Many happy returns Mabel on your birthday today (28 January)!

‘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 [1885]. 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.

Bent’s Last Christmas – 1896, Sokotra

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,

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; see further in this article], 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 [1889], 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 [1896]. 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 [1896]. 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]

Ernest Bennett subsequently wrote a piece for Longman’s Magazine (1897), which is touching for one its footnotes; the author writes: “Since these words were written Mr. Theodore Bent, the companion here spoken of, has died. A subsequent attack of fever in the Yaffi country (South Arabia) was accentuated by a chill caught on the homeward journey, and proved fatal. I little thought when I left my kind and courteous fellow-traveller at Aden on our return from Sokotra that the ‘good-bye’ was a final one.” (p. 408).

This article is dedicated to the UNESCO-Friends of Socotra campaign entitled Connect 2 Socotra (#connect2socotra), promoting scientific research and awareness of the unique natural and cultural heritage of the Socotra UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site and the importance of protecting Socotra Archipelago’s unique species and ecosystems for the future.

Socotra is of universal importance with a biodiversity of rich and distinct flora and fauna, much of which does not occur anywhere else in the world. It also has globally significant populations of land and sea birds, including a number of threatened species and an extremely diverse marine life

In order to raise awareness of the rich and distinct heritage of Socotra, UNESCO is collaborating with the Friends of Socotra in organising a campaign of awareness events and publicity around the world. Using the hashtag #connect2socotra, the purpose of the Connect 2 Socotra Campaign is to connect the world to Socotra, and connect Socotra to the world. Search Google for campaign news and events.

Zimbabwe: The Bents in Harare (Fort Salisbury) and around, September 1891

Part of Matabele, Mashona and Manica Land, illustrating the journey of Theodore and Mabel
Part of Matabele, Mashona and Manica Land, illustrating the journey of Theodore and Mabel from Shoshong to the Pungwe River

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.

Crossing a stream. The Pioneer Corps of the British South Africa Company on the way to Mashonaland
Crossing a stream. The Pioneer Corps of the British South Africa Company on the way to Mashonaland

Let’s hear from Mabel:

‘Tuesday, September 8th [1891]. 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…

 A plan of Fort Salisbury as Mabel and Theodore would very likely have encountered it in September 1891
A plan of Fort Salisbury as Mabel and Theodore would very likely have encountered it in September 1891

‘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….’

Rhodes’s marshals

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.

The Bents’ headman, Llewellyn Cambria Meredith (1866-1942), who went on to have a successful career in Rhodesia (R.H. Wood 1997 Llewellyn Cambria Meredith, 1866-1942, Heritage of Zimbabwe 16: 55-66)

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 [1891] 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.

For details of Mabel’s family, see Hall-Dare at

For more on Mabel’s letters, see and the collection in the Royal Geographical Society, London (

All Mabel’s quotes are from ‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent. Volume II: The African Journeys‘ (2012, Archaeopress, Oxford).

For any other reference or explanation, please contact

The images are:

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.

Mabel’s Menus: the culinary notes of an archaeologist (1880-1900)

There is little evidence, one way or the other, for Mabel Virginia Anna Hall-Dare (later Bent) being much of a cook. Born in 1847, into the comfortably-off, Anglo-Irish, minor aristocratic milieu, she dwelled as a girl in three wealthy and populated homes (Counties Meath, Sligo, and Wexford), including servants, before marrying the young, would-be explorer, Theodore Bent (later FSA, FRGS) in 1877. The couple then began a notable series of travels over the next twenty years to extensive regions of the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa and Arabia, in search of finds both archaeological and ethnographical.

The explorers travelled with fairly large amounts of gear, including of course cooking wherewithal, and, mostly, with an enterprising assistant from the isle of Anáfi in the Cyclades (a Cyclops’ stone’s through south-east of Santoríni), one of whose duties was to put food on the camp-table for the hungry couple, following days spent negotiating difficult terrain, assorted dangers, and looking for treasures. (Hospitality tantamount to religion in many of the lands they found themselves in, the Bents could also often rely on bed-and/or-board with eager-to-please hosts.)

These appetising adventures are all covered in Mabel’s travel diaries (her ‘Chronicles‘, published in three volumes by Archaeopress, Oxford), and the pages of the chronicler’s notebooks are peppered with reminiscences of what they had to eat – and the very occasional meals prepared by Mabel herself, when she had the inclination, time, or a special event in mind.

Thus, prior to publication in 2018 of ‘Mabel’s Menus’, selected tidbits of dishes from, inter alia, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Ethiopia, Yemen, Iran, and Zimbabwe, will appear, που και που, on the Bent website blog ( and Facebook. (Of course, if you would like to be notified when the book appears, do please contact at any time.)

