Mrs Theodore Bent – The Queen of Explorers

“Like most travellers, this lady has found that the less she and her nomad husband see of spirits and wine the better, and so with the exception of a little brandy for medicinal purposes, the whole party travel on tea, beef essence, and condensed milk…”

To mark Mabel Bent’s birthday (28 January 1847) this year (2022), let’s read more from a rare article on her from an arcane newspaper – The Newry Telegraph, 3rd January 1895, published by an unknown publisher in Newry, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. It seems that it is an original editorial by an unknown author and not a piece syndicated from any other contemporary English source. There is every chance that it was written, or co-written, by Mabel’s sister Frances Maria Hobson, wife of the Rector of Portadown (a corner of that devout triangle, Newry, Portadown, Armagh; the wagging finger to the intemperate above is a clue perhaps).

Mabel in her prime and on her way to explore the ruins of Great Zimbabwe for Cecil Rhodes in 1891 (presumably a studio photo from Cape Town or Kimberley, the Bent Archive)

The featured photo, probably from Cape Town in 1891, shows Mabel in her prime and on her way to explore the ruins of Great Zimbabwe for Cecil Rhodes. Mabel’s confident air presages the Bents’ imminent fame as they join the cadre of the nation’s most popular and best-known adventurers. Their work in the Eastern Mediterranean is behind them, their celebrated Arabian expeditions ahead.  Thus this article in The Newry Telegraph that follows reflects this prestige awaiting Mabel in 1895 perfectly, as well, of course, as the attitudes and jingoism of the day. And no excuse is ever needed for an oblique reference to another extraordinary traveller, Raymonde Bonnetain.

So, without further exposition,  we join parlour-readers, heads and arms on their antimacassars, of The Newry Telegraph for Thursday, 3rd January 1895:

Mabel Bent, Queen of Explorers (The Newry Telegraph, 3 January 1895)

“Mrs Theodore Bent – The Queen of Explorers: Curious as it may seem, foreign exploration is one of the paths where the most feminine women have followed the example set them by their husbands and brothers. Of course, this has been especially the case in every kind of missionary enterprise, and one has only to recall the achievements of Lady Baker, Lady Burdon, Mme Dieu la Loy [sic], Mrs Peary, and more recently Mme Bonnetain  note 1 ,  to prove that even great explorers have not hesitated to take with them on their perilous journeys those whom they had chosen for their life companions.

The subject of our sketch, Mrs. Theodore Bent, is a striking example of all a woman can do in the way of cheerful endurance and intelligent observation. Her name is less well-known than that of her husband, one of the most distinguished Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society, for, as she sometimes observes, ‘There is not ink enough in a family for two’, but the valuable additions to exploration literature published by Mr Bent owe not a little of their interest to his wife, for she keeps careful notes of everything that occurs during their journeys  note 2 ,  and, when any excavations are to be done, generally takes charge of one party whilst her husband looks after another.

Mrs Bent, who is a light, graceful-looking woman, well-known in the cultured portion of London Society, belongs to an Irish family, famous in the annals of County Wexford, the Hall-Dares of Newton-Barry; she rode almost before she could walk, and early displayed remarkable pedestrian powers.

During the last ten years Mr and Mrs Bent have together achieved twelve exploration expeditions in some of the roughest and least known corners of Southern Asia, that vast and mysterious domain of which the world even now knows little. They began their travels by an expedition to the less well-known islands of Greece, and while there made some interesting archaeological discoveries; this first attempt taught them a great deal, and now Mr H M Stanley  himself could not rival Mrs Bent as organiser and manger of an exploration party, for long experience has shown her what to avoid, and narrowed down her list of absolutely indispensable necessaries to a small compass.

It is interesting to note that Mr Bent’s book on Mashonaland  was one of the first works published on that now much-debated portion of our Colonial Empire.

Of late years Arabia has become to both husband and wife the most interesting portion of the universe. There is probably no place in the world of which so little is known, and which is more full of practical dangers to exploring Europeans, for the native population, though civilised after a fashion, are extremely cunning and dishonest, and have a great hatred and contempt for anything they don’t understand.

Nowadays so much is talked about rational dress, cycling costumes, and the relative value of a divided skirt and knickerbockers, that it is interesting to know that Mrs Bent’s ideas on the subject are simple and the result of long experience. Her costume never varies, for she has found the same kind of dress equally useful in South Africa, Arabia, and the Isles of Greece. Her outfit, which is very pretty and even conventional, consists of a tweed coat and skirt coming down below the knees, breeches, gaiters, and stout shoes. The skirt is full, being pleated; and by a clever arrangement invented by the wearer herself it can be altered accordingly as to whether it is wanted for riding or walking. With this costume is worn a pith hat and gause veil.

Mabel on a camel in the Sudan in 1896.

Mrs Bent, whenever it is possible, rides on horseback, and she cannot speak too highly of the intelligence and faithfulness of the horse as compared to that of a camel or mule.

Every detail concerning the outfit and internal economy of their expeditions is left by Mr Theodore Bent to his wife, and so on her hangs the heavy responsibility of keeping in health and making comfortable a larger or smaller party, which often includes guides and servants belonging to the country which is to be explored.

Like most travellers, this lady has found that the less she and her nomad husband see of spirits and wine the better, and so with the exception of a little brandy for medicinal purposes, the whole party travel on tea, beef essence, and condensed milk, while quinine is the most important item of the medicine chest.

Frances Hobson, Mabel’s sister, and possible co-author of the ‘Newry Telegraph’ article featured here (The Bent Archive)

It should not, however, be thought that Mr and Mrs Bent spend their whole life in travelling through wild and inaccessible regions; they generally pass the season in their delightful London home, which is a veritable museum, full of curious and beautiful things gathered together during the course of their owners’ many expeditions. Mr Theodore Bent has generously presented many of his most precious archaeological finds to the British Museum, but his own store is extremely valuable and curious.  Mrs Bent makes a point of collecting anything specially feminine in the way of ornaments or habilaments, and some of the shawls and face veils presented to her by Arabian magnates throw a strange light on the manners and customs of the East.

The subject of our sketch was at one time proposed for election to the Royal Geographical Society, but she little values official recognition of dignities, and the matter has remained in abeyance note 3 .”

Notes

Raymonde Bonnetain (1868-1913), African explorer (archive.org)
Note 1: : 1) Florence, Lady Baker or Florica Maria Sas (1841–1916), Hungarian-born British explorer; 2) Phoebe Esther Burdon, née Alder (1829–1898), Far-Eastern traveller; 3) Jane Dieulafoy (1851-1916), French archaeologist, explorer, novelist, and journalist. She crossed swords with Mabel Bent, as it were, in Persia in 1889; 4) Josephine Cecilia Diebitsch Peary (1863-1955) was an American author and arctic explorer; 5) Raymonde Bonnetain (1868-1913), travelled to Africa in 1892, taking her seven-year-old daughter with her. Reputedly she was the first European woman to see the Niger River, and compiled her reminiscences in her travelogue Une française au Soudan: sur la route de Tombouctou, du Sénégal au Niger (1894). (For more travellers linked to Mabel see the post ‘In Exalted Company‘.)
Return from Note 1

Note 2: A reference of course to Mabel’s travel diaries, or ‘Chronicles‘ as she called them.
Return from Note 2

Note 3: This is a reference to the long-running scandal over admitting women as Fellows to the RGS.
Return from Note 3

The Digitisation of Mabel Bent, Christmas 2021

Two pages (December 1883) from Mabel Bent’s diary written in the Cyclades (Greece) (The Hellenic and Roman Society, London).

“Christmas Day [Naxos in the Cyclades, 1893] was a downpour and as our rooms are not watertight [it] came in through doors and windows. The wind howled and our prospects of food were faint. A wild duck, that was found just before luncheon, cheered us however so much that we ate it all but a wing, which I prudently cut off to keep…”

Well, here indeed is a unique and long-awaited Christmas present for those who like to try and keep up with the breathless Bents over their twenty years (roughly 1880-1900) of exploring and excavating around the Levantine littoral (Greece and Turkey), Africa (North and South), Southern Arabia, and other lands.

‘Mrs Bent and her Camera’,  probably Spring 1895. From ‘The Album, A Journal of Photographs of Men, Women and Events of the Day’ (Vol. 2, no.2, 8 July 1895, pp. 44-45).

As part of the new digitisation programme of the Roman and Hellenic Societies’ (London University) manuscript collection, Mabel Bent’s travel ‘Chronicles’ (as she calls them), and some of her husband’s (Theodore Bent) notebooks, are due to appear online in early 2022 (mostly using ‘a Bookeye 4 Kiosk book scanner to capture the image data and BCS-2 imaging software to process and format the images once they have been transferred from the scanner’).

 

 

Part of the Bent Collection in the Archives of the Hellenic and Roman Societies, London.

This means you will soon be able to delve into all of Mabel Bent’s manuscript ‘Chronicles’ (except for the missing Ethiopian tour volumes of 1893 – anyone know where they are?), and one or two of Theodore’s notebooks as well (significantly some of his Hadramaut jottings).

Researchers who now cite Bent’s monographs and published papers on Great Zimbabwe, Aksum, Yemen, Greece and Turkey, etc., will soon also be able to refer to his wife’s on-the-spot accounts, adding new details, dimensions, dangers, and the odd fresh dinner duck as well!

More information on the Bent Collection digitisation project is available from the Roman and Hellenic Societies.

Edited editions of Mabel Bent’s travel Chronicles can be had from Archaeopress, Oxford.

