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Professor Edward Henry Palmer, 1840-1882

E.H. Palmer In his biography of Edward Palmer, the Palestine Exploration Fund’s Secretary, Sir Walter Besant, described the secret mission that led to his friend’s death in the Sinai as “an exploit without parallel in the heroic deeds of all the ages”. What chain of events marked out such a fate?

Image: E.H. Palmer photographed with fellow members of the PEF’s Sinai Survey, 1869.  Click on image for group shot (PEF, P4991;  OSS.Vol.1.1).

Edward Henry Palmer was born in Green Street, Cambridge where his father ran a small private school. He was orphaned at an early age and brought up by an aunt. He had an undistinguished career at the Perse School but learnt to speak Romany from local Gypsies in his spare time. After leaving school, he worked as a clerk in a firm of London wine merchants. Out of office hours, he continued to indulge a taste for adventure: he mastered various Italian and French dialects by meeting foreign nationals in London drinking dens, and becoming, says Besant, “an ardent partisan of Italian unity”. He also “acquired somehow… a curious knowledge and admiration of the French police and detective system.” During this time, he struck up an enduring friendship with the actor Henry Irving and developed an interest in mesmerism and conjuring.

Aged 19, he was told he had consumption and given only months to live. He returned to Cambridge to put his affairs in order but experienced a miraculous recovery.  An interest in dramatics almost led to him becoming a professional actor but he soon became absorbed in the study of Persian, Urdu and Arabic and came to the attention of the University authorities. He was enrolled as an undergraduate at St John’s College, Cambridge in 1863. Although he graduated in 1867 with only a Third in Classics, he was immediately elected to a fellowship at St John’s on the strength of his expertise in Oriental languages. The son of the Maharajah of Oudh was one of his benefactors.

An application to the British Embassy in Iran for the position of attaché and interpreter in 1867 was unsuccessful but the next year, he accompanied the Palestine Exploration Fund’s Sinai Survey (1869) led by Captain Charles Wilson as its Arabic language expert. Despite his history of ill health and apparent physical frailty, Palmer flourished in the desert environment, and added the Bedouin dialects to his already impressive linguistic achievements. Back in England, he at once volunteered to return to the Sinai for the PEF to survey the Wilderness of Tih with Charles Tyrwhitt Drake (1869-1870). Travelling on foot for up to 16 hours a day, with four camels to carry their provisions, instruments and camera equipment, the pair covered 600 miles, later visiting Jerusalem, Hebron and Petra before riding north to Damascus, where they stayed with the Consul, Captain Richard Burton. Palmer returned to London via Constantinople and Vienna.

Back in England, he was named the Lord Almoner Professorship of Arabic, Cambridge, which allowed him to marry. His wife died in 1878 after a long illness, and he re-married the following year. There were two daughters of the first marriage.

Palmer produced both works of scholarship and books for the general public. He edited with Walter Besant the Palestine Exploration Fund’s Survey of Western Palestine, transliterated and edited over 10,000 Arabic and English place names (Conder et al. 1881, 1881-1883), and wrote Desert of the Exodus about his Sinai expedition with Tyrwhitt Drake (Palmer 1871a, 1871b).  For the popular market he co-authored a book on Jerusalem with Walter Besant (1871).  Palmer did not take part in further Palestine Exploration Fund expeditions, yet remained an active member of the Fund. He also published an Arabic grammar and Persian dictionary, an edition of the poems of Baha eddin Zoheir and a partial translation of the Quran. Two years before his death wrote a life of the Abbasid Caliph Haroun al-Rashid. He also published a Persian translation of the New Testament as well as translations of Gypsy and Finnish songs. In 1873, he acted as interpreter for the Shah of Iran during the latter’s visit to Britain, which was some compensation for his earlier failed attempt at a diplomatic career.