As a taster, Mabel would like to describe to you some meals they shared on Íos (23-25 January 1884) with their hosts, the family Lorenziades, descendants of whom still reside on the island today, and introduce you to one of her favourite cheeses:

“Breakfasted at a kafeneion and sent our letter up to the Demarch Lorenziades, who at once came down from the town and told us he had no rooms for us to sleep in but we were to feed with him. The baggage and I were put on mules and we went up to the Chora. The family consisted chiefly of the Demarch, who has a little common 2nd wife very inferior to the rest but a kind little thing. I should have thought it unnecessary to marry her when there are so many other women in the world; his elder brother and 3 very pretty jolly girls Marousa, Aikaterena and Kaleroe, all tall and fat. A 3rd brother is the schoolmaster. All were quite like gentlemen and all in black frock-coats. There were at least 6 more people.

Mesithra is a sort of curd made of sheep’s milk in a basket, just like 'brocciu' of Corsica
‘Mesithra is a sort of curd made of sheep’s milk in a basket, just like “brocciu” of Corsica’

“They received us most kindly and were really the most congenial people we have met. We took a house consisting of bedroom, pantry and sitting room, where Matthew [the Bents’ assistant, M. Símos] slept, and a kitchen, and went for our meals to the Demarch’s. They did everything they possibly could to please and amuse us. The dinner party consisted of the three brothers, the wife, Marousa and we 3. The first day we had chicken soup boiled, and roast chicken; 2nd ditto kid, 3rd ditto fish, and 3 times a day did we get mesithra and honey. Mesithra is a sort of curd made of sheep’s milk in a basket, just like ‘brocciu’ of Corsica. After dinner some of them dressed up in old costumes, of most splendid gold brocade and gold lace and embroidery. Such is the power of dress that we did not know where they had got the wonderfully beautiful woman in green and gold, and never found out till next day it was Aikaterene:

“Next morning, Friday [January] 25th, the Demarch came to fetch us to breakfast, and, M having evidently informed about the English customs, we had 2 eggs, a glass of milk and some mesithra and honey. Afterwards we and the Demarch started to Plaketos at the other side of the island: 3 hours. We saw the supposed tomb of Homer who died here on his way from Samos to Athens and then went to a little hut of an old man where we lunched in a very rough way; wine in a large wooden basin and scooped and drunk out of a little gourd. The hut was very low, door 4 feet high and a bed built of stones with twigs and straw 4 feet square. Even in better houses the doors are often too low. We had cold fish and cold soft eggs and they are hard, whether hot or cold, to eat without a spoon.” (from the Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol 1, pp. 38-9)

Mabel’s Chronicles: April 3rd 1885 (Easter) – Karpathos

The Dodecanese
The Dodecanese showing the island of Kárpathos, where the Bents spent Easter 1885. (c) Glyn Griffiths

Easter time (April) 1885 found the Bents ‘excavating’ around Vroukoúnda on the Greek island of Kárpathos (Dodecanese). For the festivities, the couple (and their dragomános of choice, Matthew Símos) rode up to the major village of Ólymbos, then, as now, a preferred Easter destination for those in the know.

As usual, full details of their travels, travails and finds on this island can be read in Mabel’s relevant Chronicles and the many papers Theodore wrote (see bibliography). For a Cycladic Easter, a comprehensive good read is Theodore’s 1884 article ‘Easter Week in Amorgos’ first published in Macmillan’s Magazine (May/October issue) and included in his later book ‘The Cyclades – or Life Among the Insular Greeks‘.

Ólymbos, Kárpathos
Ólymbos, Kárpathos, at Easter (c) Nikos Kasseris

Good Friday [April 3, 1885] was a fine sunny day and we unpacked the panniers, for we were quite too tired to look at anything on our arrival. It is very exciting work digging, first finding something, then is it whole? Then have we all the pieces? The men grind the edges trying to fit them and any metal they cut with their knife. Fortunately they never saw the little boxes. Theodore found and pocketed them…. These two days before Easter are employed making bread and cakes with red eggs stuck into them and every oven is smoking. Elymbo [Ólymbos, Kárpathos] is rather a disappointment to us; we think Méso Chório was a quainter place. This Saturday is a rainy day. Now here I must I think make a few remarks about the Greeks founded upon my 3 journeys amongst them and staying in the houses of high and low and seeing them in town and country.

