Ships played a central role in the lives of the Bents; they were as familiar and essential to the couple as planes and airports are to us.
The Oceania cruise ship ‘Riviera’ shown in the rainbow (the photograph was taken from Rhodes, looking northish, and roughly from the area (‘Kum Burnú’) the Bents had their modest lodgings).
So let’s steam, then, into 2019 along one of the Bents’ favourite waterways – the narrow straits separating Rhodes from Marmaris and the Turkish coast – only the vessels they travelled on in their time were a little different than the Oceania cruise ship ‘Riviera’ shown in the rainbow (the photograph was taken from Rhodes, looking northish, and roughly from the area (‘Kum Burnú’) the Bents had their modest lodgings, in early 1885, being not allowed, as Christians, to overnight in the Old Town).
Mabel notes in her diary: “We are at a clean little inn in the separate village called Neo Marás, the Christian quarter quite close to the sandy and windmilly point Kum Burnú at the north of the isle. It is quite a little walk to the town where no one but Jew or Turk may remain after sun set… There are quantities of smooth black and white shingles which are extensively used for paving floors and court yards in all sorts of designs. The passage outside our door and the dining room too have very pretty patterns.” (‘The Dodecanese; or Further Travels Among the Insular Greeks’, Archaeopress 2015, page 108).
In early 1885, Theodore and Mabel Bent arrived in Rhodian waters, via these extended straits in the photograph, from Alexandria, on the Austrian Lloyd ‘Saturno’ (1845 tons, built in 1868, in service until 1910), and left a few weeks later on the much smaller steamship ‘Ρούμελη’ (297 tons, 155 feet), which linked the smaller islands of the eastern Mediterranean. Originally named ‘Operculum’, and Clyde built, she comes into view several times in Mabel’s diary pages. She was ultimately broken up at Savona in 1933, a few years after Mabel’s death. In another twist of fate, the ‘Operculum’ also covered the South Arabian seas between Aden and Socotra, the setting for one of the last journeys Theodore Bent was to make, in early 1897, months before his death. How wonderful these old ships were, although Mabel was not so fond of this one:
“Well! The Roúmeli is a dirty little ship, and Theodore and I slept in the very smelliest cabin, destined for ladies by the English builders. As it was a passage room for all the passengers a quilt was hung across, but the steward was often within our side. At 11.30, two hours after we left Rhodes, we reached Simi and in the dark and by starlight I could see that we remained in a little land-locked bay for 2 or 3 hours. It looked lovely but no doubt by day it looks bare enough and like Chalki, which we got to about 7, a most hideous island, stony like Syra and not even the picturesque town to redeem it. We did not land there; there is a revolution about the tax on sponges and the Pasha of Rhodes was just going there so we came on to Nisiros, which we reached about 12.30.” (‘The Dodecanese; or Further Travels Among the Insular Greeks’, Archaeopress 2015, page 111).
If anyone has an illustration of the ‘Roúmeli’, please let us know!
All together, the Bents sailed over the rainbow here in these waters, between the tip of Rhodes and Marmaris, at least five times – check them out via the interactive map on our site.
The pottery incense-burner, intended for frankincense and other aromatic resins, that the Bents brought back from the Wadi Hadramaut in 1893/4. It remained in Mabel’s possession until 1926, when it was donated to the British Museum (As1926,0410.37, not currently on display).]
For famous travellers, the Bents preferred to be homebirds come Christmas time, swapping solar topees for deerstalkers, and quitting their London townhouse at 13 Great Cumberland Place for their country place at Sutton Hall, Macclesfield, or Ireland (Mabel’s family home at Newtonbarry, Co. Wexford). Of their nearly 20 years of explorations (in the 1880s and ’90s), they were only out of the country on 25 December, or so the archives indicate, for 1882 (Chios – for Orthodox Christmas), 1883 (Naxos), 1891 (steaming home from Cape Town), 1893 (Wadi Hadramaut), 1894 (Dhofar), 1895 (Suez), and 1896 (the island of Sokotra).
Appropriately, these 1890s tours at Christmas time took them to the lands of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, or associated finds they could link to Theodore’s theories of trade links and contacts between the populations of Southern Arabia and the various regions around today’s Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. In particular it was the famous frankincense (a fragrant gum that dribbles from several species of ‘Boswellia’) trail, and the branch that began in Dhofar, that fascinated the explorer. Bent wrote several articles on the subject, including ‘Exploration of the Frankincense Country, Southern Arabia’ for The Geographical Journal, (Vol. 6 (2) (Aug), 109-33), and ‘The Land of Frankincense and Myrrh’ for The Nineteenth Century (Vol. 38 (224) (Oct), 595-613).
We won’t quote from them, tho they are both worth tracking down, but rather let’s let Mabel fill in some Christmas 1894 details from her ‘Chronicle’. The couple are in their camp on the far coastal regions of Dhofar; Mabel is entertaining and they do well, of course, in not celebrating Christian rites in front of their Muslim hosts:
“Christmas Eve [Monday, 1894]. On waking, the smaller boy came to kiss my hand and before I was up the ladies said they were coming. I was afraid to put them off. First I sat up and put on a jacket, and finding time allowed, I put on a skirt and got up. Combed down my hair and feeling sure that stockings would not be missed, I sat with bare feet, refreshing my memory with civil speeches. About 6 came, very smart with bourkas on their faces a sort of square frame of gold braid and spangles, with a black stick down the middle. They had a great deal of coarse jewellery on with mock pearls and very bad turquoises.
“About 6 came, very smart with bourkas on their faces a sort of square frame of gold braid and spangles, with a black stick down the middle.” (Mabel’s own doodle drawn in her ‘Chronicle’ as she wrote. The archive of the Joint Libraries of the Hellenic and Roman Societies, London)
Christmas Day [Tuesday, 1894]. We rose with the sun and walked off to a mass of ruins about a mile off. There was a great deal of vegetation and sheets of a most lovely creeper with a large flower, white when new, pink when older, and then there comes a red pear-shaped fruit, with hot seeds in it. The ruins are Himyaritic and reminded us of Adulis and Koloe in Abyssinia… returning we sat in a grove of coconut palms and drank much water from the nuts, which were showered from the trees in rather a terrific way. The men stuck their throwing sticks in the ground and by banging the nuts down on the points skinned them.
[Wednesday] December 26th . I was asked to go down to the harem early. The ladies had not so much finery on. They were most kind and gave me many things to eat, coffee, awfully sweet, and sherbet of orgeat, ditto, halweh and pahpa and nutmegs broken up and some seeds and some leaves called tamboul, and chunam, and things I did not eat for I do not want my teeth to become red… We had 2 more days of waiting and, at last, were told we should positively start on Saturday 28th and were expecting at least to start in the evening, but when at length all the camels were got together there were no ropes, sticks to tie the loads to, or any other thing, so we had to wait till next day.
Leave Dhofar. Sunday 29th December . We set off at 12. There was the greatest confusion over the loading; neither men not beasts were accustomed to deal with anything but sacks of frankincense. The camels roared incessantly, got up before they were finished and shook off their loads, or would not kneel, or ran away loaded, and then there was a great deal of unloading and abandoning everything and shouting and quarrelling and much difficulty about making up saddles for us. Theodore and Imam Sheriff and Hassan and I each have a separate camel and 6 of the servants ride in pairs while one walks.
New Year’s Eve [Monday, 1894]. Did not get off till 10, though we breakfasted before sunrise… Theodore’s camel was a very horrid one and sat down occasionally and you first get a violent pitch forward, then an equally violent one back and a 2nd forward; this is not a pleasant thing to happen unexpectedly…We were all most dreadfully stiff and tired and again too late to do anything in the way of unpacking more than just enough for the night. The quantities of flowers Theodore has already got must, I think, already exceed all the 150 of last year [in the Wadi Hadramaut]. There are a great many lobàn trees, or rather shrubs (frankincense)…” (extracts from The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol. 3, pages 249-50, Archaeopress 2010)
Mabel Hall-Dare: Chronicles of Mrs. Theodore Bent… reviewed by Janeite Kelly (Dec 2018)
“A unique life brought again to life because of surviving journals. Reading about the diaries – how clear the writing is, for instance – and seeing samples (even of doodles) is part of the delight in these books.”
Do click on the link above to read the full review, which begins:
“Dedicated editors/biographers and small presses sometimes turn up the most exciting books. This post concerns the three books of travel edited and compiled by Gerald Brisch from the travel diaries of Mabel Bent, née Mabel Hall-Dare.”
Panagia tou Potamiou, Samos, near where the Bents camped while looking for antiquities in 1886.
For Greek islomanes, two recent Bent posts have washed up on the Friends of Tilos and Friends of Samos FB pages – you can see the Tilos one on another post, but here is the Samos post in case you have a spare moment:
Anyone in the group heard of the Bents? Got a moment? Englishman J. Theodore Bent (1852-1897) and his wife Mabel (1847-1929) were among the most widely travelled of British explorer/antiquarian duos of the second half of the 19th century – their expeditions covered Africa, Arabia, the eastern Mediterranean, and, of course Samos!
