Palk, Robert (DNB00)


PALK, Sir ROBERT (1717–1798), governor of Madras, was eldest son of Walter Palk, seventh in descent from Henry Palk, who was possessed of Ambrooke, Devonshire, in the time of Henry VII. Robert was born at Ambrooke in December 1717; he was at first intended for the church, took deacon's orders, and proceede to Madras as one of the East India Company's chaplains. He eventually, however, renounced his orders, and entered the civil service. He had by 1753 risen to the rank of member of the Madras council. In June 1753, during the contest for the Carnatic between Chunda Sahib, favoured by the French, and Mahommed Ali, favoured by the English, Palk was deputed envoy to the rajah of Tanjore, and prevailed on that prince to give assistance to the English candidate. In January 1754, after the close of the contest, Palk and Vansittart were the two delegates appointed to discuss terms of settlement with the French agents, Lavaur, Kirjean, and Bausset, at Sadras, a Dutch settlement between Pondicherry and Madras. After an angry discussion of eleven days the conferences were broken off. In April 1754 Palk was again sent to Tanjore, the rajah of which was again wavering, and for a second time succeeded in confirming his allegiance. Peace was eventually signed on 11 Jan. 1755, Mahommed Ali being at last recognised nabob of the Carnatic, and in January 1755 Palk was sent to Arcot with Colonel Stringer Lawrence, with whom he now formed a life-long friendship, to conduct the nabob in triumph to Madras.

In Oct. 1763 George (afterwards baron) Pigot (d. 1777) [q. v.] the governor of Madras, resigned office. He was succeeded by Palk, who found himself called upon to formulate the relations between the English and the Deccan powers. Mahommed Ali had incurred heavy debts to the English, on account of their assistance to him during the past war. He had made cessions of territory and granted assignments on his revenue. But this being insufficient, he endeavoured to augment his income by plundering the weaker princes in or bordering on his own dominions. Palk, while ready to give the nabob any reasonable assistance in maintaining order within his actual boundaries, declined to help him in a policy of aggression. While, therefore, he assisted him to crush the rajah of Madura in October 1764, he protected the ruler of Tanjore, Tuljaji, against him. In spite of many representations from the nabob, Palk refused to sanction an attack on Tulja-ji; and when a dispute arose between the rulers of Tanjore and the Carnatic regarding the right of repairing the great embankment of the Kaveri river, Palk decided in favour of Tanjore. (For Palk's policy regarding Tanjore, see numerous letters in Rous's Appendix, Nos. vi. x. xii. xiii.).

In 1765 Robert, lord Clive [q. v.] obtained a grant from the moghul of the five districts known as the Northern Sircars for the Madras presidency. Colonel Calliaud was therefore sent up from Madras to take possession of them. But the nizam of the Deccan, to whom they had previously belonged, resented the transfer, and invaded the Carnatic with a large army. Palk, alarmed for Madras, hurriedly directed Calliaud to come to terms with the nizam, and on 12 Nov. 1766 a treaty was signed at Hyderabad, by which the company agreed to leave the sircar of Guntur in the hands of the nizam's brother, Basalut Jung, and to pay a tribute of eight lacs a year for the remaining territory. This treaty is reprobated by all historians as a grave act of pusillanimity. The worst article in the treaty, however, was that by which the English promised to give the nizam military assistance ‘to settle the affairs of his government in everything that is right and proper,’ a vague expression which involved the Madras government the following year in the nizam's attack on Hyder Ali, the sultan of Mysore. Palk resigned his governorship, and returned home in January 1767, and it would seem, from Hyder's own words (see Wilks, History of Mysoor), that this enterprise on the part of the English was really due to Mr. Bourchier, Palk's successor.

On his return to England Palk, who had accumulated a large fortune out in India, purchased Haldon House in Devonshire, the former seat of the Chudleigh family, which he greatly enlarged. His old friend, General Lawrence, resided with him, and on his death in 1775 left all his property to Palk's children. In return Palk set up a large monument to Lawrence's memory on Pen Hill, Devonshire. Palk, who took a great interest in political matters, was member for Ashburton, Devonshire, from 1767 to 1768, and from 1774 to 1787. On 19 June 1772 he was created a baronet. He was a tory in sentiment, but resented Lord North's act, passed in 1773, for the regulation of the East India Company, and took up an independent attitude on matters connected with India. The Warren Hastings correspondence in the British Museum contains a large number of letters written by Sir Robert Palk from 1769 to 1782 to Warren Hastings. They are mainly occupied with sketches of current events, but show that Palk strongly supported his friend's interests in parliament and at the East India House. Palk died at Haldon House in May 1798. Palk Strait, which separates Ceylon from India, was named after him.

He married, on 7 Feb. 1761, Anne, daughter of Arthur Vansittart, of Shottesbrook, Berkshire, by whom he had three daughters and one son, named Lawrence, after the family friend, General Lawrence. He was succeeded in the baronetcy by his son Lawrence (d. 1813), M.P. for Devonshire, and Sir Lawrence's grandson, also named Lawrence and for many years M.P., was created, 29 April 1880, Lord Haldon; he died 22 March 1883, and was succeeded by Lawrence Hesketh Palk, the second lord Haldon.

[Histories of India by Marshman and Mill; Wilks's Hist. of Mysoor; Orme's Mil. Trans. in Hindostan; R. O. Cambridge's Account of the War in India 1750–60, London 1761; Cornwallis Corresp.; Rous's Appendix; Hist. and Management of East India Company; Letters from East India Company's Servants; Warren Hastings Corresp.; Polwhele's Hist. of Devonshire; Gent. Mag. 1798, pt. i. p. 445; Betham's Baronetage of England; Burke's Peerage.]

G. P. M-y.