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Biography of James Theodore Bent

The following is a biography of Theodore that appeared in the Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement. The author was William Carr
(1862–1925) who cited his sources to be:

  • Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, ix. 671
  • Times, 7 May 1897
  • Bent’s works
  • private information

BENT, JAMES THEODORE (1852–1897), explorer and archaeologist, born at Baildon on 30 March 1852, was the only child of James Bent of Baildon, near Leeds, by Margaret Eleanor, eldest daughter and co-heiress of James Lambert of Baildon. He was educated first at Malvern Wells, then at Repton school. He matriculated, 8 June 1871, from Wadham College, Oxford, and graduated B.A. in 1875. On leaving Oxford he entered as a student at Lincoln’s Inn (14 Nov. 1874), but was not called to the bar.

On 2 Aug. 1877 he married Mabel, daughter of Robert Westley Hall-Dare of Theydon Bois, Essex. Bent possessed considerable linguistic abilities, and having a taste for travelling, in common with his wife, spent a portion of each successive year in exploring little-known localities. He visited San Marino in 1877 and 1878, and wrote a small book on the republic, which he published in 1879. A considerable portion of 1879 and 1880 he spent in Italy, and during this period composed a ‘Life of Garibaldi,’ which appeared in 1881; but his volume on ‘The Cyclades, or Life among the Insular Greeks,’ published in 1885 after two winters spent among the islands, was his first work of note. A great portion of the years 1885, 1886, and 1887 was passed mainly in Karpathos, Samoa, and Thasos, where Bent noted local traditions and customs, copied inscriptions, and excavated in search of ancient remains. His observations provided him with ample material for numerous articles in reviews and magazines, and contributions to the ‘Archæological Journal,’ the ‘Journal of Hellenic Studies,’ and the ‘ Journal of the Anthropological Institute.’ Owing to the action of the Turkish authorities he was prevented from conveying to England marbles and monuments which he had purchased and discovered in Thasos, but the inscriptions from his impressions were published in 1887. The winter of 1888-9 he spent in archæological research on the coast of Asia Minor; he determined the position of the city of Lydæ in Caria, and probably also that of Cæsarea. The numerous inscriptions which he collected from the sites of these cities and from those of Patara and Myrawere published in vol. X. of the ‘Journal of Hellenic Studies,’ and were reprinted in 1889.

In 1889 Bent visited the Bahrein Islands in the Persian Gulf, where his observations and excavations led him to maintain the belief that here was the primitive site of the Phoenician race; the following year he travelled in Cilicia Tracheia. In 1891 he undertook an expedition in Mashonaland for the purpose of investigating the ancient remains which were known to exist, but of which no exact accounts had been published, though a description of the Zimbabwe ruins had been given on 24 Nov. 1890, at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, by G. Philips. The more important ruins, especially those of Zimbabwe, were now for the first time carefully examined and measured, and excavations were made. Bent came to the conclusion that the authors of the ruins were a northern race coming from Arabia, and closely akin to the Phoenicians, with strong commercial tendencies. He returned to England in 1892, and published his work, ‘The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland,’ in November of that year; the book was favourably received, and a third edition appeared in 1895. A four months’ journey in Abyssinia in the spring of 1893 enabled him to pursue his investigation with regard to a primitive Arab race, and afforded material for a work entitled ‘The Sacred City of the Ethiopians,’ published in 1893. Bent’s valuable impressions of inscriptions, which are dealt with by Professor H. D. Müller in a special chapter of this volume, have added materially to the discoveries of archaeologists who had previously studied Abyssinian antiquities.

Seven journeys in all were undertaken by Bent and his wife in and around the southern part of the Arabian peninsula, which from 1893 to the end of his life he made the special field for his observation and travel. By his expeditions in the winter of 1893–4 and 1894–5 he added much to European knowledge of the Hadramut country, but his attempts in 1893, 1894, and 1895 to penetrate the Mahri district were unsuccessful. In November 1896 he traversed Socotra and explored the little-known country within fifty miles of Aden. His last journey of exploration was through the Vafei and Fadhli countries in March 1897, an account of which was given by Mrs. Bent to the Royal Geographical Sosiety, and published in the ‘Royal Geographical Journal’ (xii. 41).

Bent died, 5 May 1897, at 13 Great Cumberland Place, London, W., from pneumonia following on malarial fever, which developed after his return from Aden, and was buried at Theydon Bois, Essex.

Though naturally inclined to the study of archæology rather than to geographical discovery, his antiquarian knowledge was insufficient to enable him to make a complete use of the opportunities which his journeys afforded. A portrait of Bent is contained in his book on ‘The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland,’ and a photogravure portrait is prefixed to Mrs. Bent’s volume on ‘Southern Arabia.’

Bent edited in 1893 a volume for the Hakluyt Society entitled ‘Early Voyages and Travels in the Levant, with an Introduction giving a History of the Levant Company of Turkey Merchants,’ and he contributed many articles to reviews and magazines. ‘Southern Arabia,’ published in 1900, 8vo, though mainly written by Mrs. Bent, contains much matter derived from Bent’s journals.

Bent’s notebooks and numerous drawings and sketches remain in the possession of Mrs. Bent.