Though they have a king, surely never were more true republicans than the Greeks. There appears to be perfect equality among them and a complete mingling of classes, neither dirt, poverty not want of education seems to make any difference… Mr. Philemon, who is the Greek Consul at Rhodes, and who is quite a gentleman and whose wife is quite a lady and very well dressed, has a most ragged and dirty old father-in-law, Dr. Klados, and no one would take Mrs. Klados for a lady… He lives with a mud floor. His daughter of 17 with bare legs carried our luggage about a mile for 6d on her head and one of his little boys I saw running about with only a tattered frock open all down the front and bare feet. He is quite one of the chief men of Karpathos and Mr. Sakolarides’s children also have bare legs. But these people are not like us in keeping up a good establishment in the country, for though they are as smart as possible in Athens, Syra, or Smyrna, once they get to the country they cast off their civilization with their collars and seem content with any kind of an untidy picnic for any length of time. Mr. Manolakakis has a cousin, a bricklayer, and one of our friends here is a bricklayer that Theodore met at Mr. Manolakakis’s house. He gave us letters of introduction to all kinds of peasants, some very dirty, but they all seem quite equal and we always noticed in the Cyclades that our muleteers used to sit down in any house and help themselves to tobacco. Certainly whatever their education is, they all seem to have good manners, if not quite according to our notion. We are expected to know any English engineer on any steamer, etc.; in fact they do not seem to recognize difference of rank at all. As to our being ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ the Greeks cannot understand our buying anything for ourselves and think every bit of embroidery and everything else is bought for sale, and they often ask us if we have different things with us to sell…

Every man but a priest or two and a few old men leaves the island every summer for 6 months or more, chiefly as bricklayers, and every field labour, wine making, etc., is done by the women. There are no girls’ schools and few of my sex can read.

Here the women’s dress consists of a pair of full white trousers and a white nightgown flowing open to the waist. When cold they wear a blue wadded-cotton coat, rather shorter, and then both men and women have a coat of brown goats’ hair with a hood. Sometimes they wear brown leather top boots, sometimes not…

Easter Sunday, April 5th 1885. This morning was sunny after the first two hours so we opened all our windows and the door and tried to dry our things. Though Theodore forgot to put out the brazier for the night and though it was still burning in the morning, some clean clothes hung over it on 2 chairs in the morning. We hung out the Union Jack in honour of the day. We had a visit from the schoolmaster, who is being doctored by us and is the better for our treatment, and took a walk with him. By the bye, one of Theodore’s patients (cold tea for the eyes) brought 2 eggs as a thank offering.

A little while after our return Manthaios came to say luncheon was ready if we were, for he thought it must be noon. Theodore looked at his watch and found it to be half past 10; however we agreed our appetites were ready, so to our amusement we found we had everything cleared away by 11.30.

We spoke over the difference we observed between the inhabitants of Karpathos and Tilos and the Cyclades and the other islands we have visited, i.e. Niseros, Rhodes, Chios, Samos, and Mytelene, in their not offering coffee, etc. to visitors. In the other islands we were always at once brought coffee, or jam and water, or raki, or almonds, oranges, or pomegranates, but here the only one who had offered us coffee was the Kaïmakan and the wicked owner of the plates who is a Greek from Syra. I agree with Theodore in thinking it a Turkish fashion, but it is odd they never have offered us any thing till about an hour or two after this conversation when we were asked into a house, which we entered, and very soon a large dish of sheep’s cream was placed before us and a kouloúri, that is one of the wound-up serpent-like cakes they make in great numbers for Easter, generally with coloured eggs in them. I could hardly get any down so soon and my horror was great when she said, ‘now you must eat some lamb!’

Such cooking is going on these 3 days. First bread and kouloúris, then yesterday and today lambs, and we see the lambs come out of the oven in every imaginable shape in which they may have been flung in. Well! She fetched the family lamb and tore us off bits. She handed me a whole leg, but I cried for mercy and was let off with a smaller bit. It was very tender and I gnawed away industriously till the kind woman took my bit and rubbed salt into it with her thumbs, having been to fetch a handful of salt. I managed to continue eating inside bits till, when everyone was excited over my gloves, I squeezed up my lamb and bread into a tight ball and pocketed it.

Since this we have been to church. Only men and little boys go into the church, the women remain in the outer room where the parliament was, but as I count as a man, sitting at meals, etc., they invited me in. In I went. All the little boys stood in front, some very small and very pretty – indeed there are lots of pretty children here, though their elders are not handsome.

Everyone but we had a candle, but just before the time for lighting them came a man with two very large ones, hot and newly made so that we were glad to have them in the tray in which they lay, they were so soft. Of course, when they were so kind we lit up like the rest and I consoled myself by remembering that it was in honour of a truly Christian feast in which we could take part, in fact we recognized many parts of our own service.