Brand Bent: Two interviews, September & November 1893

Detail of a lantern-slide showing Mabel Bent on a camel in the Sudan in 1896. Next to her is the Bents’ long-suffering dragoman, Manthaios Simos from Anafi in the Greek Cyclades.

Following their work at Great Zimbabwe in 1891, the Bents were minor celebrities both in the UK and overseas; 1892 saw the first edition of Theodore’s Ruined Cities of Mashonaland. Barely taking a breath, the couple prepared for a trek to Aksum (Ethiopia) in the early months of 1893, and a monograph soon followed – The Sacred City of the Ethiopians (1893). Bent’s interest in early civilizations to the west of the Red Sea now enticed the two travellers to its east, and into the mysterious and dangerous Wadi Hadramaut (modern Yemen), marking the start of Theodore’s final field of study. In effect, it would kill him.

Brand Bent now went into overdrive in the summer of 1893 – meetings, finance and support were sought, inter alia, from the Royal Geographical Society, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the British Museum, the India/Foreign Office…

The couple had just a few months to put everything in place, including a full programme of self-promotion. Theodore lectured and sent out press releases, Mabel gave a series of interviews to newspapers and periodicals, two appear below, with transcriptions, and they are typical of many!

Interview with Mabel Bent for The Lady of the House* (later the Irish Sketch/Irish Tatler), 15 September 1893
Mabel Bent’s interview for ‘The Lady of the House’, 15 September 1893 (photo: The Bent Archive).

“In the present day travelling has been made so easy that under the auspices of Messrs. Cook & Son it is possible to make oneself acquainted with all parts of the civilised world at a cost which is – comparatively speaking – trifling, and one can go to India, for instance, in a shorter time than it took our ancestors at the beginning of this century to make ‘the grand tour of Europe’, without which no young man of position was supposed to be educated! But all travellers now-a-days are not content with the stereotyped tours ‘personally conducted’ (excellent and convenient as these undoubtedly are), and of late years we have heard of journeys which involved considerable risk and privation, and resulted in most important antiquarian discoveries.

“That an Irish lady should be the most distinguished member of her sex in this respect is distinctly gratifying to our patriotic feelings, and her countrymen and women may be justly proud of Mrs. Theodore Bent, who has shared with her husband all the dangers of exploring remote districts, and in assisting in his geographical research. Mrs. Bent is a daughter of the late Mr. Hall-Dare, of Newtownbarry, Co. Wexford, and her mother was Miss Lambart of Beau Parc, Meath.

“Although Mrs. Bent’s travels usually occupy a considerable portion of each year, and her home is now in England, she always manages time for an annual visit to Ireland; and the lace industry established by her family at Newtownbarry for the benefit of the tenantry and cottages in the vicinity has still a staunch supporter in the subject of this sketch. As to the journeys accomplished by Mr. and Mrs. Bent, it is, unfortunately, only possible to give a brief outline, but doubtless most readers are aware that the recent discussion at the Royal Geographical Society arose by reason of the wish of several members to confer on Mrs. Bent the distinction of being a ‘Fellow’ of that body of notable travellers. Those who were against the admission of ladies have temporarily, at least, gained the day, but Mrs. Bent has not experienced the slightest disappointment about the matter, as she never sought a ‘Fellowship’, and is quite content with the privileges she already enjoys.

It is about nine years since Mr. and Mrs. Bent started for Athens, and made themselves acquainted with the most interesting portions of Greece, returning next year to the Cyclades Isles, and bringing back to the British Museum many valuable relics dug out of the ruins at Antiparos. In Egypt, too, some successful digging was accomplished, and also at an Egyptian town near Thrace**, while at Cilicia this adventurous couple discovered Olba and the famous ‘Korycian Cave’. A long tour through Persia and over the Caucasus preceded their celebrated expedition to Mashonaland, and last winter they went to Abyssinia, where they made several valuable discoveries and returned with a collection of curiosities for the British Museum.” (The Lady of the House (later the Irish Sketch/Irish Tatler), 15 September 1893, p.19)

* “The ‘Lady of the House’, in addition to a variety of literary contributions of merit, has a specially attractive feature in its publication this week… Mrs Theodore Bent is the subject of the ‘Society Portraits’. Mrs Bent is a daughter of the late Mr Hall-Dare of Newtownbarry, Co. Wexford, who was married to Miss Lambart of Beau Park, Co Meath.’   (Dublin Daily Express, Friday 15 September 1893)

(The very popular ladies’ periodical The Lady of the House was published in Ireland, appearing 1880-1924, when it joined with The Irish Tatler and Sketch. It was favoured for its content and production standards, photographs, etc. Although it mainly covered items to do with appearance and being ‘at home’, the newspaper also looked at matters political, economic, and societal. It was the brainchild of the Dublin advertising company Wilson Hartnell, being planned initially as a monthly or bimonthly format for advertising, in particular a marketing forum for Messrs Findlater & Co., a wine merchant and grocer whose clientele were primarily the upper middle class ladies of Dublin. “Although [showcasing] philanthropic, titled ladies in its early years, the readership, as is clear from reader engagement and advertising, were middle- to lower-middle-class women throughout the country who held some purchasing power but who did most or all of their own housework”.)

** Rather an odd reference. The Bents never dug in Egypt (apart from burying the remains of a picnic below the Sphinx in 1885!). Perhaps Mabel is thinking of their work on Thracian Thasos in the late 1880s).

Interview with Mabel Bent, 2 November 1893, in the Irish weekly The Hearth and Home
Mabel Bent’s interview, 2 November 1893, for the Irish weekly ‘The Hearth and Home’ (photo: The Bent Archive).

“Undaunted by the experiences of her late tour through Abyssinia, Mrs. Bent, whose portrait appears on this page, is busily engaged preparing for one of her most important journeys yet undertaken by her, for Mr. Bent has chosen South Arabia as the scene of his next explorations, and, as usual, his wife will accompany him. Mrs. Bent has just returned to London from a round of country visits, and having only a few weeks to make all the necessary preparations finds her time fully occupied. However, she kindly gives some interesting particulars of the prospective tour. Leaving London in November, Mr. and Mrs. Bent hope, if all goes well, to remain in Arabia until March or April, 1894, when they will return direct to England, as the intense heat which sets in about that time makes it necessary for the inhabitants of northern latitudes to leave so enervating a climate. Mrs. Bent invariably undertakes all arrangements connected with the baggage, chooses camp furniture and provisions, but limits all supplies to the minimum, as a large amount of the baggage would only increase the difficulties of travelling in places where the explorers are often partly dependent on the natives when they strike their temporary camps, and require the ‘impedimenta’ of the journey to be taken to the next halting-place. Mr. and Mrs. Bent’s ‘travelling residence’ will consist of two beds or three tents, sufficient furniture and hammock beds (all of which can be quickly put up and taken down), while canned meats, essence of beef, and tea, are the principal provisions to augment local supplies, and a medicine chest is also taken by Mrs. Bent.’ Whose travelling costumes are chosen with a view to roughing it, and consist of serviceable dark serge gowns, plainly made.

“Mrs. Bent has already visited every quarter of the globe, with the exception of Australia and she is thoroughly familiar with native life in Persia, Africa, Turkey, Greece, and Egypt. In all these long and laborious journeys she was the only woman of the party , and frequently was obliged to cook and look after the domestic arrangements generally. She has often been admitted to the closely-guarded Eastern harems, and her northern tours extend as far as Norway,* but, as one can readily understand, she hardly considers European countries worth including when talking of the places she has travelled through. 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.” (Interview with Mabel, 2 November 1893, in the Irish weekly The Hearth and Home)

*Mabel writes elsewhere that she met Theodore Bent in Norway.

Syrna – a squall and its aftermath in the Dodecanese, April 1888

Shimmering Syrna in the Dodecanese (Alan King)

A recent photo sent in by Alan King as he steamed by Syrna (Σύρνα, anciently Syrnos) in the Dodecanese – minuscule and inaccessible, thus happily tucked away from Cycladic summer silliness just to the west – steered us to the Bents’ writings on an islet they were determined to see in early Spring 1888.

Theodore, after a cursory inspection of the terrain around the landing place on April 9th, wrote a note for The Classical Review (1888, Vol. II (10), p.329). If he did remove some of the obsidian blades he refers to, then they are not it seems recorded elsewhere:

Syrna (Σύρνα, anciently Syrnos) in the Dodecanese – minuscule and inaccessible (click to expand; Google maps).

“The small island rock, anciently known as Sirina, now as Agios Joannis, occupies a somewhat important position in the Aegean Sea, as one of the stepping-stones by which the earlier inhabitants of Karia must have travelled westwards; it has two good harbours, one to the north, and one to the south, and is placed midway in a long stretch of sea between Karpathos and Astypalaea, in both of which islands traces of this prehistoric race have been found. Having carefully examined Anaphi, an island lying to the west of this line of route, and having found there no traces whatsoever of this early population, and knowing that Astypalaea, Amorgos, Naxos and Paros are full of their tombs, I was considerably interested in discovering in the ruins of a square fortress on Sirina quantities of obsidian knives, which at once identified this rock with the race in question, and proved to us that they made use of it as a halting-place on their way to and from the marble quarries of Paros; in fact Parian marble, objects of which are so frequently found in their tombs, would seem to have been their chief quest in these westward migrations.”

Theodore Bent’s short piece on ‘Sirina’ for ‘The Classical Review’ (1888, Vol. II (10), p.329) (archive.org).

