E.H. Palmer: the College's own Lawrence of Arabia

E.H. Palmer in Arab robes
E.H. Palmer in Arab robes

It would appear that Cambridgeshire fens and flatlands aren't all that far from the deserts of the Middle East. In the late 19th century, Edward Henry Palmer a college fellow and Orientalist travelled to the region on three separate occasions before finally meeting his death there.  

A native of Cambridge, Edward Henry Palmer went on to trek through the deserts of Syria, Palestine and the Sinai. He was a natural linguist and picked up Romany as a schoolboy at the Perse School. Palmer was proficient in a number of European languages and demonstrated a unique aptitude for Eastern languages – a skill which eventually led to his death.

In 1862, the College offered Palmer a sizarship and scholarship.  Whilst undertaking his undergraduate degree he worked on catalogues of the Arabic and Persian manuscripts in King’s and Trinity Libraries as well as those in the University Library.  He was elected to the College fellowship in 1867.

Palmer made his first journey to the Middle East in 1868 when he was invited to join the Sinai Survey Expedition as the team’s ‘resident’ scholar.  This trip provided him with a familiarity of the desert and an affinity with the Arab tribes who lived in it.

He returned to the region a year later to explore the Desert of the Wanderings on foot. Palmer and his partner Tyrwhitt Drake (with the financial support of the Palestine Exploration Fund and the University of Cambridge) trekked from the Suez through the desert to Jerusalem. Their only escort were the men who owned and drove the pair’s camels.  It was on this journey that Palmer was given the name Sheikh Abdullah by the Arab tribesmen he met.

Early in 1882 Palmer was asked by the government to return to the region and assist the British Egyptian expedition by using his influence over the Arab tribes in the El-Tih desert. He was instructed, apparently, to prevent the Arab sheikhs from joining the Egyptian rebels and to secure their non-interference with the Suez Canal.Palmer travelled to Gaza alone and made his way safely through the desert to Suez to successfully negotiate with the Bedouin on behalf of the British government.

Following his success with the Bedouin, Palmer was appointed interpreter-in-chief to the British force in Egypt, and from Suez he was again sent into the desert. This time he travelled with Captain William Gill and Flag-Lieutenant Harold Charrington. This was to be a mission behind ‘enemy lines’ and it is unclear exactly what their actual orders were.  Some sources indicate that Gill was meant to sabotage the telegraph wire to Constantinople while Palmer was asked to either gain the support of the Sinai tribes or hire camels - or maybe both.

On 8 August, the three men and their escorts headed out Suez with a significant quantity of gold but they were not heard from again after leaving Uyun Musa (Moses’ Springs) a mere 15 miles from their departure point.

It was only following the defeat of the Egyptian ‘rebels’ at Tel el-Kebir that the fate of Palmer and his party drew the attention of the British government and public.  The Foreign Office arranged for a rescue party but before it could be dispatched to the region Colonel Charles Warren located the remains of Palmer and the others in his group. It was assumed that the group’s guides had turned on them and killed them.  Palmer was shot and the others were either shot or run-through by sword trying to escape their assassins by fleeing down a 50-foot cliff.  

The remains of Palmer, Gill and Charrington were transported back to England and interred with full military honors in St Paul's Cathedral.

Read Palmer's obituary in The Eagle (Lent 1883) - scroll  down to p. 262.

Read a review of Walter Besant's biography of Palmer in The Eagle (Michaelmas 1883) - scroll down to p. 18.

The Library holds Palmer's notebooks and scrapbook in its Special Collections.

Below is a letter in the Archive Collection related to Palmer:

Letter to Master from Palmer
First page of a letter from Palmer to the Master regarding a Persian translation
Second page of letter to the Master from Palmer
Second page of the same letter from Palmer
Final page of letter to Master from Palmer
Final page of letter

To see more of Palmer's collection in the Archive Centre please contact the Archivist.