Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Percival, Robert

PERCIVAL, ROBERT (1765–1826), traveller and writer, was born in 1765, became a captain in the 18th Irish infantry regiment, and held this position until he embarked in 1795, in the fleet, commanded by Elphinstone, that was despatched for the conquest of the Cape of Good Hope, then held by the Dutch. Percival disembarked at the Cape, in Simon's Bay, and was entrusted by General Sir James Henry Craig [q. v.] with the duty of attacking the Dutch in the defile of Muisenberg, and in the strong post of Wyneberg. He succeeded in both undertakings, and the Dutch fleet sent, under Admiral Lucas (August 1796), to the help of the colony was captured. Following up this victory, Percival was the first to enter Cape Town (16 Sept. 1796), and there he remained till 1797. On his return he published a narrative of his journey and a description of the country, under the title: ‘An Account of the Cape of Good Hope, containing an Historical View of its original Settlement by the Dutch, and a Sketch of its Geography, Productions, the Manners and Customs of its Inhabitants,’ &c., London, 1804. This was translated into French by J. F. Henry, Paris, 1806. Percival's work, though rather thin, is not uninteresting, and was warmly praised at the time. His criticisms of the Dutch settlers and especially of their cruelty to the natives, their laziness, inhospitality, and low civilisation, are severe. But he commends the Cape climate as the finest in the world, and advises the home government, who had just restored the province by the treaty of Amiens, to reoccupy it.

In 1797 he also visited Ceylon, where he speaks of residing three years, and of which he wrote and published a description: ‘An Account of Ceylon, with the Journal of an Embassy to the Court of Candy,’ London, 1803. In this he notices the effects of the Portuguese and Dutch rule, which looked (especially the former) as if it ‘tried to counteract as much as possible the natural advantages of the island.’ He gives various instances of Dutch cruelty and treachery, and attempts to characterise three classes of ‘natives’—the Cingalese of the coast, the Candians of the interior, and the Malays. The pearl fishery, the town and forts of Colombo, the salt works of the island, the staple commodity of cinnamon, above all, the inland capital of Candy, are noticed in other chapters. Sydney Smith declared the work to ‘abound with curious and important information.’ Percival died in 1826.

[Percival's Account of Ceylon and of Cape of Good Hope; Notices of his works in the Edinburgh Review and London Annual; Walkenaer's Collection des Voyages, xvii. 56–71.]

C. R. B.