Theodore makes no mention of the hassle getting to this tricky rock. They had hired a fine schooner from Syros a month or so before in early 1888 to cruise up and down the Turkish coast opposite Rhodes, and the skipper, Captain Nikolas, had no intention of breaking her up for insignificant Sirina. But the Bents, as often as not, get their way. Mabel tells the tale in her diary – first a skirmish from her and then a broadside from her husband:

“Sunday [April 8th, 1888]. Well, this morning we set sail, but not before dawn, for Sirina, as we thought, and with the scirocco we should have sailed south of Tilos, which lay directly in our way. We were busy in the cabin, but I peeped up and saw we were steering straight for Nisiros, north of Tilos. So I told Theodore and he proposed to go up and row with the captain, but I said I would make less formal enquiries. I said to [first mate] Grigoris, ‘We are going north of Tilos it seems?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But very far north! We are going to Nisiros.’ ‘Well! I suppose we shall tack soon, for we shall no doubt pass Tilos as close as we did Rhodes.’ The wind was quite fair for Tilos. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say he could not help it, and I said, ‘How soon shall we tack for the south?’ ‘We are going inside Nisiros.’ ‘But why?’ ‘To go to Kos!’

“So Theodore went up and there was a frightful, awful row. Now Grigoris said he did not wish to go to Sirina at all, and would not go there, and there was no water or harbours and many rocks and no lighthouse and he was always considered a most noble man, and honourable, and so on. ‘Very well’, said Theodore, ‘Go straight to Syra and we will go to the judge and the consul,’ etc.

Manthaios Simos
Manthaios Simos, the Bents’ long-suffering dragoman, in his nineties in Athens in the 1930s, between two of his granddaughters (© Andreas Michalopoulos 2010).

“Later, with [our dragoman Manthaios] as a go-between we said if we could not go south, we did not mind going to a small island called Levitha on the way to Syra. This was agreed upon and we did not care a bit. It rained. I looked out again and saw that now we were going south of Nisiros and close to Tilos, past Kavos Kryos and Kos, where we had agreed to anchor for the night far to the dim north. ‘Where are we going now, Andreas?’ ‘To that place,’ [the crewman replied] very sulkily. ‘What place?’ ‘To Sirina!’ Of course we have lost hours by going so far north and are now fearing a calm.

“Next morning [9th April ] about 10 we reached Sirina and landed after luncheon. We walked across the island to the sea at the other side, where there is a deep bay. Here was a sort of farm, a very irregular enclosure of loose piled stones and very thick walls. The only thing with mortar was the oven. An old woman came out of the dark hut where she was shut in and brought us out little square blocks of wood to sit on, and she directed Theodore to where there were some old stones and so I returned to the ship with one man and the rest went off, but finding the earth all gone and only foundations on rocks they returned, and we set off again in the afternoon.” (Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent, Vol.1, Oxford, 2006, p.252-3).

Syrna (Alan King, Summer 2021).

All rather a storm in a seacup, and the frivolous couple’s scamper contrasts unbelievably with the reality of an incident on the island many years later, 7 December 1946, when a medical team,* including Lawrence Durrell as it happens, was sent from Rhodes on a Greek warship to assist the sick and wounded of the vessel Athina Rafiah (originally the SS Athena), carrying Jewish immigrants to Israel, which was wrecked there, with around 800 survivors coming ashore. Sadly eight of the refugees, among them children, perished in the aftermath of the wreck and are buried on the island. There is a lonely monument there to them all.

* ‘With Durrell on Rhodes, 1945-47’, by Raymond Mills, in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, Lawrence Durrell Issue, Part 1 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 312-316.

The Kidnap and Travels of the Karpathos Lady

Travel writer Alan King falls for the ‘Karpathos Lady’, kindly allowing followers of the Bents to share his own fascination for her… It makes quite a story!

On the Turkish-controlled island of Karpathos, shortly before midday on Monday, April 20th, 1885, a 6000-year-old female figure, hidden under a carpet, carried on the back of a man from Anafi, was smuggled onto a ship in Pigadia harbour, never, to this date, to return to her island home.

This is the story of her kidnap and of how she later travelled the world under her new name of the ‘Karpathos Lady’.

The Kidnap and Travels of the Karpathos Lady

The kidnappers

Theodore and Mabel Bent
Theodore and Mabel Bent
© The Bent Archive

During the winters between 1882 and 1890, the British travellers Theodore and Mabel Bent would leave their home in London’s fashionable West End to meander around the Greek islands and the Turkish coast in search of adventure in the exotic Levant. Theodore Bent’s main interest was archaeology and their itinerary would be designed to take them to locations where there were opportunities to excavate new sites.

In March and April, 1885, they visited the island of Karpathos and came upon a limestone statue of a naked female, baring all. When they left the island, six weeks later, the Karpathos Lady went with them.

A desert diversion

Three months before, in mid-January, the Bents had travelled from London to Dover where they boarded a ferry to Calais to connect with the train which would take them on the first stage of their latest adventure.

Travelling via Paris, they reached an uncharacteristically snowy Marseilles on January 14th and the next day were on board the M.M. Tage heading for the somewhat warmer climes of Egypt, where they arrived 7 days later.

It was a birthday jaunt for Mabel who, on January 28th, climbed a pyramid at sunset and later wrote: “It was splendid being up there and I think it very very unlikely that any other person has been up by moonlight on his birthday before … it felt odd to be alone with the Pyramid and the moon.”  note 1 

World Enough, and Time: The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent Volume I: Greece and the Levantine Littoral – All Mabel Bent’s quotes in this article can be read in full in Gerald Brisch’s excellent transcription of Mabel’s chronicles, the informal diary entries she made throughout their adventures in Greece and Turkey.

Arrival in Karpathos

Mabel was clearly over the moon about her 38th birthday celebration, however, there was another motive for the Bents travelling to Egypt. With their ‘holiday’ over, they had work to do and February 4th saw them aboard the S.S. Saturn, bound for the island of Rhodes, although Bent’s sights were really set on excavating on neighbouring Karpathos.

He’d become aware of four potential dig sites on Karpathos. However, the Turks were cracking down on such unlicensed archaeological activities. In addition, after the publication of his article in 1883 about the islands of Chios and Samos  note 2 , in which he criticised Turkish rule, he feared he would have difficulty obtaining the necessary travel permits for the islands he wished to visit. At that time, Egypt was still effectively Turkish territory and Bent figured that he would more easily slip into the Turkish-occupied Greek islands from Egypt rather than the usual point of entry of Istanbul.

In the event, when the couple reached Rhodes, it became evident that the Turkish governor, or Pasha, Khamel Bey, was going to make life difficult for Bent. Not surprising really; at the time of Bent’s critical article about Chios and Samos, Khamel Bey had been Pasha on the nearby island of Lesvos and had become embroiled in the fallout from the article.

Khamel Bey refused to allow them to travel to Karpathos on the Turkish government steamer and the couple were forced to take a circuitous, clandestine route using the Greek steamer Roúmeli and small local caiques. After stopovers on the islands of Nisyros and Tilos, they finally made landfall on Karpathos, at Tristomo Bay, in the north of the island, on March 6th, 1885.

The Karpathos Lady appears

The main town of Pigadia had been their intended destination, but after an horrendous 9-hour overnight voyage from Tilos, bad weather forced them to take shelter in the wide, protected bay of Tristomo before continuing on their way next morning. But bad luck dogged them again.  Two sudden gusts of wind took the sail and mast overboard and they just managed to limp into the small harbour village of Diafani where they found another boat and crew to continue their journey south. After a further seven and a half hours, they reached Pigadia, not far short of two whole days after having left Tilos, just 100 kms distant.

Bent was to encounter yet more problems. It seems that word from Rhodes had preceded his arrival on Karpathos and the Turkish authorities were aware of his intentions. Under scrutiny from the Turks, he found it difficult to excavate on Karpathos as he’d planned; he wrote while in Pigadia: “Here there are evidences of pre-historic inhabitants, the graves of whom I was unfortunately unable to open owing to the presence of the Turkish authorities …”

At this point however, Bent seemed unaware that he already had in his possession the most important object of his entire mission on Karpathos. His somewhat downbeat sentence above continues: “… but I was able to obtain a large stone figure of a female idol.”  note 3 

The Karpathos Lady had appeared. Her fate was now sealed.

The Karpathos Lady
The Karpathos Lady
© The Trustees of the British Museum
Licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Evading the Turks

Bent left the statue in Pigadia with the man who’d sold her to him, planning to collect her when he finally left the island.

He’d been hoping to excavate the sites of the four ancient cities of Karpathos.  With Posidonia and Arkessia in the south of the island effectively off the agenda, his only recourse was to travel to the isolated north, well away from the inquisitive eyes of the Turks, to investigate Vrykounda on the north-west coast and the presumed site of Nisyros on the islet of Saria.

Shortly before Easter, in preparation for their journey, they arranged to leave some of their baggage in store in the Custom House in Pigadia with the aim of collecting it as they departed the island some weeks later. Of course, one very important item, the Karpathos Lady, was already in Pigadia, awaiting collection at the house of the man who’d sold her to Bent.

They travelled north to Olymbos and on to Vrykounda where they started their excavations at the site of the ancient city, with a break to celebrate Easter in Olymbos and Diafani. Visiting Saria after Easter yielded nothing but disappointment and they returned to Vrykounda.

Their digs at Vrykounda yielded some interesting finds which later ended up in the British Museum.