The Bents had made their first visit, a brief one, to the island, then Turkish, over the winter of 1882/3, arriving on the lovely Austrian/Lloyd vessel the ‘Niobe’. This was as part of a trip, touristic really, that took in the great sights of the East Mediterranean. Theodore had read History at Wadham and was engaged in Italian/Genoese studies. He wrote three monographs on things Italian, but focussed on Chios and Samos for two articles penned following his first visit there: ‘A Visit to Samos’ (‘Academy’, Issue 579 (1883: June), p. 408) and ‘Two Turkish Islands To-day’ (Macmillan’s Magazine (Issue: 48 (1883: May/Oct.) pp. 299-309). These are well worth tracking down, the latter being highly critical of Turkish rule – and the taxing conditions the islanders faced after a devasting earthquake – and raising letters to the ‘Times’ and questions in the ‘House’, both grist to the mill for the young Bent (although, unsurprisingly, the Turkish authorities were suspicious of him ever after).
But that was three years ago, as it were, in terms of Theodore and Mabel’s next visit to Samos, now arriving at the end of February 1886, in Mabel’s words, ‘on a… little Greek steamer, the Anatoli’; Mabel was a snob at times. By the end of 1885, Theodore’s professional career had turned a corner – he had transformed himself into a budding archaeologist/explorer (today he would be fronting the cameras). In 1883/4 he had famously circled the Cyclades, digging on Antiparos and writing a bestseller on the eponymous isles. A year later, with his wife by his side as always (and by now the expedition chronicler and photographer), he had ‘excavated’ in the Dodecanese, removing – there is no other word for it – some lovely things from Karpathos, now in the British Museum.
Following the successes of their 1885 programme, the Bents decide the next season to cruise down through Turkish waters, revisiting Samos along the way. Theodore, now a member of the council of the Hellenic Society, had obtained a grant of £50 to equip his expedition. Once on Samos, however, he encountered problems with the authorities, repercussions from his undiplomatic behaviour three years previously; the Hellenic Society’s journal of 1886 reports that, ‘owing to unexpected difficulty in obtaining permission to dig in the island, Mr. Bent has not been so successful as he had hoped. He has, however, spent only half the amount.’ The £25 was returned to the Society. Mabel informs us: ‘Truly the balmy days of excavators are over’.
Theodore sketched out his Samos experience in the ‘Athenaeum’ (June 12, 1886), but his longer article was for the ‘Journal of Hellenic Studies’ (Vol. 7, 1886, pp. 143-153), under the title ‘An Archaeological Visit to Samos’. It’s not so hard to find online. He begins his introduction: ‘English enterprise in excavation has been considerably checked of late years by the impossibility of obtaining anything like fair terms from the Greek or Turkish governments… Con-sequently if English archaeologists wish to prosecute re-searches on the actual soil of Hellas, it remains for them to decide whether they are sufficiently remunerated for their trouble and outlay by the bare honour of discovering statues, inscriptions, and other treasures to be placed in the museum of Athens, or, as is the case in Turkey, for the inhabitants to make chalk of, or build into their houses.’ Theodore was piqued: ‘[Though] I tried hard to obtain a concession for taking away one half or one third of the things found I was eventually obliged to sign the same agreement which the French excavator M. Clerk had signed two years before, and which stipulated that everything found should belong to Samos.’ And quite right too of course.
Apart from an important inscription, found by Mabel (and published by Percy Gardner also in the ‘JHS’, Vol. 7, 1886, pp. 143–153), the couple make no major discoveries and leave Samos early and disappointed. They brought home to London a few every-day items they bought, now in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, including a pair of pigskin shoes (no accession number) and two eagle-bone pipes (1888.37.6 and 1903.130.17). Mabel had a life-long interest in fabrics and embroidery: returning from Tigani with two ‘towels’ she exhibited them at one of Theodore’s lectures, labelled as ‘Two towels from Samos with deep lace ends, partly needle and partly pillow.’ [On Insular Greek Customs’, ‘Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland’, Vol. 15 (1886), p. 402]
The British Museum also has ten or so of Theodore’s Samian finds, which it seems he must have smuggled out. He presented a fine terracotta Satyr mask dated c. 500 BC (1886, 1204.2) (illustrated here) and a glass aryballos (1886, 1204.1), but it seems the other material wasn’t sufficiently interesting to the museum and remained in Mabel’s possession until she donated the items in 1926, a few years before her death. Most of them are not on show but details of them are easily seen in the BM database – just search under ‘Theodore Bent’, for hundreds of his items from the E Med, Arabia and Africa.
The Satyr mask collected by the Bents from Samos and now in the BM.
All in all, Theodore and Mabel (ably assisted by their long-suffering dragoman, one Matthew Simos from Anafi), spent about eight weeks on Samos and around; after a few days on the island they took themselves off to Fourni, Patmos, Kalymnos, Ikaria and elsewhere, before returning to Samos to more or less circumambulate the island (the trip to feature in detail in a second post) in search of items archaeological, ethnographical, and other things generally ending in ‘cal’, including ‘gastronomical’, as Mabel notes once in Tigani: ‘We had coffee and jam first and then a splendid luncheon: soup of rice, whipped eggs and lemon juice, really good, a chicken and some lamb out of the same, Yaprakia, rice and meat in little balls boiled in vine leaves, very good rissoles, yaourt (curdled milk), cheese and fruit. I have not had so good a meal for a long time.’ [‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent. Volume I: Greece’, 2006, p. 84].
Mabel jotted most of these reminiscences in her ‘Chronicles’, a twenty-year series of notebooks now archived in the Hellenic Society in London and published in three volumes. Here is bucolic entry for April 1886: ‘I spent the afternoon on the bed with my work and book… while Theodore went an hour and a half to inspect a place for digging at Panagia tou Potamiou, or ‘of the river’. He decided it was such a lovely place that we must try there, so on the morning of April 16th  we embarked in a boat and in half an hour reached the mouth of a river and soon pitched the tent on a flat place under some olive trees by a rushing river in a most lovely gorge… Just above our tent is the old church with some old pillars in it; not fine work. Here Matthew made a little stone table and it was our dining room and pantry, but not a very good pantry as the church mice, having plenty of candles to eat, are a thriving race… There is a water mill near, shut up at night. The digging was, I grieve to say, not successful. Theodore thought he had got among some Hellenic cottages; temples, palaces and statues were not to be found, only a large smashed marble pan of unknown use, so after 2 most delightful days in every way but the archaeological, we struck our tent and departed…’ [‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent. Volume I: Greece’, 2006, pp. 162-3].
The church is illustrated above and Theodore wrote up the same scene for his ‘Journal of Hellenic Studies’ piece (p. 146): ‘At Potamos, a lovely gorge to the north of the island, we found traces of a town, close to which was a ruined Byzantine church, with four Corinthian pillars, huge blocks of stone and cut jasper, probably from some ancient temple. In digging on a tiny plain beneath this we came across the remains of Hellenic buildings, in one of which was a marble slab, rounded at one end, 2 feet 8 inches by 2 feet 9; this marble was very neatly worked with a rim round the edge, and a lip at one end from which the juice of something pressed on the slab was evidently intended to run. Underneath the marble was most carefully worked with slight ornamentation.’
Among the characters encountered on this tour was fellow Oxfordian Henry Fanshawe Tozer. Tozer (in ‘The Islands of the Aegean’, 1890, p. 165) recalls their meeting and that they shared the same lodgings at Tigani: ‘We had the pleasure of meeting Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent, who occupied other rooms in the same building; they were engaged in excavating some of the tombs that lie outside the city walls’. Elsewhere in his book (p. 302) Tozer refers to ‘the indefatigable spade of Mr. Bent’ – no under-statement.
The Bents, following trouble with pirates (also to feature in a later post, if you’ve stuck with us this far), leave the island from Vathi in early May 1886, arriving home to their Marble Arch townhouse by the end of the same month. Theodore has a fever he thinks he contracted in the marshes of Samos: a cautionary reminder of the risks to health present in the Mediterranean and further east; that spring there was cholera and death in Brindisi, Trieste, and, of course, Venice.
But anyway – all this was just to introduce the group to the Bents, and hopefully inspire one or two to look them up online over the dark, Samian, winter-winey evenings to come, and maybe, who knows, go listen for their voices among the ghosts of Panagia tou Potamiou. καλό χειμώνα
A recent post on the ‘Friends of Tilos’ (Dodecanese, Greece) Facebook page is very much worth re-posting here! Read on!
“Anyone heard of the Bents? J. Theodore Bent (1852-1897) and his wife Mabel (1847-1929) were among the most widely travelled explorer/antiquarian duos of the second half of the 19th century – their expeditions covered Africa, Arabia, the eastern Mediterranean, and, of course Tilos!
“The couple arrived at Agios Andonios on 24 February 1885, on a hired boat from Nisiros, and set sail for Karpathos (from Livadia) on 5 March. Having landed safely, the party took the old kalderimi to Megalo Chorio, and for the whole of their stay on the island they were accommodated in the the little monastery complex of the Apostles/Ag Panteleimon below Megalo Chorio. (Most of what follows is taken from ‘The Dodecanese: Further Travels Among the Insular Greeks‘. Selected Writings of J. Theodore & Mabel V.A. Bent, 1885-1888: Archaeopress, 2015.)