There were 5 priests with such dirty rough-shock heads of uncombed hair. Their poor robes were made of printed calico. People chatted a good deal and we often heard a loud ‘shsh!’ It was very odd seeing the priests dressing and undressing inside the tembelon or screen. They walked about a good deal in a way I could not understand and 2 or 3 young men stepped about with large prayer books and repeated ‘Christ is risen from the dead’ and wherever they went the bystanders looked over and raised their voices.

The gospel was read on this wise: one papas read a verse or two in Greek, then each of the other 4, and then a young man read them in French! We did not discover this till the very last set of verses, as the French was very bad, but the last set but one I began to suspect. Manthaios tells us each of the priests ought to have read in a different language if he could, Turkish, Arabic, etc., that all the world might understand. A very good idea I think.

After the service was over all the papas came out and, clearing away the candlesticks, etc. which stood in the way, and holding up a silver-bound gospel, cross, and other things, they stood in a row and the men who wished passed before them kissing each object in hand once, and the papas once on each cheek and on the mouth. We did not perform this ceremony.

When we got out there was a wonderful sort of a ‘guy’ set up over the gateway of the church to represent a Jew. His head was an earthen jar and he had a child in his arms. This the men shot at, getting nearer and nearer till he got on fire. I was sitting among the women who constantly begged me not to fear and thought I must be cold as I had on gloves, but I answered, ‘It is our custom’, which finishes off all discussions…

I think we have got to the end of our 7 days here and are no longer great wonders, but every Sunday we always are one of the amusements of the day…

Mabel’s Chronicles: January 23rd 1884 – Ios

It can be safely said that today’s visitors to Íos are unlikely to be looking to the Bents for travel guidance; nor will they be visiting in the months of winter, when the great natural harbour (where your ferry’s tender would have taken you to shore as late as the 1970s) is slate blue-grey and disorientating.

Towards the end of January 1884, Theodore and Mabel were finishing their little tour of Santoríni and getting ready for the steam north, a few hours, to Íos, where they intend to explore the antiquities before heading east for Síkinos and Folégandhros. We will join them in a minute, but first a few notes on the following passage of Mabel’s Chronicles.

As usual, the three main characters are Theodore, Mabel, and their long-suffering dragomános from Anáfi, Manthaios Simos.

The Panellénion
The Panellénion runs the Cretan blockade in 1867 (Wikipedia image)

A (Greek) Wikipedia search under Πανελλήνιον (ατμόπλοιο) will tell you all need to know about the feisty Panellénion (1855, 310 tons), which ran the Cretan blockade in 1867. In his Cyclades (Chapter VII), Theodore adds: ‘Though we had the very worst steamer of the Hellenic Company to take us to Ios, yet it was a steamer that all who travel thereon treat with respect, for it was none other than the Panhellenion, which ran the blockade in the late Cretan revolution, and carried assistance to the Greeks struggling for freedom. A very little sentiment of this kind goes a long way on a rolling sea, and, despite the celebrity of our craft, we were thankful to leave her when she entered the capacious harbour of Ios . . .’

The light, refreshing cheese (she varies between mesithra, mesethra and mesythra, but never from her relish of it) is to become a favourite of Mabel’s. The couple bring home a primitive cheese strainer; it is in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (2005.68.1). To explain her reference to the Corsican brand, the Bents visited there in the late 1870s, soon after their marriage, with Theodore covering the island’s story in his Genoa, how the Republic Rose and Fell (London 1881).

The little church at Paleokastro
The little church at Paleokastro

The walk up to the deserted (Venetian) castle/hamlet of Paleokastro on Íos is a fine one. The chapel is usually locked however; inside, the stone tembelon is now whitewashed and if Mabel did sign her name then the signature awaits some fortuitous pentimento. Mabel’s behaviour in this church is sharply at odds with her protestations in Kárpathos the following year: ‘In the little church at Kyriá Panagía, which is quite good and not ruined, there were lots of scribbled names and one of the Greeks said, “Now we will write up your name” and I said “Oh, not my name please”, they said “Why?” and I said it was not our custom in England to write our name in churches… “Because it is a sin?” So I said “Yes, for it is the house of God”. And he said, “Yes” and I really felt glad he should see that some Christians have a little reverence’.

The Bents included ethnographical/anthropological researches in their spheres of interest and the many games they witnessed at the little chapel of Ay Theodóti and elsewhere found their way into Bent’s later essays and articles (e.g. ‘Some Games played by Modern Greeks’, 1884, The Folk-Lore Journal 2: 57–59). The white-washed chapel remains, but the laughs and shouts of the players are, presumably, only memories: visitors to the chapel’s festivities on 7-8 September may be able to update us.