The kidnap

Their excavations in the north of the island completed, they returned again to Diafani and set out from the village in a small boat for the journey south to Pigadia to retrieve their stored baggage, and, of course, the Karpathos Lady. They planned to take the Greek steamer, Roúmeli, from Pigadia, which would carry them out of Turkish jurisdiction to Greece, but, to their horror, shortly after leaving Diafani, they saw the steamer heading north toward Diafani. Incredibly, they managed to flag it down by waving their umbrellas so that the captain would know they were the British passengers he’d taken from Rhodes to the island of Nisyros some weeks before. The Roúmeli had already called at Pigadia and was en-route to Diafani before proceeding on to the island of Kassos. They persuaded the captain to return, after Diafani, to Pigadia, with the help of 13 British pounds (some £800 or €900 at today’s value), much to the annoyance of some the passengers already on board.

Manthaios Simos
Manthaios Simos, thought to be in his nineties in Athens in the 1930s, sits with a cat between two of his granddaughters – Maria (left) and Irini
© Andreas Michalopoulos 2010

Mabel’s diary account takes up the story of what happened when they arrived in Pigadia and how their loyal Greek dragoman, Manthaios Simos from Anafi, was given the special task of retrieving the 40kg statue while Bent kept the Turks occupied with “much raki”:

“Manthaios set off to run to the house where was a very hideous statue, more than the size of a baby, half a mile off. Theodore and the Turks sat down at the café … At last I saw Manthaios tearing back with the burden [of 40kg] on his shoulders and very soon they reached the ship and all was on board . . . we were safely off . . . ‘Oh!’ I could not help exclaiming ‘How thankful I am to be under the Greek flag’. And indeed with 3 umbrellas in the cabin, though all in disrepair, what now had we Britons to fear from Turks?”

“We sat down to luncheon at 12 in gay frame of mind and then I heard how Manthaios had run to the house and found it locked and had broken the door open, found the statue, wrapped it up in what he carried for the purpose, and ran back. Theodore was in the meantime drinking much raki with the Harbourmaster and other Turks, having been to the custom house and told an old woman to take a long time carrying the things, one by one, very slowly to the boat and thinking Manthaios would never be back; as I could see Manthaios I was luckier. When Manthaios appeared, Theodore could see that the statue showed behind and told him so, but Manthaios said ‘No matter’ and rushed on to the boat and then went back to say goodbye to the Turks. Theodore saw them spot the statue and whisper together and shrug their shoulders“.

The raki had done its job well!

Mabel continues: “… so now we are in possession of the most hideous thing ever made by human hands.”

So thought Mabel of the Karpathos Lady. If only she could have known that, 130 years later, the beauty of this “very hideous statue” would finally be recognised for all the world to see.

The Get-away Ship
The steamer Roúmeli was probably an unknowing accomplice in the kidnap of the Karpathos Lady. She’d been plying her way around the islands for just a short period before her two encounters with the Bents. On the first occasion she took them from Rhodes to Nisyros. Her second encounter saw her being flagged down to return to Pigadia where she picked up the Karpathos Lady. Read more about the Roúmeli
And so, shortly before midday on Monday 20th April, 1885, the Karpathos Lady left her island home and started out on the odyssey that would ultimately see her travelling the world. With her went the possibility that the most important archaeological artefact from the island’s past would ever assume its rightful place as an icon of the island. Even today, few islanders know of her existence and still fewer are aware of the story of her dramatic abduction.

Roúmeli – copyright uncertain
Roúmeli – © uncertain

The odyssey begins

Karpathos to Kassos
Roúmeli’s ‘Bent charter’ route from Pigadia, Karpathos to Fry, Kassos
© Google Maps

Passing to the south of Karpathos and after a 3-hour stop in Kassos, the captain of the Roúmeli set a course for the next stop on the escape route from the Turks, the Greek island of Kythira, aiming to sail across the Libyan Sea, parallel to the southern coast of Crete, before steaming north and out of Turkish-controlled waters.

During the night, some hours after leaving Kassos, maybe in fury at the loss of a goddess he might have sought to seduce, the great god Zeus unleashed his winds upon the Roúmeli and her passengers. Mabel wrote: “We had a fearful night of storm, pitching, rolling … and fears of falling on the floor … Much splashing took place and water flew over the ship”. Roúmeli battled bravely on, but next morning, close to the island of Gavdos, the captain was forced to turn the ship around and head back for the shelter of Kali Limenes (Fair Havens), at the most southerly point in Crete, where the ship carrying St. Paul, on his journey from the Holy Land to Rome, is said to have rested before encountering its own winds near Gavdos: “a tempestuous wind, called the northeaster, struck down from the land … and no small tempest lay on us”.  note 4 

Kassos to Crete
Roúmeli’s route from Fry, Kassos to Kali Limenes, Crete
© Google Maps

Arriving at the safe haven of Kali Limenes in the early afternoon of Tuesday, Roúmeli waited out the storm until 8 o’clock in the evening, when the winds abated sufficiently to allow the captain to continue on through the night. Wednesday morning saw them off Paleochora, the most westerly outpost of Crete, before Roúmeli turned north, finally entering the safety of Greek waters, close to the island of Antikythira, at 10 o’clock. A sigh of relief must have been breathed by Bent and Mabel.

At midday, the Roúmeli docked at the Kythira port of Kapsali. The Karpathos Lady had made it to Greece. Sadly, her stay was to be lamentably short.

During the few hours’ stopover in Kythira, the Bents arranged for papers to be drawn up to cover the true origin of the Karpathos Lady. Mabel tells us: “At Kythera a ‘manifesto’ was made and signed by the captain, saying he had picked us, and our cases, up in Turkey, and by the Kythera customs people to say we had not started from there.”

Crete to Syros
Roúmeli’s route from Kali Limenes, Crete, via Kythira to Ermoupoli, Syros
© Google Maps

From Kythira, sailing overnight, Roúmeli arrived at her home island of Syros on Thursday, April 23rd, and the Bents checked into their usual haunt of the Grand Hôtel d’Angleterre from where Bent wrote to the Keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum:

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 … 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 … I have likewise got a good-sized statue of one of those quaint figures which I got at Antiparos last year; it is of stone and nearly a yard long.

That “good-sized statue” was, of course, the Karpathos Lady, who spent the final few days of her time in Greece locked up in the Custom House in the port town of Ermoupoli, where the Bents often stashed their “plunder”.

It was not until some 10 days later that the Bents found a ship that could take them at least part of the way on their journey home. And so – the Karpathos Lady finally left Greek soil from the island of Syros at 07:00 on Saturday May 2nd, 1885, never, to this day, to return.

The M.M. Erymanthe took them from Syros to Messina in Sicily where, with fortuitous timing, they boarded the Maréchal Canrobert for the overnight leap south to the British colonial island of Malta, a busy staging post on the route between Britain and its colonies in the Indian subcontinent and beyond.

Syros to Malta
The Karpathos Lady leaves Greece and travels to Malta via Messina, Sicily
© Google Maps

In Malta, they found it “not so easy to find a ship for London as we had thought, most of them being crowded at this season, and lots of people waiting for passages.” It was 6 days before they could secure a passage, with less than an hour’s notice, on Friday May 8th, on the cargo ship Restormel, carrying grain from Odessa to London.

One final act of subterfuge was necessary: “[The Restormel] is not a passenger ship and we are to be smuggled into the chartroom and there concealed; when we reach London our baggage to be supposed to be travelling alone”.

Sometime around May 20th, 1885, the Karpathos Lady finally landed on British soil, a month, and almost 7,000 km, after her odyssey had begun on the back of the Bents’ man-servant in Pigadia.

Malta to London
Leaving from Malta, the Karpathos Lady finally arrives in London
© Google Maps

Mabel’s final entry in her chronicle for the adventure they’d embarked upon four months earlier reads simply: “We reached home via Millwall Dock in safety with our 24 pieces of the most varied luggage, and I am more convinced than ever that there is no place like it.”.

Descent into the Underworld

Given Mabel’s opinion of the statue, it’s hard to think that the Karpathos Lady would ever have been a house guest or graced the entrance hall of the Bents’ home near London’s Oxford Street. Indeed, Mabel may even have been more forceful about the ‘other woman’ in her husband’s life, for we know that, a year later, the Karpathos Lady was sold by Bent to the British Museum.

Alas, there her odyssey faltered, and for the next 110 years or so, the Karpathos Lady was consigned to the dingy basement of the British Museum to confront her shades, hidden from public view, despite her then being, and still remaining, the oldest Greek statue in the Museum’s collection!

Rebirth – the odyssey continues

After over a century of confinement in the ‘Underworld’ of the British Museum, the Karpathos Lady finally emerged into the daylight of the modern world. Her ‘rebirth’ came when her beauty was recognised by Dr. Peter Higgs, the Curator of the Department of Greece and Rome at the Museum. Dr. Higgs told us “The Karpathos Lady – a grand name for a wonderful object (if not to everyone’s taste). I can hold my head up high and admit that I brought her out of obscurity where she was languishing unloved in the basement and persuaded my colleagues to put her on display. Now she has toured the world!”

Thanks to the keen, professional eye of Dr. Higgs, the Karpathos Lady remained on display for a number of years, bringing pleasure to the many millions of visitors to the Museum.

In January 2010, BBC Radio 4 broadcast the first of a 20-part weekly series, produced in conjunction with the British Museum, entitled A History of the World in 100 Objects. The series met with great critical acclaim and the Museum embarked upon creating a touring exhibition based on the objects featured in the radio programme.

