Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Palmer, Edward Henry
PALMER, EDWARD HENRY (1840–1882), orientalist, was born on 7 Aug. 1840 at Cambridge, where his father William Henry Palmer kept a private school. On his mother's side he inherited Scots blood, for his maternal great-grandfather belonged to the clan Chisholm, and was hanged for his share in the rebellion of 1745. Left an orphan in infancy, Palmer was brought up by an aunt at Cambridge, and his education was carried on at the Perse grammar school, where he reached the sixth form before he was fifteen. So far he was a moderate classic and no mathematician, and perhaps the only sign of his future linguistic achievements was his learning Romany at odd times on half-holidays by haunting the tents of gipsies, talking with tinkers, and spending his pocket-money on itinerant proficients in the tongue. He thus acquired a fluency in Romany and a knowledge of gipsy life and ways, which rivalled even that of Mr. C. G. Leland. On leaving school, at the age of sixteen, he entered the office of Hill & Underwood, wine merchants, of Eastcheap, London, and for three years performed the ordinary duties of a junior clerk, especially in connection with the business at the docks. In his scanty leisure he set himself to learn Italian by frequenting cafés where political refugees resorted, and conversing with organ-grinders, conjurors, and sellers of plaster-cast images. He thus collected a remarkable vocabulary and was said to be able to talk in several Italian dialects. In a similar manner he learned to speak French fluently, and his success in acquiring languages in an unsystematic conversational way made him in later years a firm upholder of the oral method as opposed to the ordinary grammatical routine prescribed in English schools. His London evenings were often spent at the theatre, where he formed a lifelong friendship with Henry Irving; or else in mesmeric experiments, in which he exhibited extraordinary powers.
In 1859 he developed grave symptoms of pulmonary disease, and returned to Cambridge prepared to die, but suddenly and mysteriously recovered. While regaining his strength, Palmer took to amateur acting; wrote a farce, ‘A Volunteer in Difficulties,’ which was performed at the Cambridge Theatre in 1860; worked at drawing and modelling; and published clever verse after the ‘Ingoldsby Legends’ type, under the title ‘Ye Hole in ye Walle’ (1860, 4to, afterwards reprinted in ‘The Song of the Reed,’ 1877), which was illustrated by his own and a friend's pencil. About the close of 1860 he made the acquaintance of Seyyid ‘Abdallah, son of Seyyid Mohammad Khan Bahâdur of Oudh, and teacher of Hindustani at Cambridge. The acquaintance ripened into deep regard, and led Palmer to enter upon that study of oriental languages to which the rest of his brief life was devoted. In this pursuit he was greatly aided by other orientals then residing at Cambridge, especially by the Nawâb Ikbâl-ad-dawla of Oudh. Palmer's progress was phenomenally rapid. He learnt Persian, Arabic, and Hindustani; and as early as 1862 presented ‘elegant and idiomatic Arabic verses’ to the lord almoner's professor, Thomas Preston. Palmer is said to have devoted eighteen hours a day to his studies. His indifference to games and sports and positive dislike to exercise left him unusual time for work; but, on the other hand, his eminently social instinct tended to long evening symposia.
Some fellows of St. John's College at length discovered his remarkable gifts, and by their influence he was admitted as a sizar to St. John's on 9 Oct. 1863. He matriculated on 9 Nov. following, and on 16 June 1865 was awarded a foundation scholarship. He graduated B.A. on 4 April 1867, with a third class in the classical tripos, and proceeded M.A., in absence, on 18 June 1870; but his main energies were given as an undergraduate to oriental studies. During this period he catalogued the Persian, Arabic, and Turkish manuscripts of King's and Trinity College (1870), and also of the university library; and the university librarian, Henry Bradshaw, bore weighty testimony to the value of Palmer's work (Letter prefixed to Cat. King's Coll. MSS. published by Royal Asiatic Society, 1876). Palmer also cultivated the habit of writing in Persian and Urdu by contributing frequently in those languages to the ‘Oudh Akhbâr’ and other Indian newspapers, and attracted an admiring clientèle among the pundits of Hindustan. When he accompanied his friend, the Nawâb Ikbâl-ad-dawla, to Paris in 1867, the latter wrote a testimonial in which he stated that Palmer spoke and wrote Arabic, Persian, and Hindustani, like one who had long lived in the universities of the East (Besant, Life of E. H. Palmer, pp. 42, 43). In 1868 he issued an ‘address to the people of India,’ in Arabic and English, on the death of Seyyid Mohammad Khan Bahâdur. He had also given proof of his knowledge of a difficult branch of Persian scholarship in a little work entitled ‘Oriental Mysticism: a treatise on the Sufiistic and Unitarian Theosophy of the Persians’ (1867), founded on the ‘Maksad-i Aksâ’ of ‘Azîz ibn Mohammad Nafasî, preserved in manuscript at Trinity College; and he had translated (1865) Moore's ‘Paradise and the Peri’ into Persian verse. He was a member of the French Société Asiatique and of the Royal Asiatic Society. On the strength of his publications and the testimony of many orientalists, native and European, Palmer was elected to a fellowship at St. John's College on 5 Nov. 1867, after an examination by Professor E. B. Cowell, who expressed his ‘delight and surprise’ at his ‘masterly’ translations and ‘exhaustless vocabulary’ (Besant, Life, pp. 48, 49).