The church at Agia Theodóti where the panegyris is held on September 8th
The church at Agia Theodóti where the panegyris is held on September 8th

We went then down to Agia Theodote near the sea and lunched on the grass, and afterwards went to see the church, which is a very rough Byzantine building. One aisle was filled up with stone-built benches and table where they eat at the pilgrimages. In one corner was a heap of immense pots and some large wooden spoons stuck in the wall. Everyone brings a contribution of food which is thrown into the common pots and cooked. The better class play all sorts of games in the church.”

As well as customs, costumes, embroideries, and fabrics were passions for the Bents. They would without fail have tried to acquire the beautiful dress worn by Aikaterina, which survived in the family and is now on display in the National Historical Museum, Athens (for illustrations and moving background information visit the website for V. C. Scott O’Connor’s book ‘Isles of the Aegean’). Mabel did, however, manage to obtain on Íos a fine bed valence she displayed in 1886 at the Anthropological Institute in London to accompany a talk given by Theodore. Perhaps it was even the ‘magnificent piece of red silk’ given to her by Marousa ‘to remember them by’. Mabel describes it as ‘a silk embroidered border 6 feet long and a narrower border 10 inches up the sides sewn to a piece of line, tucked in to the edge of the bed’ in the Appendix to Theodore’s article (Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 15 (1886): 391–403). We don’t know where this valence – let’s imagine the very one given to Mabel by Marousa – ended up, but some fascinating recent research on dresses bought by the Bents on Kárpathos in 1885 is to be published shortly and will be made available in some form on this site!

At last, we can join now Mabel and Theodore waiting for the Panellénion to take them to Íos; they are making a few last-minute social calls:

[Wednesday] January 23rd [1884]. This is the 2nd day we are in waiting for the steamer. It is a lovely day but still so cold that I can hardly write. Yesterday we went to see the Eparchos Markos Mavrojenes (or ‘Black Beard’) and wandered about. The Eparch came to see us before dinner and the family da Corogna of Italian origin after. They are pleasant people and wished us to receive the son of 18 when he comes to England in May.Today we have been to pay a visit to the Alexakis’, he very large and rich, though a tasteless house, and the Dekigallas’. Mr. Dekigallas a very learned old man with whom T has made friends. This island is very damp, or rather so dry that it does not absorb wet and everything, boots, bread, silk, etc. gets mouldy quickly. The Dekigallas’ or really de Cigalas’, spent the evening with us and we were called at 1/4 to 6 for the steamer ΠΑΝΕΛΛΗΝΙΟΝ, the smallest and worst. (The Panellenion ran the blockade in Crete.)

Very rough passage about 2 hours to Ios. Breakfasted at a [harbour-side] kafeneion and sent our letter up to the Demarch Lorenziades, who at once came down from the town and told us he had no rooms for us to sleep in but we were to feed with him. The baggage and I were put on mules and we went up to the Khora. The family consisted chiefly of the Demarch, who has a little common 2nd wife very inferior to the rest but a kind little thing. I should have thought it unnecessary to marry her when there are so many other women in the world; his elder brother and 3 very pretty jolly girls Marousa, Aikaterina and Kaliroe, all tall and fat. A 3rd brother is the schoolmaster. All were quite like gentlemen and all in black frockcoats. There were at least 6 more people. They received us most kindly and were really the most congenial people we have met.

We took a house consisting of bedroom, pantry and sitting room, where Manthaios slept, and a kitchen, and went for our meals to the Demarch’s. They did everything they possibly could to please and amuse us. The dinner party consisted of the three brothers, the wife, Marousa and we 3. The first day we had chicken soup boiled, and roast chicken; 2nd ditto kid, 3rd ditto fish, and 3 times a day did we get mesithra and honey. Mesithra is a sort of curd made of sheep’s milk in a basket, just like broccio of Corsica. After dinner some of them dressed up in old costumes, of most splendid gold brocade and gold lace and embroidery. Such is the power of dress that we did not know where they had got the wonderfully beautiful woman in green and gold, and never found out till next day it was Aikaterina.

Next morning, Friday [January] 25th [1884], the Demarch came to fetch us to breakfast, and, Manthaios having evidently informed about the English customs, we had 2 eggs, a glass of milk and some mesithra and honey. Afterwards we and the Demarch started to Plaketos at the other side of the island: 3 hours. We saw the supposed tomb of Homer who died here on his way from Samos to Athens and then went to a little hut of an old man where we lunched in a very rough way; wine in a large wooden basin and scooped and drunk out of a little gourd. The hut was very low, door 4 feet high and a bed built of stones with twigs and straw 4 feet square. Even in better houses the doors are often too low. We had cold fish and cold soft eggs and they are hard, whether hot or cold, to eat without a spoon. The 5 muleteers got very gay and led by the Demarch played a lot of games, all of which we had seen elsewhere. We got home at 4 and retired home soon after dinner.