Shanghai Exhibition Poster
Poster advertising the 2017 Shanghai exhibition
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Inexplicably, the Karpathos Lady was not included in the BBC Radio series, nor did she become part of the initial touring exhibition. However, after the first exhibition venue in Abu Dhabi in 2014, her beauty and importance were once again acknowledged and she replaced another exhibit as a permanent member of the touring exhibition. Her debut, later that year, was in Taipei, Taiwan – her first journey outside Europe. Japan followed in 2015 with exhibitions in Tokyo, Kyushu and Kobe. She jumped continents in 2016 and visited Perth and Canberra in Australia before heading back to Asia in 2017, where she wowed them in Beijing and Shanghai; Beijing attracted 340,000 visitors and Shanghai 8,000 visitors on its first day alone. 2018 saw her back in Europe for the exhibition in Valenciennes in France. In May 2019, she returned to Asia for a 4-month gig at the Hong Kong Jockey Club where the organising Hong Kong Heritage Museum highlighted the Karpathos Lady as one of the top exhibits – an accolade indeed for an object that had been almost overlooked.

All a long, long way – and a long, long time – from her Karpathos home.

Return to her Ithaka

Since her return to London from Hong Kong, the coronavirus pandemic has clipped the wings of many a traveller, the Karpathos Lady included, but our hopes are high for her further, future travels.

The travels of the Karpathos Lady have not, to date, included Greece, where she would surely be welcomed as a home-coming heroine. However, maybe one day, she will finally find her way back to her very own Ithaka – her island home of Karpathos.

Bring Her Home’ – sign the petition

The Karpathos Lady in Pigadia Museum (c) Alan King www.tales.click
“Stylised female limestone statuette. It was found in the area of Pigadia in 1886 and is exhibited in the British Museum. Figurines similar in shape, made of stone or clay, have been found all around the East Mediterranean, in Asia Minor, the North African coast, Malta and Crete. The Karpathos statuette however is the only known large size figurine in this period in the Aegean; it was probably a cult statue.”

The Archaeological Museum of Karpathos in Pigadia dedicates a small part of a display cabinet to an artefact which should be the pride of the island and its people. How appropriate it would be if the REAL Karpathos Lady could be proudly displayed for all to see.

With this in mind, we’ve started a campaign aiming to persuade the British Museum and the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports to negotiate the loan of the Karpathos Lady to Greece. The idea is for a ‘summer season’ in Pigadia, hopefully in 2022, where tourists and locals alike could admire the beauty already seen by so many across the world, establishing her rightful role as an icon of the island of Karpathos.

Please visit the Bring Her Home web page to ‘sign’ the petition to be sent to the British Museum and the Greek Ministry – it takes less than a minute. Why not tell your friends about the campaign and get them to visit the web petition page? http://karpathoslady.click

Bring Her Home

#karpathoslady

Interactive map of her travels

The Karpathos Lady Meets the World
1998-2014 On public display at the British Museum, London, England
2014-2015 December 13-March 15 National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
2015 April 18–June 28 Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan
2015 July 14–September 6 Kyushu National Museum, Dazaifu, Japan
2015-2016 September 20-January 11 Kobe City Museum, Kobe, Japan
2016 February 13-June 18 Western Australian Museum, Perth, Australia
2016-2017 September 8-January 29 National Museum of Australia, Canberra, Australia
2017 March 1-May 31 National Museum of China, Beijing, China
2017 June 29-October 8 Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China
2018 April 19-July 22 Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes, France
2019 May 18-September 9 Hong Kong Jockey Club, Hong Kong

The essential data

British Museum number: 1886,0310.1
Description: Limestone female figure.
A thick slab worked flat, with beak nose, pointed breasts and vulva triangle left in high relief on the front. The eyebrows are marked by incised lines. Above the slit in the vulva triangle are four incised lines to represent the pubic hair; below is a horizontal groove.
Function: Her stylised form is very striking and raises many questions, as her original significance remains a mystery. One possibility is that she is a fertility goddess, testimony to the importance of female fertility at this time.
Cultures/periods: Neolithic (late)
Production date: 4500BC-3200BC
Excavated/Findspot: Bourgounte (Vrykounda), Karpathos, Greece
Materials: Limestone
Height: 660 mm
Width: 354 mm
Depth: 200 mm
Weight: 40 kg
Condition: Broken off below the hips. Rejoined below breasts.
Purchased from: James Theodore Bent
Acquisition date: 1886
Conservation: January 8, 1998. Remove dowel and base, light clean. Reason: Permanent Exhibition. Removed object from base and dowel from object mechanically aided by hot water to dissolve the plaster. Slightly cleaned with Wishab sponge (vulcanized latex, filler).

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Article ©2021 copyright Alan King. All images copyright Alan King unless otherwise stated.

Notes

Note 1: In her Chronicles, Mabel is not specific about which pyramid she climbed but we might suppose that it was the Pyramid of Menkaure. She writes: “After dinner we went out in the bright moonlight and Theodore and Mr. Head’s brother went to visit the Sphinx but I preferred to go up the Pyramid, as I had not done it on Monday.” The entry for the previous Monday talks of her visit to the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinos): “We visited the Sphinx and when we got to the Pyramid of Mycerinos we found we had no candle …”
Return from Note 1

Note 2: ‘Two Turkish Islands To-day’ published in Macmillan’s Magazine, Vol. XLVII (May 1883-October 1883) p.299, https://archive.org/details/macmillansmagazi48macmuoft/page/299/mode/1up
Return from Note 2

Note 3: Extract taken from p.235 of ‘The Islands of Telos and Karpathos’ published in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1885, Vol. VI pp. 233-42, https://archive.org/details/journalhellenic04englgoog/page/n305
Return from Note 3


Of Crows and Swans and Calamine – the Archaeology Theatre of Antiparos

Alan King, long-term traveller in Greece, is in the front row as the Bents take to the stage in the Cyclades…

Overview

Between December 1883 and March 1884, Theodore and Mabel Bent were travelling around the Cyclades in search of ancient sites that they could excavate.

In December 1883, they stayed for a single night on the island of Antiparos, as Mabel recounts, “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.”

In the short time they were there, on the basis of information provided by Robert Swan, they visited an ancient burial site and found, and opened, four graves. This initial dig prompted their return a few weeks later for a longer visit in the hope that it would yield further finds.

The British Museum Objects
On May 30 1884, just a few months after his Antiparos digs, Bent wrote to the Keeper of Antiquities at the British Museum: ‘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.’See some of the objects excavated by Bent in Antiparos.
In the event, the additional finds from the site, and from another they excavated on that second visit, surpassed their expectations and would lead to the establishment of Bent’s future reputation as a credible archaeologist, or, depending on your point of view, with some justification, an ‘illegal excavator’  note 1 . The objects he took from Antiparos he later sold to the British Museum, where they remain today.

Bent was the first player on stage and he wrote about his excavation work in 1884  note 2  but omitted to disclose the precise location of his two excavation sites.

Finds from Krassades in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens
Objects excavated from Krassades, in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Following Bent, some fourteen years later, in 1898, the Greek archaeologist Christos Tsountas took the stage when he located a site which he attributed to Bent’s initial site at a place he named as Krassades, but knowledge of exactly where Krassades lay was lost over the ensuing years.

For well over a century, the location of Bent’s site remained a mystery and the theatre stood silent. Only recently, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Zozi Papadopoulou, has the location of Krassades been pinpointed and the footlights have once again illuminated the scenery and the actors involved.

But the answer had always been there, hidden between the lines of Bent’s book and Mabel’s chronicles, ready to be revealed in conjunction with a little local research.

In 2017, Dr. Zozi published a paper  note 3 , in Greek, in which she describes rediscovering the location of Krassades. Unfortunately, Dr. Zozi’s paper slipped under the radar of The Bent Archive.

On a visit to Antiparos in September 2019, unaware of Dr. Zozi’s discovery, I resolved to try to put together the pieces of the 130-year old jigsaw puzzle which would reveal: 1) the house of Robert and John Swan, in which Theodore and Mabel Bent stayed while on the island; 2) the site of the calamine mine managed by Robert Swan; and 3) the precise location of Bent’s initial dig. Together they form the three scenes for the set of the “Archaeology Theatre of Antiparos”.

Theodore's and Mabel's books
The Cyclades or Life Among the Insular Greeks – Theodore’s classic book of his and Mabel’s adventures in Antiparos and the other Cyclades islands can be found in this print version, which also contains additional information about the Bents and their travel itinerary.

World Enough, and Time: The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent Volume I: Greece and the Levantine Littoral – You can read more about Theodore’s and Mabel’s visit to Antiparos in this print version of the informal day-by-day entries Mabel made in her chronicles.

The cast (in order of appearance)

Theodore and Mabel Bent

Theodore and Mabel Bent are the main players in the story. Read more about their lives and their travels.

William Binney

William Binney seems to play a small but important part in the story. He was Her Brittanic Majesty’s Consul to Syra (Syros) during much of the time of the Bents’ travels around the islands. He facilitated their travels by way of letters of introduction to important figures on each island they visited, one of whom was Robert Swan on Antiparos. Many of the Bents’ finds were illegally exported out of Greece, usually via the port of Syros, and one wonders whether William Binney’s role should be extended to include his services to the Bents in this area. Read more about William Binney.

Robert Swan

Robert McNair Wilson Swan was born in Scotland in 1858, making him 3 years younger than Bent. His biography tells us that he worked in Greece as a ‘mining expert’ from 1879 to 1886. He would have been around 25 years old when he and his brother, John, first met Theodore and Mabel Bent in Antiparos in December 1883. We deduce that he’d been working on the island for around four years at that stage.

Christos Tsountas

Christos Tsountas (under Wikimedia licence)
Christos Tsountas (licenced by Wikimedia)

Christos Tsountas was a highly-respected Greek archaeologist. He was born in 1857 and died in 1934. Aside from his other important areas of work, notably Tiryns, Mycenae and Syros, he investigated ancient burial sites on several islands in the Cyclades in 1898 and 1899, including Antiparos. It was he who coined the term “Cycladic civilization”.