The fellowship left Palmer at ease to pursue his studies. His ardent desire was now to visit the East. He had already (1867) sought for the post of oriental secretary to the British legation in Persia, and his candidature was supported by high testimonials, especially from India; but such an appointment was not in accordance with the traditions of the foreign office, and Palmer, to his keen regret, never saw Persia. Another opportunity of eastern travel, however, presented itself in 1869, when he was selected to accompany Captain (now Sir) Charles Wilson, R.E., Captain Henry Spencer Palmer [q. v.] the Rev. F. Holland, and others, in their survey of Sinai, under the auspices of the Palestine Exploration Fund. His principal duty was to collect from the Bedouin the correct names of places, and thus establish the accurate nomenclature of the Sinai peninsula. He thus came for the first time into personal relations with Arabs, learnt to speak their dialects, and obtained an insight into their modes of thought and life. Moreover, the air of the desert greatly invigorated his health, which had suffered by excessive application and confinement at Cambridge (Besant, Life, p. 70). In the summer of 1869 he returned to England, only to leave again on 16 Dec. for another expedition. This time he and Charles Francis Tyrwhitt Drake [q. v.] went alone, on foot, without escort or dragoman, and walked the six hundred miles from Sinai to Jerusalem, identifying sites and searching vainly for inscriptions. They explored for the first time the Desert of the Wanderings (Tih), and many unknown parts of Edom and Moab, and accomplished a quantity of useful geographical work. In this daring adventure Palmer made many friends among the Arab sheykhs, among whom he went by the name of ‘Abdallah Effendi; and numerous stories are related of his presence of mind in moments of danger and difficulty, and of his extraordinary influence over the Bedouin, for which, perhaps, his early experiences among the Romany had formed a sort of initiation. The adventurous travellers went on to the Lebanon and to Damascus, where they met Captain Richard Burton, who was then consul there, and with whom Palmer struck up a friendship. The return home was made in the autumn of 1870 by way of Constantinople and Vienna, where he formed the acquaintance of another famous orientalist, Arminius Vambéry. A popular account of these two expeditions was written by Palmer in ‘The Desert of the Exodus: Journeys on foot in the Wilderness of the Forty Years' Wanderings’ (2 vols. 1871, well illustrated with maps and engravings); and his Syrian observations of the Nuseyrîya and other societies led to an article in the ‘British Quarterly Review’ (1873) on ‘the Secret Sects of Syria;’ while the scientific results of the second expedition were detailed in a report to the Palestine Exploration Fund, published in its journal in 1871, and afterwards (1881) included in the volume of ‘Special Papers relating to the Survey of Western Palestine.’ Among other matters dealt with was the debated site of the Holy Sepulchre, and of course Palmer was easily able to prove that the ‘Dome of the Rock’ was built in 691 by the Caliph ‘Abd-el-Melik, and was not, as Fergusson had maintained, erected by Constantine the Great. Although he never again took part in the expeditions of the Palestine Fund, he devoted much time and interest to the work of the society. In 1881 he transliterated and edited the ‘Arabic and English Name-lists of the Survey of Western Palestine,’ and assisted in editing the ‘Memoirs’ of the survey (1881–1883); and in connection with his Palestine studies, he wrote, in collaboration with Mr. Walter Besant, a short history of ‘Jerusalem, the City of Herod and of Saladin’ (1871; new edit. 1888).
