Professor Charles Beckingham (1914-1998)

Professor Charles Beckingham, Fellow of the British Academy, who died on 30 September 1998 aged 84 spent much of his academic career as Professor of Islamic Studies, first at Manchester University (1958-65), and then at SOAS, University of London (1965-81); during this latter period he served as President both of the Hakluyt Society and of the Royal Asiatic Society; he was also on the Council of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs which awarded him its Percy Sykes Memorial Medal in 1987.

Charles Beckingham’s first contribution to Yemeni studies predated his formal entry into academic life in 1951 as lecturer in Islamic History at Manchester. The previous year, in collaboration with the late Professor R.B. Serjeant, he published a paper entitled A Journey by two Jesuits from Dhufar to Sana’a in 1590 (Geographical Journal, June 1950). This included a translation of an account by Pedro Paez of his captivity in Arabia with a fellow Spanish priest, Antonio de Montserrat. They had been seized by Arabs in Dhufar on their way from Goa to Ethiopia and sent as prisoners through Wadi Hadhramaut (via Tarim, Seiyun, Haiin) and Marib to Sana’a where they languished until 1595 before being ransomed and sent back to India. They were the first Europeans to reach Hadhramaut and travel overland to the Yemeni capital, then under Turkish occupation.

Beckingham’s interest in Soqotra arose from his multi-lingual studies of travel and exploration in the Indian Ocean from the mediaeval and renaissance periods onwards. His monograph on the island, modestly entitled Some notes on the history of Socotra, contains a wealth of information and comment indicative of the remarkable range and depth of his learning. It was published (1983) in a collection of articles presented to R.B. Serjeant on the latter’s retirement from Cambridge. Yemen and South Arabia also featured in Beckingham’s Between Islam and Christendom: travellers,facts and legends (1983).

His last major work (1994) was to complete the translation begun by Sir Hamilton Gibb of the travels in Asia and Africa of Ibn Battuta (who visited Yemen in 1330/31), a project which, as Beckingham wryly remarked, took longer to accomplish than the duration (some 28 years) of Ibn Battuta’s journeys! This was followed in 1996 by the publication of Prester John, the Mongols and Ten Lost Tribes, edited jointly with Bernard Hamilton. The book was the culmination of his lifelong interest in the legend of Prester John (the mighty Christian monarch who ruled beyond the lands of Islam) and in the country of that legend’s birth, Ethiopia.

Professor Beckingham was personally well known to H.E. Dr Hussain al-Amri who joins us in paying tribute to an eminent scholar who will be warmly remembered for his wit and humanity and for the generosity with which he shared his immense learning with others.

John Shipman