Dr. Zozi Papadopoulou

Dr. Zozi Papadopoulou is Head of the Department of Classical and Prehistoric Antiquities of the Ephorate of Antiquities of the Cyclades. Among other projects, she has been the driving force in rediscovering, and continuing work at, the site of Bent’s first excavation, now known as Krassades.

Setting the scene

In December 1883, Theodore and Mabel Bent visited the island of Paros, and, during their visit, they made the 10-minute hop across the narrow strait to the neighbouring island of Antiparos, armed with a letter of introduction from the British Consul in Syros, Richard Binney, to a Scottish engineer, Robert Swan, carrying out mining operations on Antiparos. They stayed for just one night with Swan and his brother John, but this brief encounter sowed the seeds of a friendship which would last for many years. Over the following few weeks, they saw more of Swan, who joined them on parts of their island-hopping odyssey.

This budding friendship was in stark contrast to that which Bent had feared he would encounter in Antiparos after advice from his muleteer in Paros. Bent writes:

The Pariotes look down on their neighbours with supreme contempt and call them kouroúnai (κουρούναι), or crows … and my interest was excited about the crows into whose nest we were about to deposit ourselves; but, as it turned out, we found our home for three weeks at Antiparos, not amongst the crows, but in the hospitable nest of the Swans — two English brothers, who work calamine mines on this island, and who not only assisted us in our digging operations, but gave us the rest that we much needed.

Mabel’s chronicle echoes Bent’s endorsement of their new-found friends and tells us of a conversation, on that first night, which would spark Bent’s interest and bring the travellers back to Antiparos for a longer stay just a few weeks later. Mabel writes of that first visit:

Rode 1 1/2 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. Found the population all enjoying the feast of St. Nikoloas who replaces Neptune. At one house I was obliged to join in the syrtos holding 2 handkerchiefs. We sent a messenger to Mr. Swan and knowing he would take 3 hours to return, rode to meet him. 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.

So, in early February 1884, the couple returned for a longer run with a script which saw Bent excavating 40 ancient graves, yielding a plethora of unique finds. Those finds, now in the British Museum, essentially wrote the text-book for our understanding of early Cycladic culture.

Following the plot

Although Bent’s work during his 2 weeks on Antiparos led to his being recognised as a serious archaeologist, we know little about his day-to-day activities. Unusually, Mabel’s chronicles do not give us as much information as on some of the less important islands they visited.

In Greek Waters
Read Theodore Bent’s gripping account of his day spent fishing

We do know he left for a visit to Amorgos for a week, leaving Mabel with the Swans to recover from a bout of ill health. We also know from Bent’s book, The Cyclades or Life Among the Insular Greeks, that he took a day off to go fishing on St. Simeon’s Day  note 4  when his workers refused to work on the Saint’s day. Even on his day off, he used the time to gather material for a magazine article entitled ‘Fishing in Greek Waters‘, which he later incorporated into the book. You can read the gripping story in The Cyclades book or in the free online ebook, In Greek Waters, on our sister site.

Bent and Mabel both mention that they stayed at Robert Swan’s house but give us few clues as to exactly where that house was. We know his first excavation was at the suggestion of Robert Swan who ‘in making a road he had come upon a lot of graves and found a marble cup, broken etc.‘ But where was that road and hence the excavation site?

The following sections try to answer these questions. These ‘answers’ are not definitive and are hypothetical assertions based on researching the island’s recent industrial history, speaking with local people and visiting potential sites. We welcome discussion and further information from any source and will update this article as new information becomes available or any of the assertions are proved to be false.

We have one ‘hard’ piece of evidence. Bent tells us that his first excavation site was “on the slope of the mountain, about a mile above the spot where the houses were”. He saw the ‘houses’ submerged in the narrow stretch of sea between the island of Tsimintiri and the southern shore of Antiparos near present-day Aghios Georgios. Using this fact, I’ve tried to bring together discrete pieces of Bent’s and Mabel’s writings and local exploration and research to come up with the most probable positioning for all three of our sort-after locations.

The narrow stretch of sea between the island of Tsimintiri and the southern shore of Antiparos
The narrow stretch of sea between the island of Tsimintiri and the southern shore of Antiparos where Bent saw the submerged houses. The island of Despotiko looms in the background.

1. The Swans’ house

The location of the Swans’ house is key to finding Bent’s initial exploratory dig site in December 1883 and his subsequent, more extensive digs a few weeks later.

Theodore and Mabel Bent had been staying in Paroikia in Paros, and Bent tells us that they left early for the journey to Antiparos: “On the next morning early we started for Antiparos, a desolate ride of two hours to the point where the ferry boat takes passengers across.” Mabel’s chronicle contradicts Bent’s timing: “Rode 1½ hour to the nearest point to Antiparos”.

Mabel writes that Swan’s house was a 90-minute ride (in one direction) from Antiparos town where the ferry landed the couple: “We sent a messenger to Mr. Swan and knowing he would take 3 hours to return, rode to meet him. … 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.”

These events all occured within the same day so, timing, and Bent’s subsequent description of the location of the dig site, pins down the approximate location of the house.

Mabel noted in her diary that they visited Antiparos on December 18, however, that date needs to be clarified. Bent says it was St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6). With the 12 days old-style/new-style calendar shift that Mabel always factored in, it would confirm Mabel’s date of December 18  note 5 . In 2018 on that day in Greece, there were 9 hours and 32 minutes of daylight with the sun rising at 08:35 and setting at 18:07. The actual times would vary slightly according to the longitude of a specific location, but the interval would be the same. Over the intervening 134 years, a few seconds of drift may have to be factored in. Also, without further research, it’s not certain that there was a universal Greek time or whether, more likely, it changed with longitude, and, the relationship between the ‘clock time’ and sunrise may not have been as now. However, this is all self-balancing and we still end up with around 9:30 hours of daylight.

We have to assume that Bent and Mabel would not be travelling by mule in the dark. Adding up Mabel’s chronicled day should give us the amount of time remaining for Bent’s exploratory dig:

  • Paroikia to Pounda 1:30 (Mabel’s lower reckoning)
  • Awaiting the boat to come from Antiparos 0:15
  • Crossing 0:15
  • Festivities (Mabel tells us they joined in) 0:30
  • Ride to the Swans’ house 1:30 (although Bent tells us it was 2 hours)
  • Resting at the Swans’ house (say) 1:00

This totals, conservatively, 5:00 hours, leaving just 4:30 hours for Swan to organise the men for digging, to travel to the site from Swan’s house, excavate 4 graves and travel back. Therefore, the site must have been VERY close to the Swans’ house.

Bent tells us, almost exactly, where the dig site was:

A rock in the sea between Antiparos and the adjacent uninhabited island of Despotiko is covered with graves, and another islet is called Cemeteri, from the graves on it. The islands of Despotiko and Antiparos were once joined by a tongue of land, which was washed away by the encroachment of the sea on the northern side; and in the shallow water of the bay, between the islands, I was pointed out traces of ancient dwellings … I was able to discern a well filled up with sand, an oven, and a small square house. … A clever fisherman, who knows every inch of the bay, told me that pottery similar to that I found in the graves was very plentiful at the bottom of the sea near the houses. It is on the slope of the mountain, about a mile above the spot where the houses were, that an extensive graveyard exists. It is not unlikely that the submerged houses form the town of which this was the necropolis.

Taking our assertion of the proximity of Swan’s house to Bent’s initial dig site, would locate the house to be 1 to 2 kms north of the present-day village of Aghios Georgios.

While researching another, unconnected, story in Aghios Georgios, I mentioned my Bent search to a local man, Tassos G… . This conversation threw up a tantalising possible candidate for the Swans’ house. “If you follow that track up and over the hill, you’ll come to a building which was owned by a French mining company” he said. “It’s used as a farm building now but it’s not an average local house – look at the stonework”.

After leaving Tassos’ house, I immediately took the track he’d indicated. The house he’d described was indeed more high-status than the usual farm building. It’s now being used to store hay. There are some additional buildings around it with another largish building across the track.

The Swans' house
The Swans’ house?
Decorative lintels
Decorative lintels

Part of the house has been demolished and the existing walls represent approximately two thirds of the original length of the house.

The stones forming the walls are of a regular shape and have either been cut or carefully selected; by comparion, the other large building mentioned, on the opposite side of the track, is of a much rougher construction.

Rendering on the internal walls
Rendering on the internal walls

An element of decorative embellishment can be seen in the door and window lintels, being curved and formed from stones rather than a simple straight piece of timber. All the internal walls were at one time rendered.

While looking around the site, I noticed SOMETHING QUITE AMAZING – but more of that a little later.

The track continues on up the hillside and eventually reaches a large mining site to the north of Mount Profitis Ilias at Koutsoulies. Could this road have been the one which Mabel writes about: “He took us to his house, and after resting told us that in making a road he had come upon a lot of graves.”

Further investigation yielded more ‘evidence’ as set out in the following sections.

2. The calamine mine

Calamine is a combination of zinc oxide and ferric oxide. Read more about calamine.

The Municipality of Antiparos’ official website states: “Mining activity on the island began in 1873, when the state ceded the exploitation rights to these deposits to the Elliniki Metalleftiki Etaireia [Greek Mining Company]”  note 6 

Another account of mining activity tells us: “Limonite ore, from which iron containing pockets of azurite and zinc are extracted, can be found on the western slopes of Profitis Ilias of Antiparos. The Greek Mining Company began mining operations in 1873 and started mining zinc from Kaki Skala. In 1900 the mines were taken over ​​by the French Company of Lavrion”  note 7 

This second account mentioning the French Company of Lavrion would seem to tie in with Tassos’ statement about the house having been owned by a French mining company.