Palmer now resumed his residence at Cambridge, where, for the most part, he studied and wrote and lectured for the next ten years. His enthusiasm for university work received a severe check at the outset by his rejection as a candidate for the Adams professorship of Arabic, in 1871, in favour of William Wright [q. v.] In the same year, however, the lord almoner's professorship became vacant, and Palmer was appointed by the then lord almoner, the Hon. and Very Rev. Gerald Wellesley, dean of Windsor. The post was worth only 40l. 10s. a year, but it enabled him to retain his fellowship though married; and on the day after his appointment, 11 Nov. 1871, he married Laura Davis, to whom he had been engaged for several years. In 1873, in consequence of the creation of the triposes of oriental languages, his salary was increased by 250l. by the university with the condition that he should deliver three concurrent courses of lectures, on Arabic, Persian, and Hindustani, each term, and reside at Cambridge for eighteen weeks in the year. To this incessant and very moderately paid work he added many other labours. He was one of the interpreters to the Shah of Persia during his visit to London in 1873, and wrote an account of it in Urdu for a Lucknow paper. He published a ‘Grammar of the Arabic Language’ (1874), which he afterwards reproduced in more than one modified form. He brought out a useful ‘Concise Dictionary of the Persian Language’ (1876; 2nd edit. 1884), of which the English-Persian counterpart was edited from his imperfect materials after his death by Mr. Guy Le Strange (1883).
Palmer's chief contributions to Arabic scholarship were ‘The Poetical Works of Behá-ed-din Zoheir of Egypt, with a Metrical English Translation, Notes, and Introduction’ (2 vols. 1876–7; the third volume, which should have contained the notes, was never published), and his translation of the Korân for the ‘Sacred Books of the East’ (vols. vi. and ix., ‘The Qurân,’ 1880). The former is the most finished of all his works, and is not only an admirable version of a typical Arabic writer of vers de société, but is the first instance of a translation of the entire works of any Arabic poet. Palmer's verse was good in itself, as he had shown in the little volume of translations from the Persian and original pieces published in 1877 under the title of ‘The Song of the Reed;’ and his translation of Zoheir, by a happy use of equivalent English metaphors and parallel metrical effects, represents the original with remarkable skill. His Korân is also a very striking performance. It is immature, hastily written, and defaced by oversights which time and care would have avoided; but it has the true Desert ring, a genuine oriental tone which is not found in the same degree in any other version. His ‘Arabic Grammar,’ like everything he did, took up new ground in Europe, though his method is familiar to the Arabs themselves. He was no born grammarian, and detested rules; but he could explain and illustrate the difficulties of Arabic inflexion, syntax, and prosody in a luminous manner, after the fashion of the Arabs, his masters. His other works were a brightly written little life of ‘Haroun Alraschid, Caliph of Bagdad’ (New Plutarch Series, 1881), full of characteristic anecdotes and verses from Arabic sources, but without any pretence to historical grasp or research; an ‘Arabic Manual,’ with exercises, &c. (1881), based upon his earlier grammar; a brief ‘Simplified Grammar of Hindustani, Persian, and Arabic’ (1882; 2nd edit. 1885), in one hundred pages; and two little books on Jewish history and geography, written for the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (1874).
Besides these, he revised Henry Martyn's Persian New Testament for the Bible Society; examined, in 1881–2, in Hindustani for the Civil Service Commission; assisted Eirikr Magnússon in translating Runeberg's ‘Lyrical Songs’ from the Finnish (1878); edited Pierce Butler's translation of Oehlenschläger's ‘Axel og Walborg’ from the Danish, with a memoir (1874); joined C. G. Leland and Miss Tuckey in producing ‘English Gipsy Songs in Romany, with Metrical English Translations’ (1875); edited Trübner's series of ‘Simplified Grammars;’ read verse translations from the Arabic to the Rabelais Club, which were printed in their ‘Recreations,’ and afterwards published in a series of papers on ‘Arab Humour’ in the ‘Temple Bar Magazine;’ wrote articles on ‘Hafiz’ and ‘Legerdemain’ for the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica;’ indited burlesques for Cambridge amateur actors, and helped to edit the ‘Eagle,’ a St. John's College magazine, and ‘Momus;’ and developed a marvellous talent in conjuring, which he exhibited in legerdemain entertainments for charitable objects. Originally with a view (soon abandoned) to Indian practice, he was called to the bar in 1874 at the Middle Temple, and even went on the eastern circuit for two or three years, taking briefs occasionally, but chiefly as an amusement and by way of studying humanity.
A man of so many talents and humours was scarcely in tune with university precision. The death of his wife, after a long illness, in 1878, unsettled him, and though he married again in the following year, Palmer grew tired of college life and lectures; he was drawn more and more towards London and away from Cambridge. In 1881 he threw up his lectures; retaining only the professorship, with its nominal salary, and entered a new phase of his career, as a journalist. He had already written for the ‘Saturday Review,’ the ‘Athenæum,’ and occasionally for the ‘Times.’ In addition to these, he now, at the age of forty-one, began regular journalism on the staff of the ‘Standard,’ where he acted as a useful and rapid, though not perhaps very powerful, leader-writer on social and general, but not political (unless eastern), topics, from August 1881 until his departure for Egypt on a secret-service mission on 30 June 1882.
