – On the return journey from Cape Town to London on the Castle Line Doune Castle
New Year’s Eve 1892 – En route to Massawa in the Red Sea
New Year’s Eve 1893 – Trekking monotonously through the Wadi Hadramawt, Yemen “[Sunday, 31 December 1893] Our journey was utterly monotonous and again we camped near wells. Lunt’s tent [their botanist from Kew] put up the first thing for him to get to bed with orders not to leave till the sun was on us in the morning, and we all decided to stay at home till that time as again the camels could find food. I like camping near water because the camels can fetch it quietly from the wells instead of noisily from their own insides.”
New Year’s Eve 1894 – Dofar “New Year’s Eve. Did not get off till 10, though we breakfasted before sunrise. Every rope we had round our boxes is taken off and in use, and every bit of rawhide rope we possess is in use and great famine prevails in this respect. Theodore’s camel was a very horrid one and sat down occasionally and you first get a violent pitch forward, then an equally violent one back and a 2nd forward; this is not a pleasant thing to happen unexpectedly… We were all most dreadfully stiff and tired and again too late to do anything in the way of unpacking more than just enough for the night.”
New Year’s Eve 1895 – Kosseir (modern Quseir/Qoseir) in the Red Sea: “New Year’s Eve 1895. We went ashore in a bay guarded by savage reefs, and were glad to leave our rolling ship. There was a good deal of vegetation and Theodore seriously began his botanical collection with a good booty. Nothing was shot but 2 birds, which fell into the sea and were snapped up by a shark.”
New Year’s Eve 1896 – Socotra
If you want to read Mabel’s New Years, her ‘Chronicles’ (archived in London, under the care of the Joint Library of the Hellenic and Roman Societies) have been published by Archaeopress, Oxford.
A fascinating profile of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) in Baghdad the other night (December 2019)* on BBC 4 (a re-showing of a progamme from 2017) –unquestionably an important and extraordinary figure – Arabist, archaeologist, diplomat, agent provocatrice: and no match for Mabel Bent (1847-1929), the latter, it seems, giving her short shrift the few occasions they met in the early 1900s, in Palestine and around. Bell, in the bully spectrum, of course took an instant dislike to Mrs Theodore Bent – as much no-nonsense as she was herself.
Bell writes to her stepmother Dame Florence Bell, 6 February 1900: ‘I met Mrs. Theodore Bent, but having thrown 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.’ He did; very much.
* Randomly repeated it seems; a VPN may help outside the UK.
The Homeward Mail from India, China and the East for Saturday 19 December 1908 lists Mrs Theodore Bent among the passengers of the “S.S. Britannia, from London, Dec. 24, 1908 and Marseilles Jan 1., 1909; for Gibraltar, Marseilles, Port Said, Aden, and Bombay….” The P.&O. Britannia (6525 tons) was in her last year, having been launched in 1887. Disembarking at Port Said, Mabel is on her way to Palestine again; the Holy Land being almost exclusively her focus after the death of her husband, the explorer Theodore Bent, in 1897.
On a visit to Jaffa during this trip (still beautiful and peaceful then, nestled in the ‘plain of Sharon’), Mabel has a tour of the English Hospital there – in Ajami Street (now Yefet Street), opposite the Tabeetha School. She was visiting shortly after the death of the co-manager, Constance Newton, daughter of Charles E. Newton, the wealthy Derbyshire banker and landowner. Founded in the 1870s, the “Jaffa Mission Hospital was owned and operated by Mildmay Missions, an organisation which worked in conjunction with the Church Missionary Society. Constance [Newton] together with another missionary, Miss Mangan were responsible for running the facility with the help of a Syrian physician Dr Keith Ghoreyeb. After Miss Mangan’s death in 1885, the hospital was rebuilt into a functional medical facility. In 1892, Mildmay Missions bequeathed the Jaffa Mission Hospital to Constance Newton and Edith Eleanor Newton for full ownership and operation. After Constance became ill, the hospital was run by Edith and Dr. Ghoreyeb. Following her death on 19 August 1908, Constance left behind an endowment of £10,000 for the running of the hospital.” (Wikipedia) The hospital was left to the care of the Church Missionary Society and in 1944 had 160 beds and served nearly 3000 patients. A doorway survives.
One of the nursing sisters at the hospital, Sister Marie, has left an account of Mabel’s visit; it is a rare article, emphasising the celebrity status of this irresistible force. From this lengthy article in The British Journal of Nursing (Vol. 42, March 13, 1909, pp. 213-215), the paragraphs relating to Mabel are included here, under their heading “Our Foreign Letter: Under the Syrian Sun”, finding the impressionable Sister Marie carried away by the magic of the Levant and an ‘ardent lover of the East’; she loads her pen with purple ink:
“Picture to yourself an interminable garden of orange, pomegranate, and palm trees, with the plain of Sharon and the blue hills of Judea in the distance, this on one side, and on the other the sea, shining and sparkling as if the crest of each wave were studded with a thousand diamonds! … At nine the doctors come, and everything must be straight and tidy as in English hospitals back home… The doctors were late, and some of the children were getting impatient, when, instead of doctors, several travellers appeared in the corridor, one of whom was a lady, and, if she will pardon me the proclamation, may I add a very charming one? It was Mrs. Theodore Bent, who, as everyone knows, is an ardent lover of the East. After excusing herself for calling so early, she was taken round the wards, where she chatted gaily with the patients in their own language. This delighted them very much, and one woman declared she must be an Arab lady to speak so well. Before the visitors left the ward I noticed a small boy getting out of his bed, and making his way to Mrs. Bent. I looked at him and said…’Go back to your bed, Nuchly’. He paid no heed, but walked up to Mrs. Bent and said in broken English, ‘I see you one very nice lade, you come with me and I show you one very nice box in ze corridor, you will put money in, not so?’ and the Sister will buy for us one very nice muzeeka.”’ I felt so embarrassed, and wished my poor little at Jericho, especially when he added: ‘Why you looking cross, Sister? You teach me how to say it, in English, French, and Arabic. “Would you like to put somezin in the box?” You say I must sat that to all ze travelling ladies and gentlemen.’ I was much relieved when Mrs. Bent very kindly added her donation to the box, and we could pass on to another ward without the persistent little Nuchly. Through the kindness of many friends, we have our music box now, it is such a nice one, and plays ten tunes; it is a great pleasure to the patients, and had helped many of them to forget their aches and pains for a time. The women love it, and sometimes the children dance to it.”
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.