In searching for the calamine mine, I was initially drawn to the site of the mines at Koutsoulies, however, being on the north slope of Profitis Ilias somewhat casts doubt on this being the site of Swan’s mine. Additionally, the track from the house to those mines twists and turns around the folds of the mountain, probably a distance of 8-10 kms or so. Why would Swan live so far from the place of his work? The house indicated by Tassos is not in a ‘desirable’ location: it’s not in a village, or a town, it’s not by the sea. There had to be another reason why the mining company had built the house at that location. The calamine mine just had to be closer to the house, and, remember, in a very short space of time, Swan had gathered up a team of men to help Bent on his initial exploratory dig.

The quarry in the ravine near the house
The quarry in the ravine near the house

A kilometre further on from the house, the track passes above a ravine showing clear signs of quarrying with heaps of mining spoil to be seen, not yet fully overgrown. A kilometre further on, a track leads down to the ravine bed and closer examination of the quarry can be made. To the untrained eye, some of the loose spoil looks iron-based (ferric) with rust-red patches revealing its presence – a possible indication of calamine. The extent of the quarry can be clearly seen on the map in this article when switched to satellite view.

Rock from the quarry near the house
Rock from the quarry near the house. Is it calamine?

Bent writes of the local man named Zeppo:

On the opposite side of the island to the village of Antiparos, about two hours on muleback over the mountains, are a few scattered houses gathered round the calamine mines. Here we were staying, close to our graveyard, and here Zeppo has his store and dispenses his goods to the miners.

So, Bent’s writings would seem to support our assertion that the calamine mines were close to Swan’s house and hence his initial dig site. Were those “few scattered houses gathered round the calamine mine” the ‘farm’ buildings I’d seen?

Bent’s statement in relation to calamine extraction, “I could find no trace of any ancient works here [Antiparos]“, supports the premise that the quarry near to the Swan’s house was from the modern era.

3. Bent’s excavation sites

Bent was relatively restrained in his excavations on Antiparos, given the number of sites he was told about, and one would like to think that he thought he’d leave some for future generations of archaeologists. He writes:

I was induced to dig at Antiparos because I was shown extensive graveyards there. Of these I visited no less than four on the island itself, and heard from natives of the existence of others in parts of the island I did not visit.

Of the four sites he visited, he excavated only two: “I opened some forty graves from two of the graveyards”. Just these two sites yielded a vast number of finds, all of which are now in the British Museum (view the objects in the British Museum).

Subsequent excavations by Tsountas and Dr. Zozi yielded a smaller number of finds, some of which can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (see earlier image).

The first site

I’ve tried to establish earlier that Bent’s first excavation site was close to the Swans’ house and close to the calamine mine.

The fortuitous conversation with Tassos about the French mining company house led me to explore the track he’d pointed out to me.

I found the house and, on walking around the immediate area, I saw to my utter amazement, just across the track from the house, some fairly recent excavations of, what looked like, graves identical to those described by Bent. How could this possibly be? Bent’s original excavations would have eroded or been overgrown over the past 130 years, so somebody had been excavating here recently.

Evidence of excavations just across the track from the house

Back at the Bent Archive base, on receiving my report of finding these new excavations, the team started scouring the Internet for any recent references to Bent’s excavations on Antiparos. They came upon an advance notice of a lecture  note 8  which was to have been given to The Archaeological Society at Athens in December 2018 – just 9 months previously. The presenter was to be Dr Zozi Papadopoulou. A précis of the lecture stated: “In recent investigations by the Ephoria of Antiquities for the Cyclades, the Krassades site was relocated [located once more] and a cluster of graves, some undisturbed, were explored.”

With no contact details for Dr. Zozi Papadopoulou, the Bent Archive sent an email to Demetris Athanasoulis, Director of The Ephorate of Antiquities of the Cyclades, who forwarded the message to Dr. Zozi, to which she replied:

The site of Krassades has been located in the last decade about 1km north of the modern settlement of Ag. Georgios in Antiparos. We actually excavate part of the cemetery with very interesting findings. I am sending a link directing you to one of my articles with informative photos included (pp 357-359). The “southeast site” you mentioned has not been identified yet…

Dr. Zozi’s reply arrived after I’d left Antiparos. The information in the article which she references  note 9  in her email looks to be extremely interesting and, armed with this new information, a return visit beckons soon after travel is permitted following the current (2020/21) pandemic.

Her reply confirmed what I’d deduced from the lines of Bent’s book and Mabel’s chronicles, and from my researches on Antiparos – the exact location of Bent’s first excavation site, the location of the Swans’ house and the location of the calamine mine.

The second site

Neither Bent nor Mabel provide us with any precise information on where the second site was located, although Jörg Rambach in Early Cycladic Sculpture in Context (Marthari et al. (eds), Oxford, 2017,  ch. 7) suggests in the area of Apantima or Ag. Sostis. Bent only gives us two vague geographic references.

One reference tells us that it was “to the south-east of the island”. This could lead us to believe that it was somewhere on the peninsula, south or west, of the present-day village of Soros.

The other reference provides the information: “In Antiparos the inhabitants had their obsidian close at hand, for a hill about a mile from the south-eastern graveyard is covered with it.”

SO – a project for a future (very long) visit to Antiparos – find an obsidian needle in an obsidian haystack in the south-east of the island!

Dr. Zozi’s reply seems to confirm that the location of Bent’s second site is still unknown:

The “southeast site” you mentioned has not been identified yet.

Epilogue

As with any complex plot, the individual players each add their part to the overall story and serendipity often plays a major role.

In 1884, Bent published his article, Researches Among the Cyclades in the Journal of Hellenic Studies  note 10 , describing his excavations on Antiparos. Around the same time, he was also writing his book, The Cyclades or Life Among the Insular Greeks  note 11 , in which he included much of the text of the previously published article, save for a short appendix, Notes on an Ancient Grecian Skull. Aside from this appendix, the text of the article and the book are largely identical with the notable exception of the first paragraph. In the article he writes:

It is first of all necessary to state why I chose Antiparos as a basis for investigation on this point: firstly, because during historic times…

The version in his book contradicts that of the article:

On ascertaining the existence of extensive prehistoric remains at Antiparos I felt that it would be a satisfactory spot for making investigations — first, because during historic times…

Both versions continue identically and both contain the second paragraph starting:

Secondly, I was induced to dig at Antiparos because I was shown extensive graveyards there.

In the article version, Bent is suggesting that he chose Antiparos in advance because, from the considerations he sets out, he foresaw that he might find remains there, whereas, in the book version, his considerations were only entered into following the meeting with Robert Swan and his excavations on that first brief visit.

Although Bent was always on the look-out for potential dig sites wherever he roamed, one might assume, given that he only intended to stay overnight, that his reason for visiting Antiparos was other than archaeology. It would seem that he came as a ‘tourist’ to visit “the celebrated grotto” for its medieval historical interest, about which visit he wrote extensively in his book. His archaeological interests lay much further back in history and, for Bent, Antiparos was “a place without a history.”

It can be said therefore that the discovery of the Krassades site was a result of two supreme examples of serendipity. Firstly, in Robert Swan’s stumbling upon the graveyard while making the road to the calamine mines and, secondly, in Swan’s mention of the graves on that first night, without which, Bent might never have proceeded to dig on Antiparos. Maybe it was always in Swan’s mind to mention his finding of the graves, and Mabel’s account makes it sound as though the subject might have been on his agenda: “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.”

Robert Binney, the British Consul in Syros, played his part well in bringing Swan and Bent together.

We don’t know for sure, but it would seem that Swan made no monetary gain from bringing the site of the graves to Bent’s attention, nor for assisting him during the Bents’ 3-week stay on the island (although Bent himself stayed only for 2 weeks, leaving Mabel with the Swan brothers on the third week, suffering from poor health). Robert Swan and the Bents became close friends from that point on and Swan later drew some element of fame from accompanying Bent on his expedition to Great Zimbabwe.

Bent, of course, gained the greatest applause and accolades. As an established author of books and journal articles, and as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, he had all the right contacts to finally make his name as an archaeologist, aided by his sale to the British Museum of the Antiparos finds, his article Researches Among the Cyclades, published in 1884 in the Journal of Hellenic Studies,  note 12  and the publication of his best-selling book The Cyclades or Life Among the Insular Greeks  note 13  in 1885.

Christos Tsountas played a key ‘linking’ role, some 15 years after Bent’s excavations. Probably working from Bent’s writings, and being able to find local people with personal recollections of his visit in 1884, he identified Bent’s excavation site and named it as Krassades. He was also the first to methodically excavate the site using sound archaeological practices.

That ‘link’ provided by Tsountas, was picked up over 100 years later by Dr. Zozi Papadopoulou who successfully located, once again, the Krassades site and has produced detailed and modern analysis of older parts of the site as well as new areas of interest. Her work on the site continues.
<!– The last words of the script should rightly be spoken by Dr. Zozi, to rapturous applause from the audience:

“May I take the opportunity to also express the wish that the skeletal remains come back to the island.”

Should Dr. Zozi’s wish be granted, expect to see a sequel to this story, possibly entitled ‘Of Crows and Swans and Calamine – A Wish Come True’.–>

We leave it to you, the audience, to make up your own mind, from the script we’ve compiled, as to who should share the applause in the “Archaeology Theatre of Antiparos”.

Map of the scene

Read how to use the interactive map.