On Saturday [January 26th 1884] we had Marousa as a companion in our ride to Palaó Kástro, a mass of Italian ruins on a white marble mountain over the sea. It was very steep and Marousa was surprised I dared not to dismount, but I don’t care to walk as my leg is not well yet. At the top is a very shabby rough little chapel where Marousa incensed the pictures very gaily amid crossing and chattering and I was made to scribble my name on the wall and the tembelon, or screen, both in Greek and English: Μάιμπελ Βιργινία Άννα Μπένθος, which I thought irreverent and vulgar. By the way, I go by the name of Virginia now as they cannot say Mabel, it is if they had something sticky in their mouths as they cannot say B. ‘Maimpr’.

We went then down to Agia Theodote near the sea and lunched on the grass, and afterwards went to see the church, which is a very rough Byzantine building. One aisle was filled up with stone-built benches and table where they eat at the pilgrimages. In one corner was a heap of immense pots and some large wooden spoons stuck in the wall. Everyone brings a contribution of food which is thrown into the common pots and cooked. The better class play all sorts of games in the church.

We had a delightful evening, about 30 people came, including a priest, and we had a constant succession of games in which I took part, also T. We actually stayed up till 1/2 past 10. First ‘Blind Man’s Buff ’. Then a ‘Blind Man in the Middle’ and every one dancing around singing till he stopped us and put out a stick and touched one. That one having taken up the end of the stick and put it to his lips made some little whistle or buzz. If the name was guessed by the blind man he was released. Then 3 sat on pillows on a rug, side by side with legs out straight. The middle one had string put round under his feet and kept working about pulling this up and giving unexpected bangs with the back of his hands to the legs of the others who defended themselves with each a slipper, and if they hit they got the middle place. 2 people lay down on a rug with their heads on pillows and were covered all over with a quilt. Everyone went and gave them a bang with a knotted handkerchief on the most exalted part of them. They had to guess who. A person kneels on a pillow on the rug and is covered with a quilt; one after another people come and kneel in front of him with head also under the quilt and the confessor asks questions and imposes penance and at last when one comes who has never played this before the rug is lifted by the corners, the confessor slips off and the penitent is lifted in the air. These are a few of the most amusing, but there were many more.

Next morning, Sunday [January] 27th [1884], Marousa came early to bring me a magnificent piece of red silk embroidered ‘to remember them by’, also her pocket-handkerchief with her name worked and some pine nuts. We were really sorry to leave these kind people and they pressed us to stay but ‘the ship was ready and the wind blew fair and we were bound for the sea’. So after breakfast, and giving them a few of the little presents we have with us, but nothing half as valuable as they had given me, we went down to the harbour with 2 mules and the 3 brothers and 3 girls. We sat in the kafeneion and drank coffee and ate sweetmeats and were given Kaliroe’s pocket-handkerchief full of sesame seeds that we might remember Kaliroe, or Callirhoe I think is the English way of spelling the stream she is called after.

After an affectionate parting we set sail and after much tacking got out of the deep and safe bay and made straight for Sikinos…

Mabel’s Chronicles: December 25th 1883 – Naxos

We left last time Mabel and Theodore on Syros, 2 December 1883, waiting for the m/v Ydra to take them to Serifos. Their explorations there were limited and by the 4th they were ready to find a caique to take them down the line to Sifnos. From there they sailed to the islet of Kimolos for Milos. From there, via Syros, on Sunday 16th December, they arrived on Paros and made immediately for Antiparos (18th December), where they met Robert Swan, a British engineer employed locally in emery mining. (Swan was to become a lifelong friend, travelling with the Bents to Zimbabwe in 1891.) Mabel records that Swan had found some archaeological remains on Antiparos and Theodore at once asks if he might excavate them. This piece of luck, like so much in his career, was to help make Theodore’s reputation as an ‘archaeologist’ – he was completely untrained, self-taught would be a charitable description, and had never before in his life had access to such valuable and important archaeological material. His later account for the Journal of Hellenic Studies (1884, Vol. 5, 42-59) was to contribute to the recognition of a distinct ‘Cycladic Culture’. (Details of all this, of course, may be read in the full published version of Mabel’s Chronicles.)

Subsequently the couple return to Paros and by Christmas Eve, 1883, they are on Naxos.