For several years he lived in London, writing lead articles for The Standard newspaper. In the summer of 1882, weeks before the British invasion of Egypt, he was invited into the Admiralty, the government department responsible for secret service operations. A mission behind enemy lines was proposed and Palmer accepted. The first part involved a reconnaissance journey from Gaza across north Sinai in disguise. Arriving in Port Said, he was briefly chief interpreter to the Her Majesty’s Forces in Egypt. With Captain Gill, R.E. and Lieutenant Charrington, R.N., he then set out again for the interior of the peninsular. There is some confusion as to their exact orders. It seems Gill was meant to cut the telegraph wire to Constantinople while Palmer was tasked with either gaining the support of the Sinai tribes or hiring camels for transport (or both). The party headed south from Suez with a large quantity of gold sovereigns on 8 August but nothing more was heard from them after leaving Uyun Musa ("Moses' Springs"), 15 miles away.

After the British victory over the Egyptian rebels at Tel el-Kebir, the fate of Palmer and his party became a matter of public concern. The anti-imperialist Wilfrid Blunt led a press campaign calling for an organized search expedition. Captain Richard Burton, now consul in Trieste, was summoned by the Foreign Office to help look for the men. Before he arrived, however, Colonel Charles Warren, who had surveyed Jerusalem for the Palestine Exploration Fund, had located their remains in Wadi Sudr, 30 miles inland from Ras Sudr on the Gulf of Suez. The men they had trusted as their guides had killed them on 11 August. In his last moments on earth when he realized what was about to happen, Palmer had rounded eloquently on the traitors with the most fear-inspiring curses in the Arabic language. But to no avail. Palmer was the first to be shot. The others in the party tried to escape down a 50-foot cliff but were either gunned down or dispatched with the sword.

The remains of Palmer, Gill and Charrington were brought back to England and interred with full military honours in St. Paul’s Cathedral alongside the nation’s most revered heroes.  Over a decade later, a fuller account of the search for Palmer appeared in Man-Hunting in the Desert (Haynes 1984). Besant’s foreword includes a cryptic passage: “Things are known -- I do not speak of things connected with his instructions, his powers or the government -- which are not easy to prove yet are very well known to a few. It is sufficient here to say that the real murderers of this scholar and of the two gallant officers who fell with him were not the wretched men who were rightly hanged for being the tools but others.”  The “others” have never been publicly named. Palmer’s diary remains lost.

Published on the PEF website, 13th May 2011

Related publications
Baigent, E. 2004.  Palmer, Edward Henry (1840-1882). Dictionary of National Biography (online edition). Accessed February 2011.
Besant, Sir W. 1883. The Life and Achievements of Edward Henry Palmer. London
Besant, W. & Palmer, E.H. 1871 (1888, 1908) Jerusalem, the city of Herod and Saladin. London
Burton, R.F. & Tyrwhitt Drake, C.F.T. 1872. Unexplored Syria. London
Conder, C.R., Kitchener, Earl H.H. & Palmer, E.H., 1881. The survey of western Palestine: Arabic and English name lists. London: Palestine Exploration Fund
Conder, C.R., Kitchener, Earl H.H. & Palmer, E.H., & Besant, Sir.W. 1881-1883. The survey of western Palestine: memoirs of the topography, orography, hydrography and archaeology. London: Palestine Exploration Fund
Davies, G.I. 2004. Fresh Evidence on E.H. Palmer's Travels from Cambridge Libraries, in C. McCarthy and J.F. Healey (eds.), Biblical and Near Eastern Essays: Studies in Honour of Kevin J. Cathcart. London: T.&T. Clark, pp. 331-40
Haynes, A.E. 1894. Man-Hunting in the Desert, a narrative of the Palmer search-expedition 1882, 1883.  London
Palmer, E.H. 1871a (reprinted 1977). Desert of the Exodus: Journeys on Foot in the Wilderness of the Forty Years’ Wanderings. Cambridge: Deighton, Bell & Co.
Palmer, E.H. 1871b. ‘The Desert of Tih and the Country of Moab’.  Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement 3.1: 3-76.

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