Critical reviews

This section sets out discussions and new information on the subject of the precise locations of Bent’s excavation sites and Robert Swan’s house.

 
Article ©2021 copyright Alan King. All images copyright Alan King unless otherwise stated.

Notes

Note 1: “In contrast to Bent’s illegal excavations, are the researches of Chr. Tsountas in southwest Antiparos.” Extract translated from Greek from the paper Recent Archaeological Researches in Antiparos by Z. Papadopoulou (2017). https://www.academia.edu/38788690/Πρόσφατες_αρχαιολογικές_έρευνες_στην_Αντίπαρο.Recent_archaeological_researches_in_Antiparos
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Note 3: Πρόσφατες αρχαιολογικές έρευνες στην Αντίπαρο (Recent Archaeological Researches in Antiparos) by Z. Papadopoulou (2017). https://www.academia.edu/38788690/Πρόσφατες_αρχαιολογικές_έρευνες_στην_Αντίπαρο.Recent_archaeological_researches_in_Antiparos
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Note 4: In the Othodox Calendar, St. Simeon’s Day is April 27th. Simeon is also honored, together with 70 other apostles, on January 4th. Those who are named after Simeon, or Symeon, can celebrate their name day on either of these days. However, Theodore and Mabel Bent were in Antiparos on this second visit in February 1884 so Bent may be mistaken in his reference to this saint’s day – or he was being hoodwinked by his workers?
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Note 6: Source: Municipality of Antiparos website section on Geology/Morphology
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Note 7: Source: Atlas of the geological opmonuments of the Aegean/Publication of the Ministry of the Aegean, 2002, www.ypai.gr
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Note 8: Antiparos: from the Early Cycladic cemetery at Krassades to the Middle Cycladic/Late Cycladic I site at Agriokastro (N.B. The date below the heading of the notice states the wrong year and should read “Tuesday, December 11, 2018” instead of the erroneous 2016)
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Note 9: Πρόσφατες αρχαιολογικές έρευνες στην Αντίπαρο (Recent Archaeological Researches in Antiparos) by Z. Papadopoulou (2017). https://www.academia.edu/38788690/Πρόσφατες_αρχαιολογικές_έρευνες_στην_Αντίπαρο.Recent_archaeological_researches_in_Antiparos
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Note 10: Journal of Hellenic Studies (Volume 5, November 1884, pages 42-59) – Researches Among the Cyclades. The article is also reproduced in Bent’s book The Cyclades or Life Among the Insular Greeks
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Note 11: The book, The Cyclades or Life Among the Insular Greeks, is still available in print.
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Note 12: Journal of Hellenic Studies (Volume 5, November 1884, pages 42-59) – Researches Among the Cyclades. The article is also reproduced in Bent’s book The Cyclades or Life Among the Insular Greeks
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Note 13: The book, The Cyclades or Life Among the Insular Greeks, is still available in print.
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The lost reviews of ‘Southern Arabia’ (1900), by Mabel and Theodore Bent

The cloth cover of ‘Southern Arabia’ (from an item on AbeBooks).

“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 first page of the Table of Contents from ‘Southern Arabia’.

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.

The second page of the Table of Contents from ‘Southern Arabia’.

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.

Mabel Bent taking tea with Moses Cotsworth and party in the Palestinian hinterland in 1900/1 (Moses Cotsworth collection, unknown photographer. Photo reproduced with the kind permission of Rare Books and Special Collections, Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, University of British Columbia).

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!

The Bents’ map of the Yemeni interior (from ‘Southern Arabia’).

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.”

Theodore and Mabel Bent (the Bent Archive).

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 lost reviews of ‘Southern Arabia’ by Mabel and Theodore Bent

“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)

Mabel’s Museum – 13 Great Cumberland Place, London, W1

“[One] of the most notable and charming women of the day…” and her “museum” – 13 Great Cumberland Place, London, W1

“The Gentlewoman – The Illustrated Weekly Journal for Gentlewomen”, No. 175, Vol. VII, Saturday, November 11, 1893.

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…

Theodore and Mabel Bent (the Bent Archive).

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 intriguing portrait of Mabel Bent in the “Gentlewoman” article reprinted here.

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.

43 Great Cumberland Place - missing its blue plaque
The Bents’ first home at 43 Great Cumberland Place. 13 Great Cumberland Place, alas, is no longer with us.

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 The Gentlewoman, 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

In and out (just about) of the Wadi Hadramawt – Mabel of Arabia

Shibam – “Manhattan of the Desert”, host to the Bents in early 1894 (wikipedia).

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:

Mabel Bent’s own photo of the mud-castles of Shibam in the Wadi Hadramawt (1894).

“… 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…

Bent’s own map from ‘Expedition to the Hadramut’. The ‘Geographical Journal’, Vol. 4 (4) (Oct), 315-31 (private collection).

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.

The formidable Mabel Virginia Anna Bent, a detail from a society portrait (1890s?).

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.

This portrait of Theodore must have been one of Mabel’s favourites; she chose it for the frontispiece of her tribute volume to him, “Southern Arabia” (1900).

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…

Mabel’s photo of Al-Hajarayn (Wadi Dawan), western Hadramawt (1894).

“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]

“The castle of Al Koton rears its battlemented towers.” Mabel Bent’s own photo (1894) of Al Qatn in the Wadi Hadramawt.

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)

Cover photograph © Jane Taylor (Shibam, Wadi Hadramawt, Yemen).

 

 

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.

Available from Amazon and other sources.

 

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…

 

The Bents and the Raj

India, and all that the name evokes…

“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)

The tomb of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata (1839-1904), Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey (wikipedia).

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…”

Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata (1839-1904) (wikipedia).

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,’ and Mabel remained friends with the family, as a cutting from the  Belfast Evening Telegraph of Monday, June 28, 1913, indicates: “Mrs. Theodore Bent’s recent evening party was as great a success as her other functions have always been, and was particularly noticeable for the number of distinguished foreign and Colonial guests present. The suite of beautiful rooms, which form a perfect museum of curios from all parts of the world, were looking their best, and were crowded with guests of many nationalities, many of the ladies wearing diamonds in the form of tiaras and other ornaments, some of the handsomest being displayed by a Parsee lady, Mrs. Ratan Tata, who had splendid sapphires set into diamond frames as a necklace, and also for securing her white saree.”

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.

A little scene-setting: one of Edward Lear’s “Indian Trees, Palms and Bamboos” from his 1873/5 journey. Ten years later Lear was to receive a copy of Theodore Bent’s book on the Cyclades (from ‘A Blog of Bosh’).

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.

P.&O.’s ad from ‘A handbook for travellers in India, Burma, and Ceylon’ (J. Murray 1911, archive.org).

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.

Map from “A handbook for travellers in India, Burma, and Ceylon” (J. Murray 1911, archive.org).

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”

P&O’s SS ‘Rosetta’ in 1884 (photo taken by Walter Cunningham Hume). The Bents travelled on her from England to Aden in early 1889, where they changed to the P.&O. ‘Assam’ and then the B.I. ‘Pemba’ (courtesy of Nicholas Messinger).

“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.

A plan of Bombay from “A handbook for travellers in India, Burma, and Ceylon” ( J. Murray 1911, archive.org).

“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.

Karachi and its environs. From “A handbook for travellers in India, Burma, and Ceylon” (J. Murray 1911, archive.org).

“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.

Manora Point from “Kurrachee Past, Present And Future” by Alexander F Baillie, p. 62, 1890, Calcutta (archive.org).

“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’.

Empress Market from “Kurrachee Past, Present And Future” by Alexander F Baillie, frontispiece, 1890, Calcutta (archive.org).

“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

The MM SS ‘Ava’ at Port Said on her way to Aden. The Bents changed to the MM SS ‘La Seyne’ there for Karachi in the winter of 1894 (courtesy:  P. Romona).

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.”

The MM SS “La Seyne”.  The Bents sailed on her to  Karachi in the winter of 1894/5 (courtesy:  P. Romona).

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 [1894] 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.

Government House, where the Bents stayed in Karachi in November 1894. From “Kurrachee Past, Present And Future” by Alexander F Baillie, p. 146, 1890, Calcutta (archive.org).

“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…

The Sind Club and Frere Hall, Karachi. From “Kurrachee Past, Present And Future” by Alexander F. Baillie, p. 148, 1890, Calcutta (archive.org).

“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

Theodore’s own watercolour sketch of Muscat from his paper ‘Exploration of the Frankincense Country, Southern Arabia’. The Geographical Journal, 1895, Vol. 6 (2) (Aug), 109-33.

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 Bombay street, from ‘A handbook for travellers in India, Burma, and Ceylon’ (J. Murray 1911, p.203 archive.org).

“A good long time has elapsed since I wrote and I resume my Chronicle. Sunday, February 17th [1895]. 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.’

The Austrian Lloyd ‘Imperator’. The Bents travelled on her from Aden to Mumbai in early 1895 (B. Ivancovich, wikipedia).

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…’

Superintendent of Frontier Surveys in British India, Theodore’s friend, Colonel Sir Thomas H. Holdich (wikipedia).

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:

Steamer Point, Aden around 1900.

“… 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.”

Part of the ‘Carpenter’s Cave’, Buddhist Cave 10 at Ellora, and visited by Theodore Bent in 1895  (wikipedia).

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!

The Ellora Caves for tourists. ‘Thomas Cook: India Burma and Ceylon : information for travellers and residents’ (1898, p. 79) (archive.org)

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.’

References to Mabel Bent’s diary from: The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent, Vol. 3, Arabia (2010) and the Bents’ travel classic Southern Arabia (1900)