Mabel begins her chronicle for Christmas Day with an ‘apology’ for having neglected her writings, however, her chronicle tracks back to cover those lost days. But let’s let Mabel take us on from here in her own words:

Christmas Day in Naxos [Tuesday December 25th, 1883]. I am fearfully in arrears with my Chronicle! We started on Sunday [16th?] at 5.30 a.m. and in due course got to Syra. (Finding that on account of this delay this same steamer was to proceed on Monday morning to Paros, we left our luggage on board and only landed for a few hours.) We saw Mr. Binney and Mr. Quintana and Mr. Tzerlendi, got letters and embarked. About 3 hours brought us to Paroikiá, the capital. An unhealthy, dirty town, full of old architectural scraps, whitewashed into the houses and with a ruined castle of which several courses are formed of columns. We had rather a comfortable room where we unpacked and rearranged our luggage and spent the afternoon walking about.
Tuesday [December 18th?]. Rode 11/2 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.Next morning we rode to the cave in the top of the highest mountain. There is first a large open cavern and in the back of it a hole 4 or 5 feet across, down which one must slide clinging to a rope fastened to a stalactite at the edge. 3 places we went down by ropes and two by a ladder, holding ropes too and at last got to an enormously large and high sort of hall with lots of stalagmites and stalactites. The former, some of them look like trees. In one corner is ‘the church’ where services have been held several times. One must dive under the stalactites to get in. We made a large fire which lit up the whole place. We did not feel the heat much while we were down but were glad of our cloaks when we got out.After luncheon and some very good wine made by Mr. Swan, we rode down to the town. As the weather was fine we determined to go all round to Paroikiá by boat. We did not tell P we meant to do more than cross straight and he was as terrified as usual and made everyone laugh. Mr. Swan dined with us in a kitchen. I made a sweet omelette. T had the misfortune to take a stranger who had come in to stare for the son of the house and asked him ‘to get another plate’. He took this for an invitation to dinner and joined us. We were obliged to grin and bear it. During the Greek Advent we never have too much dinner and have to treasure our remains for next day.

Next morning we went in a tram drawn by horses up to the quarry of marble with a Belgian and a Greek belonging to the French company who work it. The road is so steep that no horses are needed for the descent. We were received by the engineer who took us down the quarry. We all had miners’ lamps, not very light to hold, and scrambled and slipped and crawled through the various passages up and down. When I saw the plan of where I had been I had no idea how many ramifications we had been through. At the entrance is a bas-relief of figures dedicated to the Nymphs. It is carefully covered with wood. The middle figures have been removed by someone. It is a bright brown colour.

P of course would not go down either, or at Antíparos. We lunched at the engineer’s house. The Belgian promised me a little lamp found in the quarries but this I still look on as a bird in the bush. Then we mounted mules and rode 3 hours about to Levkés up in the mountains. The Demarch received us kindly for the sake of Mr. Swan who had helped at his election and after visiting the new and very hideous church where, however, one gets a lovely sea view. We settled down to dinner and after it a dance. The Demarch did this really out of hospitality, for next day he said the 10 frs. T gave him was far more than he had spent and really had to be pressed to take it, and not from philoxenía which is never satisfied with anything. Some time the host refuses loftily to take anything but leads us to understand he does not answer for his wife and she always takes it.

We parted from Mr. Swan on Thursday morning hoping to be joined by him later at Santorini and rode to Ábyssos. No road and the place did not repay us a bit. Lunched there by the sea. Then to Kepídoi, which by reason of the strange accent of the island they call Tchepídi. We stopped at the house of the Demarch della Grammatis for 2 nights. Our bedroom had no light but from the door. Bought 2 of the rough little marble people and hearing of a good many graves in the neighbourhood we decided to dig next day and hired 3 men at 2 frs. each. We dug in 3 places and in one we found lots of bones and a buckle or brooch of copper and in another a rough little vase. On our return T, though they said it was nearly night at 3 o’clock, went up to the castle or acropolis above the town and said there was a magnificent carved tembelon rotting from neglect. I was shut up in the dark on my bed and much kissed and covered up constantly if the thick quilt came off. I was warm enough as I had my Ulster on.

Sunday [December] 23rd. Rode to Naussa, a very small poor village in an immense and very safe bay. Lunched there and embarked in a sailing kaïke for Naxià, the capital of this island. An excellent passage. Christmas Eve was a lovely day and we did nothing but wait to see the steamer come in with such a crowd round us on the beach, where we sat on two chairs like King Canute, that the police had to drive them away. And row to a little island, now much diminished by the waves where there are the ruins of a temple to Bacchus lie [sic], only the lintel and 2 door posts stand and have been kept white by wind and spray. T was getting worse and worse with a sore throat. Mr. Tcherlendi came by the steamer. Christmas Day was a downpour and as our rooms are not watertight 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. We thought something must turn up for dinner, but when dinner-time came, I can’t say dinner, and T was in bed eating arrowroot and I was supposed to be dining tête-à-tête with P, I felt so dejected that I could only silently drink T’s health and think ‘the fewer the better fare’. They had boiled the duck’s skeleton with much water and rice and the skeleton came up as a dish with the cold bit which we divided. I went and made some arrowroot for myself and fervently prayed that I might ever after be glad and thankful for a good Christmas dinner.