“Mabel noted the arrival in her diary: ‘We saw a good many people on the shore as we approached, but by the time we landed not one was in sight. The boatman then holloed out ‘Come near, fear not! We are from Nisiros, you may come safely!’ So out they came and we went to meet them and they said, ‘What people are you? From The Town?’ We said we were not from Constantinople but from England, but this did not enlighten them much.’ (Mabel Bent, ‘World Enough, and Time: The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent Volume I: Greece and the Levantine Littoral‘, p. 74)
“Theodore, in his later article ‘A Protracted Wedding’ (‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’, Issue 265:1894 (1888:Oct), pp. 331-341) is more the travel-writer: ‘On the eve of a fine February day we reached Telos in a small sailing craft, thankful enough to have escaped the treacheries of a winter’s sail in these dangerous waters, and, as we approached, some few inhabitants came down to stare at us, prior to beating a hasty retreat, and for some time after we landed we could not induce them to approach. ‘They take you for pirates,’ said our sailors… These first acquaintances of ours on Telos were all women, dressed oddly enough; on their heads they wore a red-peaked cap, like those Phrygian helmets one sees on old vases, tied on with a red handkerchief round the forehead; from their ears hung down immense silver rings or bangles, five or six in each ear… They had on dark-brown coats of coarse home-spun material, which came below the knee, and they were girt with a red girdle; beneath this coat peeped their white shirt, rich at the edge with many-coloured embroidery; as for their feet, they were bare just now, and their long yellow leather shoes, with pointed ends, were cast on one side, for the women down here were washerwomen, engaged in treading flannel clothes and other things on boards; for the Teliote women wash in this fashion with their feet, like Nausicaa and her maidens, who “bore the clothes to the black water, and briskly trod them down in the trenches in busy rivalry.”’
“Bent went on to write that the objective of their stay was to record an imminent wedding (very unlike the French one witnessed the other month by the present writer, and many thanks to Ian Smith for the raki by the way – a pleasure to meet him and his dog walking in Megalo Chorio), but actually Bent was there to see what he might dig up. He excavated at a couple of unspecified cemeteries but left with very little, the best of the finds had been removed decades before by men like Charles Newton (a search under ‘Telos’ in the British Museum’s database will show some of the magnificent vases that once graced the island, indicating its prestige in the centuries before Christ). Bent’s account, for those interested, and worth the tracking down, was published as ‘The Islands of Telos and Karpathos’, ‘Journal of Hellenic Studies’, 1885, Vol. VI, pp. 233-242.
“Anyway – this was just to introduce the group to the Bents, and hopefully inspire one or two to look them up online over the dark Tilos winter evenings to come, and maybe go listen for their voices in the little monastery below Megalo Horio. καλό χειμώνα.”
The Bents embarked on a ‘fleet’ of ships during their twenty years of explorations to the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Africa, from 1880 to 1900 (see the interactive maps on this site for additional info!).
The Bents’ Vessels No.1 – January/February 1891, the Castle Mail Packet Company Garth Castle
“We left England January 30th , that is to say Theodore and Mr. Robert Swan and I, bound for Mashonaland, and Mr. Graham who was going to accompany us as far as Kimberley. The ‘Garth Castle’ was a comfortable ship and with no adventures we reached Cape Town Thursday, February 19th.”
The Bents took about three weeks (30 Jan – 19 Feb 1891) to steam, with stops, from the Channel to Cape Town. The ‘Garth Castle’ (1) was built in 1880 by John Elder & Co. at Glasgow “with a tonnage of 3537grt, a length of 365ft, a beam of 43ft 6in and a service speed of 12 knots”. She took the name of fleet-owner Sir Donald Currie’s estate in Scotland. She was transferred to the Intermediate service in 1890 at the time of the Bents’ trip to Cape Town in 1890/1, under Master H. H. Broadfoot. Surplus to requirements when the companies she was linked to merged in March 1900, she was sold to Elder Dempster & Co. in 1901 for their Bristol to Jamaica service and in the July of the same year chartered to Franco-Canadian Steam Navigation Co. for their Dunkirk – Bordeaux – Quebec run. 1902 saw her being was sold on again, to the Khedivial Mail Steamship & Graving Dock Co. of London, renamed the ‘Ismailia’. She was sold on to Soc. Armatrice Radivo-Frausin of Trieste, renamed, alas, the ‘Brunette’ and broken up in Italy in 1923.
The Bents’ Vessels No.2 – February 5-6 1885: The Lloyd Austriaco Saturno
February 1885 – en route from Alexandria for the Dodecanese. “Thursday February [5th] . I am writing against much rumbling of the screw of the Austrian Lloyd S.S. ‘Saturn’. We are having as calm a voyage as needs be but not without its hopes and fears. We [had] left Cairo on Monday evening at 6… and reached Alexandria at [time illegible]. We were greeted with the unpleasant intelligence that the Austrian would not call at Rhodes this week, so we went to bed with the half formed intention of going to Smyrna by a Khedivieh ship and trusting to luck for a passage to Rhodes. However the belated ‘Saturn’ came in early next morning and we left at 4 on Wednesday afternoon… Yesterday it looked quite black all round when we embarked and [it] began to rain and the harbour was full of gulls – 17 sitting in a row on the rope mooring a ship near. So we felt very gloomy knowing that if it were too stormy we should not touch at Rhodes but be carried to Smyrna. But the sun came out and all became bright as we steamed off ‘adagio adagio’.” [Mabel Bent’s Travel Chronicles, Vol. 1, page 67, Oxford, Archaeopress, 2006]
The Bents arrived below Rhodes’ Old Town on Friday, 6 February 1885.
The Austrian Lloyd and the Khedivieh Steam Navigation companies connected the major ports of the Eastern Mediterranean in the late 19th century. Austrian Lloyd started steamship operations in 1836 based at Trieste, which was then under Austrian rule. Initially traded to the Adriatic and later extended to the rest of the Mediterranean, India and the Far East. The passenger/cargo iron-screw steamer the SS ‘Saturno’ was built for the Austrian Lloyd Steam Navigation Co. on the Clyde (launched 11/01/1868) by William Denny & Bros at the Dumbarton, Leven Yard (126). The engine builder was Denny & Company, Dumbarton (and for the enthusiast, with the spec: 1×4 bladed screw, inverted D.A. surface condensing (54 & 54 – 36 in) and 194 nhp). She had a gross tonnage of 1761 (net: 1197) and was 274.6 ft in length, a breadth of 34.0 ft, and with a draft depth of 18.0 ft. She was sold for breaking up in 1908 but there is evidence in her notes that she continued in some sort of service until 1910.
This extremely rare photograph shows Mabel Bent taking tea with Moses Cotsworth and party in the Palestinian hinterland in 1900/1 (Moses Cotsworth collection, unknown photographer. Photo reproduced with the kind permission of Rare Books and Special Collections, Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, University of British Columbia).
“Dear Sir William…Thank you for sending me the flower pictures. I like them very much. Of course I know there is nothing to find in Palestine that is new. I was there the winter before last and camped out by myself 10 weeks in Moab and Haura. I had my own tents and no dragoman. This winter I only got to Jebel Usdum and arrived in Jerusalem with a broken leg, my horse having fallen on me in the wilderness of Judea. My sister Mrs. Bagenal came from Ireland and fetched me from the hospital where I was for 7 weeks. I cannot walk yet but am getting on well and my leg is quite straight and long I am thankful to say…Yours truly Mabel V.A. Bent” (Letter from Mabel to Thiselton-Dyer, 19 April 1901 (Kew Archives: Directors’ Correspondence)).
Theodore’s death in May 1897 – Jubilee year – deprived Mabel of the focus for her life: the need to be somewhere else remained, but now with whom? And why? Typical of her she made plans immediately to visit Egypt on a ‘Cook’s’ tour in the winter of 1898 and chronicled the trip, ending with a return via Athens. The journey provides the concluding episode in this volume, and the heading she gives it – ‘A lonely useless journey’ – reveals her understandable depression. It makes unhappy reading, contrasting so markedly with her opening thrill of being in Cairo on that first visit with Theodore in 1885.
She wrote no more ‘Chronicles’, or at least there are no more in the archives, and on her return to London set about assembling the monograph her husband never lived to complete on his Arabian theories and researches, many of which sprang from their explorations in Mashonaland in 1891. She completed it in eighteen months: driven on by her loss, and inspired by her notebooks, she could be travelling again with Theodore.
The publication by Mabel of ‘Southern Arabia’ (1900) heralded for its surviving author a slow but inevitable decline and a melancholy sequence of years of loneliness and confusion until her death in 1929.
Still wishing to escape the English weather, Mabel opted to spend several winters in Palestine and Jerusalem. There she embroiled herself in troublesome expatriate intrigue and Anglican fundamentalism, and met Gertrude Bell, who informed her parents by letter: ‘I … met … Mrs. Theodore Bent the widow of the Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, a thin stiff little Englishwoman [sic], I don’t like her very much.’ And again two weeks later: ‘I met Mrs. Theodore Bent, but having thrown down the Salaam, as we say in my tongue, I rapidly fled, for I do not like her. She is the sort of woman the refrain of whose conversation is: “You see, I have seen things so much more interesting” or “I have seen so many of these, only bigger and older”… I wonder if Theodore Bent liked her.’
