Obituary for Gifford Palgrave from The Athenaeum

(No. 3181, October 13, 1888, pp. 483-84.)

NOTE: photograph not part of original notice.

Mr. W. Gifford Palgrave.

Last week we recorded with much sadness the death (at Monte Video on the 30th of September) of Mr. William Gifford Palgrave, Minister Resident and Consul-General to the Republic of Uruguay. We have said with much sadness, for that must always be the feeling experienced in recording the end of a career which, though distinguished, has not attained the full development of its early promise. Certainly those who knew Gifford Palgrave's special qualifications would not have expected that a man with such complete command over Eastern matters would have ended his days as official representative of the British Government in South America. Such, however, is the irony of fate. To go back to the early days of the subject of our memoir, W. G. Palgrave--the second son of the late Sir Francis Palgrave, K.H. and Elizabeth Turner, one of the daughters of Mr. Dawson Turner, a banker of Great Yarmouth--was born at 22, Parliament Street, Westminster, on January 24th, 1826. With his three brothers (of whom the eldest is Francis Palgrave, now Poetry Professor at Oxford, the third is Inglis Palgrave, F.R.S., and the fourth is Reginald Palgrave, now Clerk of the House of Commons), Gifford Palgrave was educated at the Charterhouse, then occupying its original site near Smithfield, and under the head-mastership of Dr. Saunders afterwards Dean of Peterborough. At school, as before he went to it, Gifford Palgrave showed signs of unusual ability. Among other honours he won the school gold medal for classical verse, and proceded to Trinity College, Oxford, where he obtained a scholarship, graduating First Class Lit. Hum., Second Class Math., 1846, his devotion to the college boat probably having prevented him from attaining equal honours in both schools.

The East by this time had opened its attractions to him. He went straight from college to India, and served for a time in the 8th Regiment, Bombay Native Infantry, H.I.C. Shortly after this he became a Roman Catholic, was ordained a priest, and joined the order of the Jesuits, working with much energy as a missionary in Southern India. Eventually returning westward, he continued his labours in Syria, and accumulated that vast fund of knoweldge of Arabic and Eastern lore which rendered him an almost unequaled master of these subjects. It was his intimated acquaintance, not only with Arab literature, but with eastern life and thought, that led to his being, in 1862 and 1863, employed by the late Emperor of the French in that dangerous journey of exploration in Central and Eastern Arabia that gave the opportunity for the publication of the history of his adventures, a narrative which placed him at once among the best-known and most distinguished of eastern travellers. The two volumes, 'Central and Eastern Arabia,' have become such familiar acquaintances in many English families that it is scarcely needful to reproduce here the thread of the narrative. The scene which describes his appearance in the garb and character of an Arab doctor; the ingenuity with which he traced out the habits of life of his patients before he would undertake their treatment; the courage with which he proceeded to Riad, the capital of Nejed, the centre of Wahabee power and fanaticism, thought provided with a treacherous letter of supposed safe-conduct, the intention of which was to commend him at once to the executioner; the skill with which he baffled his foes; the flight from Riad; the shipwreck on the coast near Muscat, in the Sea of Oman--all these and many more thrilling incidents have made the two volumes in which they are described among the most popular books of travel of the day. Nor is the interest in them confined to the story of the journey. They are full of brilliant passages containing stores of information on Eastern life and Eastern history. The Wahabee sect, their mode of life, their government, the very country they lived in--all these and much more were set before the eyes, we may say without hyperbole, of the European public in a manner which never had been thought of. About the time of the publication of these volumes Gifford Palgrave separated himself from the Jesuit body. Soon after he entered the diplomatic service of the English Government, and was appointed consul at Soukhoum Kale in 1866, and moved to Trebizond in 1867. In 1868 he married Katherine, the daughter of George Edward Simpson, of Norwich, by whom he has left three sons. He was appointed consul at St. Thomas and St. Croix 1873, Manila 1876, and in 1878 in Bulgaria, where he was appointed Consul-General. In 1879 he was moved to Bangkok. The climate of Siam told heavily on his health, much undermined by many hardships and dangerous adventure. In 1884 he was appointed to be Minister Resident at Consul-General to Uruguay.

Besides his great work on 'Central Arabia' Gifford Palgrave published a volume of 'Essays on eastern Questions,' full of the varied information he had gathered during many years of wandering and study--for with him the two occupations, observation and thought, were ever combined. 'Hermann Agha,' an Eastern narrative, followed, and a very interesting sketch of 'Dutch Guiana.' The last published volume, 'Ulysses,' a series of brilliant essays the subjects of which were provided by the varied scenes he had travelled through, is sufficiently described by its name. It is understood that he was engaged up to the time of his death on another work of great and varied interest, in the preparation of which he had taken a special pleasure, and it is hoped that this was sufficiently advanced to admit of publication.

A word or two from the writings of a man enables us to realize him sometimes more vividly than any description. It is beyond the power of anyone to place before the reader the brilliant conversation, the vigorous power of description, the vast funds of erudition and of anecdote, the quickness of affection, the vivid personality, which marked Gifford Palgrave. The poems at the close of the story of 'Hermann Agha' give perhaps as close an insight into the character of the writer as any short quotation from his works, owing to their power of observation, their tone of merriment not unmixed with sadness, their warmth of feeling:--

After years; From the never of those years, From the waste whose dews are tears, Thus we pluck the evermore Of the sunlight Eden shore,-- After years.