Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Palgrave, William Gifford

PALGRAVE, WILLIAM GIFFORD (1826–1888), diplomatist, second son of Sir Francis Palgrave [q. v.] deputy-keeper of the Public Records, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Dawson Turner, banker, of Great Yarmouth, was born at 22 Parliament Street, Westminster, 24 Jan. 1826. He was sent to Charterhouse (1838–1844), where he won the gold medal for classical verse, and became captain of the school. Thence he went to Trinity College, Oxford, where he had gained an open scholarship, and at the age of twenty, after only two and a half years' residence, he graduated, taking a first-class in literæ humaniores and a second-class in mathematics. He already felt the attraction of the East, and, turning aside from the promise of distinction in England which was before him, he at once went to India, and received a lieutenant's commission in the 8th Bombay regiment of native infantry. Inheriting, as he did, his father's linguistic aptitude, educated as he was beyond most Indian subalterns of his time, fearless, energetic, and resourceful in character, he appeared to have the prospect of a rapid rise in his profession; but early impressions derived from reading a translation of the famous Arab romance ‘Antar’ returned upon him when in the East, and gave him a bent towards missionary work among the Arabian peoples. He became a convert to Roman catholicism, was received into a jesuit establishment in the Madras presidency, and was ordained a priest. For fifteen years he continued connected with the Italian and French branches of the order. He was employed in its missionary work in Southern India until June 1853, when he proceeded to Rome. After engaging in study there until the autumn of that year, he went to Syria, where he was for some years a successful missionary, particularly in the town of Zahleh. He made many converts, founded numerous schools, and acquired an extraordinary familiarity with Arab manners and habits of life and thought.

The often-repeated story that he had officiated as ‘Imaum’ in mosques is without foundation. His own repugnance to Mohammedanism and the rules of his order alike made it impossible; but he could, and did, pass without difficulty for a native of the East. When the Druse persecution of the Maronites broke out, he was invited by the Maronite Christians, among whom he had acquired great influence, to place himself at their head and give them the benefit of his military training; but, though willing to counsel them as a friend, he could not as a jesuit take up arms and lead them. From the massacre at Damascus of June 1861 he escaped with bare life, and the Syrian mission being for the time broken up, he returned to Western Europe. Napoleon III obtained from him a report on the causes of the persecution of the Syrian Christians, and he also visited England and Ireland. Later in 1861 he delivered lectures in various parts of Ireland on the Syrian massacres, which were afterwards republished from newspaper reports, under the title ‘Four Lectures on the Massacres of the Christians in Syria,’ London, 1861, 8vo. In 1862 he returned to Syria.

For many years Arabia had remained closed to Europeans. Palgrave now undertook an adventurous journey across Central Arabia, which he accomplished in 1862 and 1863. His object was to ascertain how far missionary enterprise was possible among pure Arabs, but he also accepted a mission from Napoleon III, who furnished funds for the journey, for the purpose of reporting on the attitude of the Arabs towards France, and on the possibility of obtaining pure Arabian blood-stock for breeding purposes in Europe. Passing as a Syrian christian doctor and merchant, he found his best protection in his intimate acquaintance with Arabian manners, speech, and letters. But he carried his life in his hands; for, in the midst of the Wahabi fanatics of Central Arabia, detection would certainly have been his ruin. Once at Haill he was recognised as having been seen at Damascus, and at Riadh he was suspected and accused of being an English spy, but natural hardihood and presence of mind, aided by good fortune, secured his safety. The result of his journey he embodied in one of the most fascinating of modern books of travel, his ‘Narrative of a Year's Journey through Central and Eastern Arabia,’ published in 1865 (2 vols. London, 8vo. A French translation by E. Jonveaux appeared at Paris in 1866, and an abridgment of the same translation in 1869). For a time the obscurity which hung over the objects of his mission excited a certain amount of hostile criticism respecting his motives in undertaking this daring and adventurous exploration; but its merit and the address with which it was carried out never were in question. Shortly before his return to England, finding mission work in Arabia impracticable, he, with the consent of his superiors, severed his connection with the Society of Jesus, and engaged in diplomatic work for the English government.

In July 1865 he was despatched to Abyssinia on a special mission to obtain from King Theodore the release of Consul Cameron and his fellow captives. He was directed to remain in Egypt till June 1866, when he returned home, and was at once appointed British consul at Soukhoum Kalé. Next year he was transferred to Trebizond. While stationed there he made extensive journeys in the north of Asia Minor, and his observations were embodied in a ‘Report on the Anatolian Provinces of Trebizond, Sivas, Kastemouni, and Part of Angora,’ in 1868 (Catalogue of Foreign Office Library). It is clear that he was keenly alive to the corruptness and inefficiency of Ottoman rule as he observed it in Trebizond, in Turkish Georgia (1870), and on the Upper Euphrates (1872). In 1873 he was appointed consul at St. Thomas in the West Indies; in 1876 he was transferred to Manila; two years later he was appointed for a short time consul-general in Bulgaria, and in 1879 he was sent to Bangkok. His health, never strong after the hardships to which he was exposed during his return journey after quitting Arabia, suffered severely by the Siamese climate, and his appointment to be minister-resident in Uruguay in 1884 was welcomed as likely to lead to his restoration to health. In this, however, he was disappointed. He died of bronchitis at Monte Video on 30 Sept. 1888, and his body was brought to England and buried in St. Thomas's cemetery, Fulham.

In spite of his brilliance, his official career was less distinguished than might have been anticipated. He was a great linguist, and acquired languages with extreme ease—Japanese, for example, he learnt colloquially in two months—but his interest in them was not that of a philologist; he learnt them only for practical use, and when he no longer required them he ceased to speak them. He was a learned student of Dante, a good Latin scholar, and something of a botanist, and wherever he went, as his writings show, he was a keen observer. Some years after quitting the Society of Jesus, he came under the influence of various eastern religious systems, especially the Shintoism of Japan. This form of religious belief had attracted him during a trip to Japan, which he had visited while temporarily on leave from his duty at Bangkok. During the last three years of his life he became reconciled to the Roman catholic church, and died in that faith. In 1878 the Royal Geographical Society, to which in February 1864 he had communicated the geographical results of his Arabian journey, elected him a fellow, and he was also a medallist of the French Geographical Society and a member of the Royal Asiatic Society. He married, in 1868, Katherine, daughter of G. E. Simpson of Norwich, by whom he had three sons. There is an engraved medallion-portrait of him, from a very lifelike relief by T. Woolner, R.A., prefixed to his ‘Arabia,’ and a photograph in the memoir in ‘Men of Mark.’

His published writings were, in addition to those mentioned: 1. ‘Hermann Agha,’ a fascinating romance of Eastern life (2nd edit. 2 vols. 1872, London, 8vo; 3rd edit. 1878). 2. ‘Essays on Eastern Questions,’ 1872. 3. ‘Dutch Guiana,’ 1876. 4. ‘Ulysses: or Scenes and Studies in many Lands.’ Twelve essays reprinted from ‘Fraser's,’ ‘Cornhill,’ and other periodicals, London, 1887, 8vo. 5. ‘A Vision of Life: Semblance and Reality,’ a long and mystical religious poem, published posthumously in 1891, with which he had been occupied almost till the time of his death.

[Preface to A Vision of Life; Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, November 1888; Thompson Cooper's Men of Mark, vol. iv.; Times, 2 Oct. 1888; Athenæum, 6 Oct. 1888; Saturday Review, 6 Oct. 1888; information from Sir Reginald Palgrave, K.C.B., and Mr. F. T. Palgrave.]

J. A. H.