On her second solo trip to Palestine in 1900/01, Mabel joined a caravan to visit some sites referenced in the Scriptures, but inexplicably opted to go off on her own, and so doing fell off her mount and broke her leg; hence the above letter to her friend, the Director at Kew.
Now, thanks to help from Anna Cook, the researcher on Moses Cotsworth, we have more information on Mabel’s accident, as recounted by the geologist George Frederick Wright, whose caravan it was that she joined. The (lengthy) extract that follows from his autobiography has probably never seen the light of day since its publication in 1916.
“At Jerusalem we were met by my Old Andover friend, Selah Merrill, then United States consul. His experience in the survey of the country east of the Jordan, and his long residence in Jerusalem, were of great service in our subsequent excursions in Palestine. After visiting Jericho and the region around we planned, under his direction, a trip to the unfrequented south end of the Dead Sea. In this we were joined by Mrs. Theodore Bent, whose extensive travels with her husband in Ethiopia, southern Arabia, and Persia, had not only rendered her famous but fitted her in a peculiar manner to be a congenial and helpful traveling companion. She had her own tent and equipment and her own dragoman, and her presence added greatly to the interest of the trip.
“After stopping a day at Hebron, we passed along the heights till we descended to the shore of the Dead Sea at the north end of Jebel Usdum, through the Wadi Zuweirah. Here we found indications that, during the rainy season, tremendous floods of water rushed down from the heights of southern Palestine, through all the wadies. Such had been the force of the temporary torrents here, that, over a delta pushed out by the stream and covering an area of two or three square miles, frequent boulders a foot or more in diameter had been propelled a long distance over a level surface. At the time of our visit, the height of the water in the Dead Sea was such that it everywhere washed the foot of Salt Mountain (Jebel Usdum), making it impossible for us to walk along the shore…
“Near the mouth of Wadi Zuweirah, we observed a nearly complete section of the 600-foot terrace of fine material, displaying the laminae deposited by successive floods during the high level maintained by the water throughout the Glacial epoch. From these it was clear that this flooded condition continued for several thousand years. On the road along the west shore to Ain Jiddy (En-gedi) we observed (as already indicated) ten or twelve abandoned shore lines, consisting of coarse material where the shore was too steep, and the waves had been too strong to let fine sediment settle.
“From all the evidence at command it appears that, at the climax of the Glacial epoch, the water in this valley rose to an elevation of 1,400 feet above the present level of the Dead Sea, gradually declining thereafter to the 600-foot level, where it remained for a long period, at the close of which it again gradually declined to its present level, uncovering the vast sedimentary deposits which meanwhile had accumulated over the valley of the Jordan, north of Jericho.
“Our ride from Ain Jiddy to Bethlehem was notable in more respects than one. The steep climb (of 4,000 feet) up the ascent from the sea to the summit of the plateau was abrupt enough to make one’s head dizzy. But as the zigzag path brought us to higher and higher levels, the backward view towards the mountains of Moab, and towards both the north and the south end of the Dead Sea, was as enchanting as it was impressive. Across the sea, up the valley of the Arnon, we could see the heights above Aroer and Dibon, and back of El Lisan, the heights about Rabbah and Moab, and. those about Kir of Moab, while the extensive deltas coming into the Dead Sea along the whole shore south of us fully confirmed our inferences concerning their effect in encroaching upon its original evaporating area.
“After passing through the wilderness of Jeruel and past Tekoah, as we were approaching Bethlehem, a little before sundown, the men of our party wished to hurry on to get another sight of the scenes amidst which Christ was born. As Mrs. Bent was already familiar with those scenes, she preferred to come along more slowly with the caravan, and told us to go on without any concern for her safety. But soon after arriving at Bethlehem, the sheik who accompanied our party overtook us, and told us that Mrs. Bent had fallen from her horse and suffered severe injury; whereupon we all started back over the rocky pathway, to render the assistance that seemed to be needed.
“On reaching a point where two paths to Bethlehem separated, we were told by a native that he thought our party had proceeded along the other path from that we had taken, and that it would be found to have already reached its destination before us. We therefore returned to Bethlehem. But, soon after, the dragoman came in great haste, saying that Mrs. Bent had indeed fallen from her horse and broken a limb, and that he had left her unprotected in an open field to await assistance. Again, therefore, but accompanied by six strong natives with a large woolen blanket, on which to convey her, we proceeded to the place where the accident occurred. Here we found her where she had been lying for about two hours under the clear starlight. But, instead of complaining, she averred that it was providential that she had been allowed to rest so long before undertaking the painful journey made necessary by the accident; and that all the while she had been occupied with the thought that she was gazing upon the same constellations in the heavens from which the angel of the Lord had appeared to the shepherds to announce the Saviour’s birth.
“The task of giving her relief was not altogether a simple one. The surrounding rocky pastures did not yield any vegetable growth from which a splint could be made to stiffen the broken leg. An inspiration, however, came to my son, who suggested that we could take her parasol for one side and the sound limb for the other, and with the girdle of one of the men bind them together so that the journey could be effected safely. No sooner said than done. The sufferer was laid upon the blanket and slowly carried to Bethlehem by the strong arms of our native escort. From here she was conveyed by carriage to Jerusalem where we arrived between one and two o’clock in the morning, taking her to the English hospital, of which she had been a liberal patron, and where she was acquainted with all the staff; but, alas! this hospital was established exclusively for Jews, and as she was not one they refused to admit her, advising her to go down to the hospital conducted by German sisters. This, however, she flatly refused to do, declaring that rather than do that she would camp on the steps of the English hospital. At this two of the lady members of the staff, who were her special friends, vacated their room and she was provided for.
“Respecting the sequel, we would simply say that her limb was successfully set, and with cheerful confidence she assured us that she would reach London before we did and that we must be sure to call upon her there. She did indeed reach London before we left the city, but it was on the last day of our stay, and, as our tickets had been purchased for the noon train going to Plymouth, we were unable to accept her invitation to dine that evening. Some years afterwards, however, when visiting the city with Mrs. Wright, we found her at home, and had great enjoyment in repeatedly visiting her and studying the rare collections with which she had filled her house upon returning from the various expeditions in which she had accompanied her artistic husband.
“[Some time later pausing] at Rome, Florence, and Genoa, we entered France through Turin by way of the Mount Cenis tunnel, and, after a short stop in Paris, reached London, where I met again the large circle of geologists and archaeologists who had entertained me on my first visit to England… Returning to London, we engaged passage on a steamer from Southampton, just in time, as before remarked, to miss meeting Mrs. Bent, our unfortunate traveling companion in Palestine.” [From: ‘The Story of my life and work’ by Wright, G. Frederick (George Frederick), 1838-1921; Oberlin, Ohio, Bibliotheca Sacra Company, 1916 (including pages page 324 and 328/29. The link to the book is https://archive.org/stream/ ).
PS: On her stretcher journey to eventual hospitalisation in Jerusalem, Mabel would have shut her eyes and been transported back four years to the last time she was rescued, terribly sick with malaria, east of Aden. Also stretchered to Aden, her husband never survives the ordeal, dying in London a few days after arriving home in 1897. Here are the memories she must have relived in the form of some lines from Mabel’s own diary:
‘I felt quite unable to move or stir but on we must go; we had no water and what we had had the day before was like porter. I could not ride, of course, so they said they would carry me. I was dressed up in a skirt and a jacket, my shoes and stockings, a handkerchief tied on my hair, which was put back by one hairpiece and became a hot wet mat, not to be fought with for many a day to come! Of course I could not use my pith helmet lying down. I lay outside, while my bed was strengthened in various ways with tent pegs and the tent poles tied to it and an awning of blanket made. I dreaded very much the roughness of the road and the unevenness of step of my bearers, but off they set at a rapid pace and kept perfect step all the time. They changed from shoulder to shoulder without my feeling it…
‘Sometimes I passed or was passed by the camels, which seemed to be winding about over rocks and hills, but I went over these ways too. The last time we passed I thought it very unlike Theodore never to give me a look but stare straight before him, but then I did not know of his miserable condition. There was a delightful sea wind which came over my head, stronger and stronger, and just seemed to keep me alive. They carried me headfirst. I did not think they would be pleased if I constantly asked how far we were off still, so I only said civil things, but right glad was I, at last, after 15 or 16 miles to find myself in the thick of a rushing, roaring rabble rout of men, women and children, not a thing I really like in general but now it told of the end of my weary journey.’ [From ‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent, Volume lll: Southern Arabia and Persia’, page 322. Oxford, Archaeopress, 2010]
PPS: However, could this also be a photo of Mabel, perhaps, taken at around the same time at Karnak on the banks of the Nile? Thanks again to Anna Cook, we have a possible image of her from Moses Cotsworth’s pamphlet ‘The Fixed Yearal’ (available online from archive.com), which was probably published around 1914. It shows a woman in travel attire (does the hat match the photo above?), in shade alas, on the right, in front of one of the Karnak pillars. We have no proof that it is her, but Anna Cook, the Cotsworth specialist pins a note to it: “But he [Cotsworth] only travelled to Egypt around November/December 1900 and had his camera stolen so I suspect that the photos were given to him by Professor Wright – his travelling companion. I know that Wright was a widower who travelled with his son and that Cotsworth’s wife was at home in England so really Mabel is the only woman that was around in the right place at the right time and we know that she did travel with Wright and Cotsworth for a time.” (Anna Cook, pers. com., 01/2019)
We do have an earlier Karnak extract from Mabel’s diary: “[Monday] January 31st . When I reached Luxor I was asked to join a party consisting of Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Sebag-Montefiore, Mr. and Mrs. W. Wilson (who were travelling together) and Mrs. and Miss Wibbs [?], one a doctor, and have a special dragoman, Abdul el Kawab, a very good man. We went in the only two carriages to see Karnak by moonlight, a truly awe inspiring sight. [Tuesday] February 1st . We went again by the light of the sun and came back to luncheon.” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent, Vol 2, The African Journeys’, page 270, Archaeopress 2012)
However this is a year before Cotsworth went to Karnak to take his calendar readings; Mabel, recently widowed, was on Nile cruise run by Thomas Cook and did not proceed to Jerusalem that year – she was lonely and cut short her tour, returning to London via Athens (she headed her diary ‘A lonely useless journey). But let’s make a case for her meeting Cotsworth, feeling less lonely, in the winter of 1899/1900 and deciding to join his party for another Nile cruise and then onwards to the Palestinian wilds (where she broke her leg! See above).
