1902 Encyclopedia > Edward Henry Palmer

Edward Henry Palmer
English Orientalist and secret agent

EDWARD HENRY PALMER (1840-1882), Orientalist, was born at Cambridge, August 7, 1840. He lost his parents when he was a mere child, and was then brought up by an aunt. As a schoolboy he showed the characteristic bent of his mind by picking up the Romany tongue and a great familiarity with the inner life of the Gipsies. He was not, however, remarkably bookish, and from school was sent to London as a clerk in the City. Palmer disliked this life, and varied it by learning French and Italian, mainly by frequenting the society of foreigners wherever he could find it. He had a peculiar gift for making himself at home with all manner of strange people, which served him throughout life, and was as effective with Orientals as with Europeans. His linguistic faculty was in fact only one side of a great power of sympathetic imitation. He learned always from men rather than from books, and by throwing his whole flexible personality into unison with those from whom he was learning. In 1859 Palmer returned to Cambridge, apparently dying of consumption. He had an almost miraculous recovery, and in 1860, while he was thinking of a new start in life, fell in at Cambridge with a certain Sayyid Abdullah, a teacher of Eastern languages. Under his influence he resolved to give himself to Oriental studies, in which he made very rapid progress. He now attracted the notice of two fellows of St John's College, became an undergraduate there, and in 1867 was elected a fellow on the ground of his attainments, especially in Persian and Hindustani. He was soon engaged to join the survey of Sinai, and followed up this work in 1870 by exploring the Wilderness of the Wandering along with Drake. After a visit to Palestine and the Lebanon he returned to England in 1870, and next year published his Desert of the Exodus. In the close of the year 1871 he became Lord Almoner's Professor of Arabic at Cambridge, married, and settled down to teaching work. Unhappily his affairs were somewhat straitened, mainly through the long illness of his wife, whom he lost in 1878 ; he was obliged to use his pen for Oriental and other work in a way that did not do full justice to his talents, and at length he became absorbed in journalism. In 1881, two years after his second marriage, he finally left Cambridge and ceased to teach. In the following year he was asked by the Government to go to the East and assist the Egyptian expedition by his knowledge and his great influence over the Arabs of the desert Al-Trh. It was a hazardous task, but Palmer rightly judged that he could not refuse his country a service which no one else was able to render. He went to Gaza, and without an escort made his way safely through the desert to Suez—an exploit of singular boldness, which gave the highest proof of his capacity for dealing with the Bedouins. From Suez he was again sent into the desert with Captain Gill, to procure camels and do other service of a very dangerous kind, and on this journey he and his companion were attacked and murdered (August 1882). Their remains were recovered after the war, and now lie in St Paul's Cathedral.

Palmer's highest qualities appeared in his travels, especially in the heroic adventures of his last journeys. His brilliant scholarship is also seen to advantage in what he wrote in Persian and other Eastern languages, but not so much so in his English books, which were generally written under pressure. His scholarship was wholly Eastern iu character, and lacked the critical qualities of the modern school of Oriental learning in Europe. All his works show a great linguistic range and very versatile talent; but he was cut off before he was able to leave any permanent literary monument worthy of his powers. His chief writings are The Desert of the Exodus, 1871; Poems of Belui ed Din (Ar. and Eng., 2 vols.), 1876-77; Arabic Grammar, 1877; History of Jerusalem, 1871 (by Brsant and Palmer—the latter wrote the part taken from Arabic sources); Persian Dictionary, 1876, and English and Persian Dictionary (posthumous, 1883); translation of the Qu'ran (unsatisfactory), 1880. He also did good service in editing the Name Lists of the Palestine Exploration.

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