So far as the purpose and origin of this mission are known, Palmer was sent by Mr. Gladstone's government to attempt to detach the Arab tribes from the side of the Egyptian rebels, and to use his influence, backed by English gold, with the sheykhs of the Bedouin, to secure the immunity of the Suez Canal from Arab attack, and provide for its repair after possible injury at the hands of the partisans of Arâbi (Besant, Life, pp. 253–4). On his arrival at Alexandria, on 5 July 1882, he received instructions from Admiral Sir Beauchamp Seymour (afterwards Lord Alcester) [q. v.] to proceed to Jaffa, thence to enter the desert and make his way to Suez, interviewing the principal sheykhs on the route. On the 11th Palmer had vanished, but ‘Abdallah Effendi was riding his camel through the desert in great state, armed and dressed in the richest Syrian style, giving handsome presents to his old acquaintances among the Tiyâha, and securing their adhesion to the Khedive's cause against his rebel subjects in Egypt. The attitude of the sheykhs was all that could be desired; and Palmer reported in sanguine terms that he had ‘got hold of some of the very men whom Arâbi Pasha has been trying to get over to his side; and when they are wanted I can have every Bedawi at my call, from Suez to Gaza. … I am certain of success’ (Journal to his wife, in Besant, pp. 270 ff.). After three weeks' disappearance in the desert, during which he endured intense fatigue under a burning sun, and carried his life in his hand with the coolness of an old soldier, Palmer evaded the Egyptian sentries and got on board the fleet at Suez on 1 Aug. The next day he was in the first boat that landed for the occupation of Suez, and was engaged in reassuring the non-combatant inhabitants. He was now appointed interpreter-in-chief to her majesty's forces in Egypt and placed on the staff of the admiral (Sir W. Hewett). His work among the Bedouin seems to have given unqualified satisfaction to the admiral and to the home government as represented by the first lord of the admiralty (Lord Northbrook), and Palmer himself was convinced that, with 20,000l. or 30,000l. to buy their allegiance, he could raise a force of fifty thousand Bedouin to guard or unblock the Suez Canal. On 6 Aug. a sum of 20,000l. was placed at his disposal by the admiral; but Lord Northbrook telegraphed his instructions that, while Palmer was to keep the Bedouin ‘available for patrol or transport duty,’ he was only to spend ‘a reasonable amount’ until the general came up and could be consulted. How far the friendly Arabs would have kept their promises if the 20,000l. had ever reached them cannot of course be known. The prompt energy of Sir Garnet (now Viscount) Wolseley in occupying the canal probably anticipated any possible movement on their part; but the fact remains that they gave the invaders no trouble, and this may possibly have been due to Palmer's presents and personal influence. The bulk of the money never reached them, however, owing to the tragic fate which overtook the fearless diplomatist. He had been busily engaged for several days in arranging for a supply of camels for the army, but on 8 Aug. he set out to meet an assembly of leading sheykhs, whom he had convened to arrange the final terms of their allegiance. In accordance with Lord Northbrook's instructions, he took with him only a ‘reasonable amount’ of money—3,000l. in English gold—for this purpose, to begin with. He was ordered to take a naval officer as a guarantee of his official status, and out of seven volunteers he chose Flag-lieutenant Harold Charrington. Captain William John Gill, R.E. [q. v.] the well-known traveller, also accompanied him, with the intention of turning aside and cutting the telegraph-wire which crossed the desert and connected Cairo with Constantinople. Two servants attended them, besides camel-drivers; and a certain Meter Abû-Sofia, who falsely gave himself out as a prominent sheykh, acted as a guide and protector. Their destination was towards Nakhl, but on the way Meter treacherously led them into an ambuscade on the night of 10–11 Aug. They were made prisoners and bound, while their baggage was plundered. There was at the time an order out from Cairo for Palmer's arrest, dead or alive; but it is probable that the original motive of the attack was robbery. On the following morning, 11 Aug., the prisoners were driven about a mile to the Wady Sudr, placed in a row facing a gully, with a fall of sixty feet before them, and five Arabs behind them, told off each to shoot his man. Palmer fell by the first shot. The rest were despatched as they clambered down the rocks or lay at the bottom. The facts were only ascertained after a minute and intricate inquiry held by Colonel (now Sir Charles) Warren, R.E., who was sent out by government with Lieutenants Haynes and Burton, R.E., on a special mission, which ended in the conviction of the murderers. The fragmentary remains of Palmer, Gill, and Charrington were brought home and buried in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral on 6 April 1883.
A portrait of Palmer, by the Hon. John Collier, hangs in the hall of St. John's College.