‘It was splendid being up there’ – Mabel climbing the Great Pyramid of Giza on her birthday – Wednesday 28 January 1885.
Some Pyramid scalers in 1885 (the year of Mabel’s ascent), by J. Pascal Sébah. Obviously clambering all over them was the thing to do back then; it is not recommended today.
In January 1885, before leaving for a tour of the Dodecanese, Theodore and Mable made a tourist trip to Egypt, taking in, of course, the Pyramids: the Great Pyramid (also known as the ‘Pyramid of Cheops’ and constructed around 2500 BCE), and the smaller Khafre and Menkaure Pyramids. The Sphinx squats in the complex’s eastern quarter.
The visit to the Pyramids coincided with Mabel’s 38th birthday (she was born at Beauparc, Co. Meath, on 28 January 1847) and she went to tea as guests of Frederick and Jessie Head (the wealthy daughter of Australian magnate John D. Mclean) at their stylish home, Mena House, below the Pyramids. (Their house still forms part of the Mena Hotel, the Heads buying their home in 1883, a year after their wedding in Wells, Somerset). Mabel does not record whether Frederick was much out of breath after their visit, or feeling unwell, but in any event within a few months he is dead, and poor Jessie (far from actually poor) sold up to another wealthy couple, the Locke-Kings, who turned the house into a fancy hotel – and it remains one to this day.
Mabel, of course, logs the event in her ‘Chronicle’ for the day. We may assume from her reference to ‘steps’ ‘3 or 4 feet high’ that it was the Great Pyramid she felt moved to attempt. Possibly just because it was there:
[Thursday] Jan. 29th . I had such a great many birthday treats yesterday, one in particular that I shall never forget unless extreme old age robs me of my memory… A little after 5 we set off for the Pyramids with the gun lent by the porter and enough cartridges for a whole battle. We saw the Pyramids against the sunset sky, a very plain one – all the colours of the rainbow fading and blending one into the other and very few tiny specks of cloud. The simplicity of it suited the Pyramids so well.
… After dinner we went out in the bright moonlight and Theodore… went to visit the Sphinx but I preferred to go up the Pyramid, as I had not done it on Monday… I scrambled up all alone. At first it was very hard and I had to crawl, putting one knee up first, as the steps are 3 or 4 feet high, regardless of bruised knees or shins and I felt quite convinced I must have very little stockings left but I am in a position to send a testimonial to the stocking maker. I did not feel a bit frightened or giddy or obliged to keep my face to the Pyramid but looked up and down. My companions were quite out of sight and it felt odd to be alone with the Pyramid and the moon. I shouted up several times ‘Are you near the top?’ ‘Oh! Not nearly’ came down. Then ‘Am I half way up?’ ‘No Mem’ came up. So I gave up asking. It seemed so long and I wondered how it could be possible to get down… I did not get at all breathless.
I wondered if ‘Fair Rhodope who as the story tells’ sat on the top of the Pyramid, delighting all beholders, was a poor creature whose clothes had got torn off in the ascent and who could not get down. I thought of the dangers and difficulties in ‘Murray’ and ‘Baedeker’ and determined to read about them and tremble tomorrow, and I banished scornfully a very passing thought of the silk elbows of the only smart frock I have with me, and joyfully and proudly reached the summit, a strangely dressed figure – Hat, silk and velvet brocade body, white lace fichu over it and a blue cloth petticoat with a wide scarlet band, which I quite vainly tried to conceal by tying a black lace scarf round it; the skirt had been discarded before starting.
It was splendid being up there and I think it very very unlikely that any other person has been up by moonlight on his birthday before. I wished for a fire escape! Mr. Head and I came down together, sitting and slipping, sometimes having to put two hands together and jump and were glad indeed to reach the bottom safely … We had some tea and got home after a most delightful evening at 1 o’clock.
The Head’s residence below the Pyramids, where the Bents had tea, Mina House. Today a boutique hotel on a larger scale; the original house constituting the modern hotel’s dining areas.
For those needing a reference to Mabel’s ‘Fair Rhodope’, we must turn to the lines of Thomas Moore:
‘Fair Rhodope, as story tells,/ The bright unearthly nymph, who dwells/ ‘Mid sunless gold and jewels hid,/ The Lady of the Pyramid!’ (1827, ‘The Epicurean’).
Mabel’s lines are from the Egyptian entries in her ‘Travel Chronicles’, Vol. 2, pages 11-13 (Archaeopress, Oxford, 2012).
The photographs include one of some Pyramid scalers in 1885 (the year of Mabel’s ascent), by J. Pascal Sébah. Obviously clambering all over them was the thing to do back then; it is not recommended today.
The other photo is of the Head’s residence below the Pyramids, where the Bents had tea, Mina House. Today a boutique hotel on a larger scale; the original house constituting the modern hotel’s dining areas.
FOR famous travellers, the Bents preferred to be homebirds come Christmas time, swapping solar topees for deerstalkers, and leaving their London base near Marble Arch for family visits to Ireland and elsewhere. Of their nearly 20 years of explorations (in the 1880s and ’90s), they were only out of the country on 25 December, or so the archives indicate, for 1882 (Chios – for Orthodox Christmas), 1883 (Naxos), 1891 (steaming home from Cape Town), 1893 (Wadi Hadramaut), 1894 (Dhofar), 1895 (Suez), and 1896 (the island of Sokotra).
Map of ‘Sokotra’. From the Bents’ Southern Arabia (1900), facing page 342. Private collection.
And Christmas 1896, on this remote island, was to be the last the couple shared together. Out of respect, perhaps, for the land and people they were amongst, there were to be no festivities – this might explain why Theodore was out of sorts! [But at least we are spared Mabel’s cracker ‘mottos’, examples of which we have from Christmas 1895, when the Bents were in Suez. ‘I have made some crackers to surprise my companions at dessert, and I think they would be much better liked afloat than ashore, so I am sorry to dine on land. Of course, no mottos were to be had so I was obliged to manufacture some. Mr. Smyth, having been proved to possess only 3 rusty needles, is to have a needle-book and his motto is: ‘Cheer up! Mr. Smyth, and try to be blyth [sic]; though your clothes may be rent, says your friend Mabel Bent.’ Mr. Cholmley, a box of Ink Pellets. ‘Ever be good news by Alfred Cholmley sent, in ink of blackest hue’s the wish of Mabel Bent.’ Theodore a knife and fork and, ‘Good appetite to Theodore! May he ne’er need to wish for more than may be upon his table, is the hope of his wife Mabel.’]
By all accounts the couple spent several happy weeks on Sokotra, with its landscapes and flora making it something of a paradise, before their hellish experiences east of Aden – which led to Theodore’s early death aged 45.
The Bents made no great archaeological finds on the island, but Theodore wrote that ‘Caves in the limestone rocks have been filled with human bones from which the flesh had previously decayed. These caves were then walled up and left as charnel-houses, after the fashion still observed in the Eastern Christian Church. Amongst the bones we found carved wooden objects which looked as if they had originally served as crosses to mark the tombs…’ (The Island of Sokotra. ‘The Nineteenth Century’, 1897, Vol. 41 (244) (Jun): 978) Theodore gave (or sold) three of these wooden items to the anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917). Tylor was Oxford professor of anthropology, and keeper of the university museum. His wife Anna presented the Bents’ Sokotran artefacts to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford in 1917 (1917.53.670-2). The Bents missed them, but recent excavations at the nearby Hoq cave have revealed votive remains thought to date from the 3rd century AD. (Soqotra Karst Project, http://www.friendsofsoqotra.org/index.htm)
But we can join Mabel at camp at ‘Kalenzia’ [Qalansiyah, Suquṭrā], a few days before Christmas 1896. The couple are busy administering to locals, collecting specimens and preparing for a trip to the interior:
‘Tuesday 22nd [December 1896]. Here we still are at Kalenzia. I did not venture to spell this name till I had heard it pronounced, as it is spelt in so many ways. The name of the island is Sokotra. We have been continuing our doctors’ work. One old lady with a skin affection was prescribed a preliminary washing with soap, but I was informed that in the whole of this island there is not such a thing, so of course it had to be given as a medicine. The Butterfly, Botanical, Shell, and Beetle collections have been started. We have not for years enjoyed such peace and safety. The people are most pleasant and do not worry us a bit by coming round our tents. We can walk about alone all over the place and yesterday Theodore and I went a long distance and found some inscriptions on a smooth rock, also a little hamlet, very clean (Haida), as is Kalenzia.
