Charles Tilstone Beke - Encyclopedia

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CHARLES TILSTONE BEKE (1800-1874), English traveller, geographer and Biblical critic, was born in Stepney, Middlesex, on the 10th of October 1800. His father was a merchant in London, and Beke engaged for a few years in mercantile pursuits. He afterwards studied law at Lincoln's Inn, and for a time practised at the bar, but finally devoted himself to the study of historical, geographical and ethnographical subjects. The first-fruits of his researches appeared in his work entitled Origines Biblicae, or Researches in Primeval History, published in 1834. An attempt to reconstruct the early history of the human race from geological data, it raised a storm of opposition on the part of defenders of the traditional readings of the book of Genesis; but in recognition of the value of the work the university of Tubingen conferred upon him the degree of Ph.D. For about two years (1837-1838) Beke held the post of acting British consul in Saxony. From that time till his death his attention was largely given to geographical studies, chiefly of the Nile valley. Aided by private friends, he visited Abyssinia in connexion with the mission to Shoa sent by the Indian government under the leadership of Major (afterwards Sir) William Cornwallis Harris, and explored Gojam and more southern regions up to that time unknown to Europeans. Among other achievements, Beke was the first to determine, with any approach to scientific accuracy, the course of the Abai (Blue Nile). The valuable results of this journey, which occupied him from 1840 to 1843, he gave to the world in a number of papers in scientific publications, chiefly in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society. On his return to London, Beke re-engaged in commerce, but devoted all his leisure to geographical and kindred studies. In 1848 he planned an expedition from the mainland opposite Zanzibar to discover the sources of the Nile. A start was made, but the expedition accomplished little. Beke's belief that the White Nile was the main stream was, however, shown to be accurate by subsequent exploration. In 1856 he endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to establish commercial relations with Abyssinia through l'lassawa. In 1861-1862 he and his wife travelled in Syria and Palestine, and went to Egypt with the object of promoting trade with Central Africa and the growth of cotton in the Sudan. In 1865 he again went to Abyssinia, for the purpose of obtaining from King Theodore the release of the British captives. On learning that the captives had been released, Beke turned back, but Theodore afterwards re-arrested the party. To the military expedition sent to effect their release Beke furnished much valuable information, and his various services to the government and to geographical research were acknowledged by the award of £50o in 1868 by the secretary for India, and by the grant of a civil list pension of £loo in 1870. In his seventyfourth year he undertook a journey to Egypt for the purpose of determining the real position of Mount Sinai. He conceived that it was on the eastern side of the Gulf of Akaba, and his journey convinced him that his view was right. It has not, however, commended itself to general acceptance. Beke died at Bromley, in Kent, on the 31st of July 1874.

Beke's writings are very numerous. Among the more important, besides those already named, are: An Essay on the Nile and its Tributaries (1847), The Sources of the Nile (1860), and The British Captives in Abyssinia (1865). He was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and for his contributions to the knowledge of Abyssinia received its gold medal, and also that of the Geographical Society of France. As a result of a controversy over the statements of another Abyssinian explorer, Antoine Abbadie, Beke returned the medal awarded him by the French Society.

See Summary of the late Dr Beke's published works and. .. public services, by his widow (Tunbridge Wells, 1876).

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