Mabel’s Chronicles: December 1st 1883 – Syra (Syros)

Friday [actually Saturday] Dec. 1st. We had a quick but very rough passage, starting at 7 and getting here about 3.30 a.m. Wednesday. The Pelops was quite new and very clean and I should have slept well b ut for the fleas. We landed at Ermoupolis at 6.30 and sat on the balcony overlooking the port for 2 hours as there was no bedroom vacant, nor did we get one till 5 o’clock. Mr. John Quintana, H.B.M. V. Consul on whom T called, came and fetched us and we spent 2 hours at the Consulate in Mr. Binney, the Consul’s room, very large and nice and so tidy. Mr. B. must be a most orderly man for everything was ticketed and docketed. T called on him in Athens, says he is like a slight Greek, foreign accent and Greek wife. Then we went home to the H. d’Angleterre to breakfast and I lay in a passage room with a headache till we got a fine large one to ourselves, evidently planned as the drawing room. At dinner we were joined by Mr. Charcutsis, the Editor of a newspaper, who wished to give T details why Mr. Anamesakis, our consul of Chios who lives at Chesmé on the mainland, had been so bound to the Turks as to say when asked by Lords Granville and Aberdeen that T’s statement at Chios and the taxation, though true, was exaggerated. He is to have a great many particulars written out in a fortnight. Phaedros our Dragoman had been here some days but we did not meet till the afternoon. He dined with us and on the symptoms of Homer becoming aggravated we retired to our bedroom to have it sung in private. To me it sounds like a bagpipe.
Yesterday we mounted asses to ride to the other side of the island to the point called Ta Grammata – the writings – a place where the white marble sticks like the beak of a bird into the sea, almost polished, and the sailors who used the little bay as a harbour scribble and scratched little prayers to Serapis for good breezes. My donkey I had no power to turn, guide or check so I desired to be led by a string as I felt dangerous to the public safety. The way was very rough and steep up and down, for the whole island is a mass of stone and treeless hills.Our muleteer had never been to the Grammata and soon was quite astray but we fortunately met with a man who knew the way, the only man we met, and he having given us figs and water accompanied us. We had to get off and climb at last. We ate, T deciphered inscriptions and the man dug up 3 bits of copper money and a little smoothed oblong bit of marble all at the same time. We took 4 hours to get there but not so long to get back and arrived just in time for the dark.

During dinner we conversed, through P, with the harbour master and Mrs. Quintana, and Mr. Tcherlendi came and spent the evening with us. Mr. Quintana is a British subject of Spanish origin on both sides from Malta and reminds us of Sir F. Turville. T has been to see the Archbishop who was very civil and said he had ‘seen us returning last night like Christ entering Jerusalem’.

In the afternoon we drove on an excellent road to Della Grazia, an old harbour, stopping at Mr. Tcherlendis’ villa, white and flat roofed, in a great mess as the family is away and he only goes there for the day. He poured out wine and asking me ‘What do you preffer for liquer?’, gave me besides a glass of anisette, a thing that I hate. Then he took us through a wild little garden and gave us oranges and flowers. This south side of the island is much more fertile.
[Sunday] Dec. 2nd. Up at 6.30 and hastened on board the Ydra…

Mabel’s Chronicles: November 26th 1883 – Athens

Monday, November [26th?]. Hôtel des Etrangers, Athens. We, that is Theodore and I, arrived here last Thursday, having come by the M.M.S.S. Cambodge, the same we came by last Jan., and travelled straight from London with the exception of sleeping at Calais. We saw Miss S. Forbes there in the morning. We stopped at Naples a couple of hours and delivered Iva’s wedding presents and made acquaintance with her husband. Our voyage was prosperous and uneventful. No very interesting passengers. Mr. Kennedy, Sec. B. Emb. at Constantinople, and his wife came on at Naples but they were too sea sick for us to see much of them.On our arrival here we were pleasantly welcomed here by our acquaintances of the spring. T went to see Mr. Ford – our Minister who was away all the spring – and goes tomorrow to Paris, leaving Mr. Egerton chargé d’affaires as before: Sir Brook Boothby, 2nd Sec. He also went to see Miss Trikoupis and next day to see her brother the prime minister by appointment. We went to see the Schuylers yesterday, American Minister, and there tonight. Among the people in this hotel are Mrs Damales, Chiote and mother-in-law of S. Bernhardt, such a known intriguante that we are warned against making her acquaintance, and a lady who signs herself Elpis Malena of Crete, Baroness Schwartz, a great Garibaldina. We start tomorrow night for Syra.