We sat down on the ground and were interested looking at the party we were amongst, one or 2 men, the mistress and 2 servants and slaves. The latter were spinning. They were dressed in dark blue with a kind of little grey and black goats’ hair carpet, woven in little looms a foot wide, which they wrap round as petticoats. They wore bead necklaces. Their mistress was much smarter. She had silver bracelets and many glass armlets and a pretty silver-gilt necklace and earrings, and a turkey-red dress made like those in the Hadramaut, but longer. The front came to the calf of the leg and the train would have been fully a yard on the ground had she not held it up. All the women wear their hair cut in a straight, short fringe and the better class paint with turmeric. Yesterday a most important looking old man came from the Sultan with a civil letter. He tried to persuade us to go most of the way to Tamarida by sea, but of course we refused. We are to have 15 camels and to pay 3 reals each for the journey, i.e. M. T. dollars 25 at 2 rupees each (2/6) and they are promised to be here in 3 days.
‘Christmas Eve, Thursday [24th December 1896]. We shall have been here a week this evening. The camels are roving round and it is said that the baggage shall be bound in bundles this evening and that we shall start tomorrow after prayers – even a little way. Yesterday we had a delightful day. We started after breakfast with luncheon, gun, butterfly net, photography, shell box, beetle box and flower basket. We went through the village and along the tongue of shingle which separates the freshwater lagoon from the sea and which we call Shark Parade, because there are so many of these monsters drying there. They all have their back fins and tails cut off and their spines are nearly as thick as my wrists. We then struck inland, passing through a village called Ghises, under the mountainside, and then climbed up, saw our first Dragon tree (a mistake. It was Adenia. Dragon’s blood grows 800 feet up the hills) and I took some photos of very curious trees. We lunched under some palms near a marshy and pretty stream and got back in time for tea and to attend to many patients, and this morning we have had much of the same work.
‘From Yehàzahaz, looking over the pass toward Adahan, Sokotra.’ Detail of a watercolour by Theodore Bent; from Mabel Bent’s paper in The Geographical Journal,
‘The Island of Sokotra (Read at the Meeting
of the British Association, Bristol, 1898)’. The
Scottish Geographical Magazine, Vol. 14
(12), 629-36. Private collection.
‘Christmas Day [Friday 25th December 1896]. A cloudy morning. Soon after breakfast, with the usual patients, a whole crowd came, headed by Ali, the chief personage, and the mollah. They roared and shouted and said we must have 25 camels, 4 only to be ridden, but we said we could not possibly ride without luggage to sit on. As a mater of fact 10 could take us. After a great row, fearing not to get away, we consented to have as many as they liked and would pay what the Sultan wished. Then Ali and the mollah came into the tent with a small bit of paper they picked up and wished him [Theodore] to write a contract with them in a very authoritative way. I was at the tent door and had to clear out in a hurry as out stormed T, giving good pushes to the two, telling them they were wicked men and he should take them prisoners to Aden. He then tore the paper into even smaller bits and flung it in their faces (the wind serving admirably).
‘They all apologized and soon left in a flock and sat down in a ring 100 yards off. Then someone came and said 16 camels, and then another came and said 18. ‘As you like,’ said we. They wanted T to write. ‘No,’ he said, ‘but if they wish I will write all their names down to show in Aden.’ This was declined. Now they are all here again, quite friendly. Mr. Bennett [a young Oxford scholar who joined the Bents at his own expense], to whom all these scenes are new, is away getting some wild duck. I think it must be a good thing for him to have our experience to fall back upon. It seems to me we are always saying one side of a Catechism on Ethnography and Botany, with Hints to Travellers and lessons in the Greek and Arabic Languages combined. His thirst for knowledge is great and ceaseless.
‘We have seen very little new to us here besides the little chicken houses made of a turtle shell with the earth scooped from under it. We have everything tied up in bundles by 11 and then had to sit till about 3 before the camels came. I never saw camels better fitted out before than these. We have had such different experiences. Our first camel riding was in the Island of Bahrein , where we had splendid silver saddles on beautiful riding camels. Next the Hadramaut journey where the camels had small packsaddles and a good many rags to pad them and ropes with sticks. In Dhofar they came naked and we had to find all, even the nose ropes. The baggage was most hard to manage. In the E. Soudan they had good saddles, and many riding saddles but no sticks and used our ropes, of which we have a sack. Here they have excellent mats and pads, little packsaddles and then mats made of sacking, quilted with strong twine and sewn over at the edges very neatly. Sticks with excellent ropes, and, what is best of all, very strong matting bags, quilted with ropes, in which they tie up all the baggage to its great benefit. Their way of pronouncing the Persian ‘juval’ is ‘zoual’. We came 2 hours or so to the mouth of a valley. Iséleh.
‘December 26th Saturday . Started about 7 without any difficulty. The men seemed anxious to get on. The Sheikh sent by the Sultan is with us – a friendly old man. We continued our way till we had to dismount when the mountains closed in and we walked over a pass. We trotted wherever the road was smooth enough. Of course, when I speak of road, it is only a track. There were little bushes and a good deal of fine grass and some small trees. The [Adenia] trees in full bloom were lovely. The flower is very like in size and colour to pink oleander. We stopped at some water and filled some water-skins and then, about 1, stopped in a hollow basin, often filled with water no doubt but there is none now. Here the Arabs proposed to eat and unloaded the camels, so we decided to stay, as T had had a fall that had knocked him up a bit. First they said we should go to water quite close, but when T said we would send a camel they said it was a long way. What little water we got for our evening wash we had to save till morning, but we had tremendous rain in the night and I am afraid our bread and other things will prove to have suffered, as no preparations for rain had been made. ‘We are making a latish start to give things a chance to dry up. The place is called Lim Ditarr.
‘[Sunday] December 27th . We stopped halfway at a place with very salt water called Día. Here we lunched and the camels drank at the well. There were no houses. Near sunset we reached Eriosh, also an uninhabited place. There is about 1⁄4 mile of quite flat rock, partly covered by mud, dried. There a great many cuttings of feet of all sizes, of men as well as animals, some Himyaritic letters and other signs. Mr. Wellsted says much labour must have been expended in cutting in such very hard stone, but I could cut deeply with the first pebble I could pick up. I look on them as scribbles. We stayed 2 nights. It was too awfully windy to open our shady door.’
[All extract from ‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent Volume III: Southern Arabia and Persia’ (Archaeopress, 2010), pages 288-92]
Harare being in the news (November 2017), here is Mabel’s sketchy account of their brief sojourn there in September 1891. Mabel and Theodore were at the ‘Nwanetsi’ river on 18 May 1891 and were soon camped by the Umfuli, some 40km due south of ‘Fort Salisbury’. Cecil Rhodes’s exploring ‘Pioneers’ (see later) had decided to halt their expedition between the kopye, called by the Mashonas ‘Harari’, and the river Makubisi, and to build their base there. The fort took its name from Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (1830-1903), then Prime Minister. Later, F. C. Selous recorded: ‘It is a matter of history that on the 11th of September 1890 the British flag was hoisted at Fort Salisbury, on the banks of the Makubisi river, and the expedition to Mashunaland thus satisfactorily brought to an end.’ The modern historian Tawse Jolie elaborates: ‘A full-dress parade was called at 10 a.m., 13th September, 1890, the seven-pounder gun fired a Royal Salute, Canon Balfour said a prayer, and the British Flag, the Union Jack, was hoisted by Lieut. Tyndale-Biscoe of the Pioneer Column.’ The site of course is now the modern capital of Zimbabwe – Harare.
Let’s hear from Mabel:
‘Tuesday, September 8th . We reached Fort Salisbury about 8 o’clock a.m. A man was sent on, riding, to enquire where we were to stop, for we hoped to be spared from the public outspan. We thought we should never arrive. We were half dressed and I was wrapped in a cloak. We drove all through the trading part, which is very extensive and consists of round huts, a few square houses being built, wagons and tents of all sorts, and booths and bowers grouped round a long, low, wooded hill. Then through the camp and past the fort and on to the civilian part and Dr. Harris said we were to outspan in that neighbourhood – the hospital and nuns’ dwellings being beyond. Before we had stopped, we were greeted by Dr. Harris and Captain Nesbitt and we and Mr. Swan were invited to take our meals at their mess during our stay. This invitation is of great monetary benefit to us, besides we could not get the food even if we did pay for it. Provisions are frightfully dear and scarce. Sugar 3/- a lb, milk 5/6 a tin, jam 4/6 a lb, ham 4/6 a lb, and everything is in proportion. A pair of common hinges 7/-, 1⁄4 lb of tin tacks 11/6, and 1 lb of paint 35/-. As for meat, it is very hard to get, and a worn out ox just crawled up in a wagon is really so tough that one can’t get ones teeth through it, and those we left in our camp got none…
‘After breakfast we began in real earnest sorting our baggage; some for England via Cape Town; 2 to go down the Busi with us and be sent by B.S.A. wagons to Umtali’s to meet us; 3 to go to Matoko’s; 4 to be sold; 5 to take to the Mazoe River. The bucksail was made into a tent for packing, but we were very much impeded and had two give up at times on account of the ferocious wind which raged all the time of our stay and brought layers of dirt into the baggage. All our white men sought places and all found them. Mr. King is to open a store for the Co. at the Mazoe River. We stayed till Tuesday morning. We saw a great many friends. Two days I had tea with the nuns who also came several times to see us. Mr. Stokes also, and an old friend of Mr. Swan’s, Mr. Macfarlane. Mr. Swan and I had tea in both these huts. Major Browne had walked in the last 30 miles and we had visits in our tent all day. One night (Thursday) [10 September 1891] we dined at the officers’ mess. They had made the dinner table so pretty with Mr. Coope’s puggaree, yellow silk, and ostrich feathers. The fatted calf had died and was served up in 6 quite different ways: cutlets, tongue, roast, pie, and 2 others. In the dining room is a hat rack – 6 rhinoceros horns…
‘Constable, our cook at Zimbabwe, was engaged by Dr. Harris for the civilian mess. He is abominable to us. Instead of coming forward like an honest man and counting on out our enamelled iron and kitchen things, we have to wring them out of him cup by cup. When we ask for things he says they are gone to the auctioneer but the list shows the contrary. The last day he kept out of the way and on Tuesday morning, though we were up at dawn, he had already cleared out. I suppose when we get back tomorrow evening that there will be a row. The auction is for Saturday. Besides our own affairs, there has been on last Saturday the First Annual Dinner on Occupation Day. Theodore was invited. The Pioneers hate Dr. Harris and Major Tye. The Chairman, Mr. Bird, made the rudest of speeches, which Dr. Harris ably responded to and most pluckily. The Pioneers had many grievances but some must have been trivial indeed. One of them was that a notice was put up at Zimbabwe forbidding anyone to remove antiquities. No such notice was put up, yet more than once it was complained of and one man said he had seen it. They managed to make Dr. Harris tell a lie for the pleasure of confounding him. When he said he had had official news from Cape Town that Mr. Rhodes was coming to Tuli, they told him it was a lie for he was coming by the Pungwe, they having concealed the news from Tuesday to Saturday on purpose…
‘Saturday 19th [September, 1891]. Our sale took place this morning but we do not know the result quite yet. Some of the things seem to have gone high enough: whisky £2 a bottle and brandy £3. We afterwards were quite satisfied. Some people certainly got good bargains, but then so did we: A [quart] of spirits of wine £1.10; 1 doz. 1⁄2 [bottles] champagne £1.5….’
The much put-upon ‘Dr Harris’ is Rhodes’s local top man, Dr Frederick Rutherfoord Harris (1856-1920). Qualifying in Edinburgh he had moved to Kimberley ten years before Mabel meets him. His rise in Rhodes’s service was rapid. He has been described as a ‘coarse, ambitious adventurer…[who] came to be regarded as a loudmouthed braggart and born intriguer whose penchant for mischief-making caused Rhodes endless trouble.’ He is back in England by 1905, where he was ‘associated with some few finance Cos…and entered the arena of British politics in 1900 as Conservative M.P. for the Monmouth Burghs…Dr. Harris is a keen dog fancier, and is very popular in South Wales, where he spends most of his time.’ (1905)
Much conspicuous by his absence from Mabel’s pages is Dr Leander Starr Jameson (1853-1917). His exploits for Rhodes, his patron, are legion, none more so than the infamous ‘Raid’ of December 1895, and he was by Rhodes’s side when he died in 1902. By September 1891 Rhodes had appointed him as his deputy in Mashonaland and he arrived a few days after the Bents had left Fort Salisbury. Rhodes himself and his party arrived at the mouth of the Pungwe on 26 September 1891, and headed west to Fort Salisbury as Theodore and Mabel were about to move east – they missed crossing paths when the Bents made their detour north. Earlier, however, they did encounter another of Rhodes’s great marshals and later philanthropist, Alfred Beit (1853-1906). Born in Hamburg to a well-to-do family, he arrived in Kimberley in 1875 to deal in diamonds and within a few years had become Rhodes’s colleague and ally and one of the four principal founders of De Beers. Diamonds and gold provided the capital on which Rhodes’s associates thrived, but the Barberton fields in the eastern Transvaal (as mentioned by Mabel) promised much but delivered little. Beit died soon after Rhodes and left his fortune as the Beit Trust which focused on educational projects in Zimbabwe.
A little more in the way of background
Under the concession negotiated by Charles Rudd (13 October 1888) for rights from Chief Lobengula to develop the territory of ‘Mashonaland’, Cecil Rhodes, via his British South Africa Company, quickly assembled in 1890 a small armed force (‘The Pioneer Column’) to annex the lands. The force assembled in May on one of Rhodes’s farms outside Kimberley and by 28 June they were at Macloutsie camp. Headed overall by Col. E. G. Pennefather and Sir John Willoughby the troopers mainly comprised well-connected young adventurers, given promises of grants of land by Rhodes. The contingent crossed the Tuli River and headed roughly north, over 600km of difficult terrain, towards Mount Hampden. Here they established a base (12 September 1890) that became known as Fort Salisbury, then Salisbury, and now Harare, capital of modern Zimbabwe.
Rhodes, the great puppet master, had plans for Theodore, too, with his agents working behind the scenes to persuade him and Mabel to explore/excavate the monument known as ‘Great Zimbabwe’ and have it written up as being ‘Phoenician’ (or at least non-African) in origin. After exploring the Great Zimbabwe ruins in the summer of 1891, Theodore’s party made its way north to Fort Salisbury, before detouring to explore some gold workings, deliver tribute to a nearby chief, and then descend, via the Pungwe valley, to the sea at Beira for their voyage home to England, via Lisbon.
Mabel was seeing the ‘capital’ of course in its very early months. Jan Morris provides a snapshot: ‘Until 1891 it had been a bachelor community and half its citizens indulged in African mistresses. Since then many white women had arrived, and the town had acquired a streaky veneer of decorum…The social centre of the colony was Government House, a pleasant rambling bungalow in the Indian manner…There were Fred Selous…Mother Patrick, the saintly young superior of the Dominican Sisters…Major ‘Maori’ Browne…ill-explained aristocrats like Lord George Deerhurst, who ran a butcher’s shop on Pioneer Street, or the Vicomte de la Panouse, popularly known as the Count…’ Theodore and Mabel encounter most of these characters at one time or another on their year-long adventure.
Before the Pungwe (late October 1891) and the journey home, the Bents enjoy a few days’ rest at Umtali with the companionship of a trio of celebrity British nurses recently arrived there (also courtesy of Rhodes’s benevolence) – Rosanna Blennerhassett, Lucy Sleeman, and Beryl Welby. Two of the three compile later a popular account of their adventures; they recall the Bents’ brief sojourn and Theodore’s latest thoughts on the monuments: ‘He was fresh from those strange Mashonaland ruins which have given rise to so much conjecture. Mr. Bent supposed them to be extremely ancient. He told us that, without consulting the archives at Lisbon, he could not give a decided opinion on their origin. At that time he seemed to believe them to be the ruins of a temple and fortress. There, he thought, weird rights had been solemnised and fierce battles fought… Mr. Selous differed entirely from this view. He believes the ruins to be comparatively modern, and the remains of native work… [He] is probably the best authority on the subject, knowing Africa as thoroughly as he does, and being able to converse with the native as easily as with an Englishman, whilst Mr. Bent could neither speak nor understand the language. But Mr. Bent appeared certain that the Portuguese only could throw light on the problem. He said that the Portuguese had certainly been all over the country, and that a Portuguese archaeologist who would devote himself to the subject would find the archives, of Lisbon, and very likely of other old cities, rich in most interesting materials.’
It is easy to see the nurses preferring Selous to Theodore. Frederick Courtenay Selous (1851-1917) fits this casual aside here as a rhinoceros might a garden shed: RGS Founder’s-medal-winner (1893), big game hunter, trail blazer, road builder, cartographer, diplomat, emissary, naturalist, writer. Legend has it that he was the one to break the news to Rhodes of the death, by an explosion of alcohol, of his brother Herbert. Born in 1851, Selous – ‘well over medium height, with fair pointed beard and massive thighs and legs, it was his fine blue eyes, which were extraordinarily clear and limpid, that most attracted attention.’ – first began to haunt Mashonaland when he was twenty. His subsequent reputation brought him to Rhodes’s attention and after having been involved in the ‘negotiations’ to acquire Mashona territories, he was recruited (and well incentivized) to guide the Pioneers to a site near modern Harare (Fort Salisbury), which was to become Rhodesia’s capital – a site that Selous himself had singled out from his previous explorations in the area. Press reports did not exaggerate when they wrote that Selous had ‘done more than any other man to bring Mashonaland into notice, and is credited, together with Cecil Rhodes, with having contributed most to the creation of Rhodesia’. Of his exploits, Selous himself opined that: ‘Such undertakings as the expedition to and occupation of Mashonaland cannot but foster the love of adventure and enterprise, and tend to keep our national spirit young and vigorous’, and that the ‘opening up of Mashunaland seems like a dream, and I have played a not unimportant in it all, I am pleased to say. The road to Mashunaland is now being called the ‘Selous Road,’ and I hope the name will endure, though I don’t suppose it will.’ Selous did very well out of Rhodes, who rewarded him with a large cash payment, 8,500 prime Mashonaland hectares, and 100 De Beers shares. By June 1892 the adventurer can write to his mother that ‘I can live on the £330 a year which my de Beers shares produce.’ By 1900, surprisingly, he had retired to a fine home in semi-rural England (Worplesdon, Surrey), but with the coming of the First World War, at the age of sixty-four, he joined the ‘Legion of Frontiersmen’ as captain and left to serve in East Africa. The big game hunter fell himself to a German sniper’s bullet to the head on 4 January 1917 on the edge of the Rufiji River. His grave is close by, in the Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania, topped with stone and brass. There would be no Mashonaland routes taken by Theodore and Mabel that were unknown to F. C. Selous. His beautifully bound books, in their original editions, were extremely popular in his day. (A rumour he did little to refute was that he was the model for Haggard’s Alan Quartermain; Theodore being another, by the way.)
Selous, it seems, avoided the Bents that September in camp Salisbury. As ever, he had things to do. Such was the food crisis (alluded to by Mabel in her diary) that Selous was given the task of guiding in the relief column in. One morning Theodore (as he relates in his great book ‘The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland’, page 283) espies the legendary figure ‘hurriedly dispatched to bring up the waggons at any cost. A few weeks later we heard that they had arrived, and the danger which had threatened the infant Fort Salisbury was averted’.
PS: Mabel writes home to Co. Wexford from Harare, September 1891
…and, by chance, we have a letter home to Co. Wexford, from Mabel. It is headed ‘Umfouli R[iver], September 5th 1891, finished 9th [September] at Fort Salisbury’
My dearest Faneen & L[oodleloo], Iva & E[thel]
I was in the midst of a letter but implored the cart to wait while I shut it up as I knew it was long since you had news. I wonder if you saw the telegram I sent from Fort Victoria in answer to one to report progress.
Well I will go on where I left off. We dined sitting on our bedding and soon went to bed, pretty tired. The days very hot and the nights sometimes dreadfully cold. It is rather hard on one not having some servant but we had no means of getting one. We meant to take a B.S.A.[C.] man as interpreter, but he was ill and we waited 2 days then took our head man, Meredith, who can talk Zulu, and one of our 9 [local men] could understand him, so we got on very well. We can say a few things now ourselves; so the wagons were in command of Alfred, no. 1 driver. Constable, cook, a black, leader [and] no. 2 driver of our wagon, and O’Leary, a man who is having a passage given; he feeding himself (not really though). He has been with us since May, digging at Z[imbabwe].
Since Fort V[ictoria], where a leader and driver left, we have been short of a leader and hoped to get one from Major Browne, who would have been glad to save his food and pay, as he has lost so many oxen, but he is so much behind and we can’t [wait?], so we get on without. A leader is the lowest. He puts on the break [sic], drags the oxen into the right path, for they have no other guide, and takes it in turns with the other leader to go and herd the oxen when grazing. 2 naked [local men], or rather with 2 little skin aprons apiece, drive the donkeys and horses.
We shall be so sorry to have to sell the latter at Fort Salisbury. No one can catch them so well as I, particularly mine, which races away, but they always come to get bread. We have been to some new large unknown ruins, Matindela, and discovered others of which we could find no name. We must sell the horses if we go down the P[ungwe River], because one bite of the tsetse fly would kill them at once and we shall get at least £350 for them. The donkeys do not die till the beginning of the rainy season.
We hear dreadful accounts of how the porters forsake you in the worst place if you do not comply with exorbitant demands. But we have 7 donkeys. It is about 400 miles. At Fort S[alisbury] we shall sell the wagons for little and the oxen for much and divide our clothes, sell some and carry what is absolutely necessary for the steamer from Beira to the Cape, and buy there, for the clothes, etc., we send down won’t be there in time to meet us.
September 8th  We arrived this morning sending a rider on to ask where we were to outspan, for we are very privileged persons, so we are quite away from the public outspan, which is like a dirty farmyard and between the military and civilian quarters. We arrived neatly dressed and were met by invitations to luncheon and breakfast. Very nice not to have to wait till ours was unpacked. There is very little food here: jam 3/6 a pot, and milk – but you can’t buy it – 4/6; ham 4/6 a lb. We have more ruins to see, but our plans are not made till this afternoon. The camp is on half rations.
We have now settled to go down the Busi, and the latter part, each in our own canoe. We are going first to Matoko’s, then to Makori’s; and to Matoko’s we are to be the bearers of the £40 of presents annually given, so are sure of a very good reception. We are to take a trooper with us and Meredith and Alfred, a driver, as personal cook, a very nice fellow, 10 donkeys and 2 of the Makalankas we have had for more than a month, besides other carriers.
We are invited to take all our meals at the mess – a very substantial money saving now. If it weren’t that we are permitted to draw rations we could not get enough food – no milk or meat. So now our men have a good opportunity of seeing that ‘Wilful waste makes woeful want’.
Dr. Harris, who is head here now, is much pleased with Mr. Swan’s beautifully made maps. Well you see that we are doing well, but alas! When the oxen came in this evening one has lung sickness, so we don’t mean to let that be known and hope to sell the others tomorrow. At the mouth of the Busi we shall go down to the Cape to see the library there and call in Lisbon on the way and hope to be home the beginning of December.
There are no ladies here, but one or two traders’ wives and the nuns. How wonderful it is how the Jesuits get in everywhere…
The rest of the letter is missing, but Mabel used to sign off as ‘Your most loving Mabel’, so let’s do that here.
The ‘Mr. Swan’ referred to is the Bents’ particular friend Robert McNair Wilson Swan (1858-1904). The Swan brothers were mining emery in the Cyclades in 1883/4 when the Bents met them. He contributed an odd section in Bent’s Zimbabwe monograph on the subject of measurements and other data relating to the ruins, and not much taken into account today. He died, a rather sad figure it seems, in the Far East.
(Swan, Robert McNair Wilson, 1858-1904)
Sister: Ethel Constance Mary Bagenal (née Hall-Dare, d. 1930). She had married Lieutenant Beauchamp Frederick Bagenal in 1870 and the couple had 5 children. Their family residences at Bagenalstown and Benekerry (Co. Carlow) were very close to the Hall-Dares at Newtonbarry (now Bunclody) (Co. Wexford).
Sister: Olivia (Iva) Frances Grafton Johnston (née Hall-Dare, d. 1926) lived in Bournemouth (Theydon Lodge, Boscombe) on the south coast of England. Called Iva by her family she was the third wife of the Reverend Richard Johnston (1816-1906) from Kilmore, Co. Armagh (d. 1906). They married in 1883 when he was nearly 70 and Olivia was about 40. The couple moved later to Bath after Richard’s retirement from his Kilmore parish church.
Sister: Frances Maria Hobson (née Hall-Dare), known to one and all as Faneen (b. 1852) married the Reverend Edward Waller Hobson (b. 1851) on 11 June 1891. (He played rugby for Ireland in his youth and went on to have a successful career in the Church of Ireland.) During the writing of this letter the couple were based at Moy, Co. Tyrone (1881-1895); the rectory of St James’ all but abuts the church. All Mabel’s letters were meant for circulation among her sisters and other relatives.
Aunt: Olivia Frances Lambart (‘Loodleloo’), sister of Mabel’s mother, Frances Anne Catharine Hall-Dare (née Lambart, d. 1862). A spinster, Loodleloo was in effect the children’s guardian following the death of both their parents (their father Robert Westley Hall-Dare (b. 1817) having died in April 1866). She died on 9 July 1898, a heavy blow for Mabel (and her sisters), just fourteen months after the death of Theodore in May 1897.
1) Detail of Map: ‘Part of Matabele, Mashona and Manica Land, illustrating the journey of Theodore Bent, Esq. from Shoshong to the Pungwe River.’ (Fort Salisbury (Harare) is roughly at Lat. 18/Long. 31) From ‘Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society’, Vol. 14, No. 5 (May 1892), facing page 298. Private collection.
2) ‘Crossing a stream. The Pioneer Corps of the British South Africa Company on the way to Mashonaland’. Cover illustration (detail) from The Graphic, 25 October 1890. Private collection.
3) A plan of Fort Salisbury as Mabel and Theodore would very likely have encountered it in September 1891.