Samuel Pasfield Oliver

Birth: 1838


Samuel Pasfield Oliver (1838-1907) was an English geographer and antiquary. He was born at Bovinger, Essex, on 30 Oct. 1838, was eldest and only surviving son of William Macjanley Oliver, rector of Bovinger, by his wife Jane Weldon. He entered Eton in 1853, and after passing through the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, he received a commission in the royal artillery on 1 April 1859. In the following year he went out with his battery to China, where hostilities had been renewed owing to the attempt of the Chinese to prevent Sir Frederick Bruce], the British envoy, from proceeding up the Pei-ho. Peace was however signed at Peking soon after Oliver's arrival (24 Oct. 1860), and his service was confined to garrison duty at Canton.

On the establishment of a British embassy at Peking in 1861 he accompanied General Sir John Michel] on a visit to the capital, and subsequently made a tour through Japan. In the following year he was transferred to Mauritius, and thence he proceeded with Major-general Johnstone on a mission to Madagascar to congratulate King Radama II on his accession. He spent some months exploring the island, and witnessed the king's coronation at Antananarivo (23 Sept.). A second brief visit to the island followed in June 1863, when Oliver, on receipt of the news of King Radama's assassination, was again despatched to Madagascar on board H.M.S. Rapid.

The history and ethnology of the island interested him, and he devoted himself subsequently to a close study of them. On his return to Mauritius he studied with attention the flora and fauna of the Mascarene islands. In 1864 the volcanic eruption on the island of Reunion gave him the opportunity of recording some interesting geological phenomena. A curious drawing by Oliver of a stream of lava tumbling over a cliff was reproduced in Professor John Wesley Judd's 'Volcanoes, what they are and what they teach' (1881).

Oliver returned to England with his battery in 1865. But his love of adventure would not allow him to settle down to routine work. In 1867 he joined Captain Pym's exploring expedition to Central America. A route was cut and levelled across Nicaragua from Monkey Point to Port Realejo; and it was anticipated that this route might be more practicable than that projected by M. de Lesseps for the Panama canal. At a meeting of the British Association at Dundee on 5 Sept. 1867 Oliver read a paper in support of this view on 'Two Routes through Nicaragua.' His descriptive diary of this journey, 'Rambles of a Gunner through Nicaragua' (privately printed, 1879), was subsequently embodied in a larger volume of vivacious reminiscences, entitled 'On and Off Duty' (1881).

Archaeology now seriously engaged Oliver's attention. From Guernsey, where he was appointed adjutant in 1868, he visited Brittany, and drew up a valuable report on the prehistoric remains at Carnac and other sites (Proc. Ethnological Sac. 1871). In 1872 a tour in the Mediterranean resulted in some first-hand archaeological observations in Asia Minor, Greece, and Sardinia, published as 'Nuragghi Sardi, and other Non-Historic Stone Structures of the Mediterranean' (Dublin, 1875). Meanwhile Oliver, who had been promoted captain in 1871, was appointed superintendent of fortifications on the Cornish coast in 1873, and there devoted his leisure to elucidating the history of two Cornish castles, 'Pendennis and St. Mawes' (Truro, 1875).'

After serving on the staff of the intelligence branch of the quartermaster-general's department he was sent to St. Helena on garrison duty. There he resumed his botanical studies, and made a valuable collection of ferns, which he presented to the Royal Gardens, Kew. Impatience of professional routine induced Oliver to resign his commission in 1878. For a time he acted as special artist and correspondent of 'The Illustrated London News' in Cyprus and Syria. But his health had been seriously affected by his travels in malarial countries, and he soon settled down to literary pursuits at home, first at Gosport and later at Worthing. The value of Oliver's work both as explorer and as antiquary was generally recognised. He was elected F.R.G.S. in 1866, became fellow of the Ethnological Society in 1869, and F.S.A. in 1874. He died at Worthing on 31 July 1907, and was buried at Findon. He married on 10 Sept. 1863 at Port Louis, Mauritius, Clara Georgina, second daughter of Frederic Mylius Dick, by whom he had five sons and four daughters.

Oliver's versatile interests prevented him from sichieving eminence in any one subject. But his sympathetic volumes descriptive of Malagasy life remain the standard English authority on the subject. In 1866 he published 'Madagascar and the Malagasy,' a diary of his first visit to the island, which he illustrated with some spirited sketches. This was followed by an ethnological study in French, 'Les Hovas et les autres tribus caracteristiques de Madagascar' (Guernsey, 1869). In 'The True Story of the French Dispute in Madagascar' (1885) Oliver passed adverse criticisms on the treatment of the Malagasy by the French colonial officials. Finally his two volumes on 'Madagascar' (1886), based on authentic native and European sources, give a detailed and comprehensive account of the island, its history, and its inhabitants.

Oliver also edited:

1. 'Madagascar, or Robert Drury's Journal,' 1890.

2. 'The Voyage of Frangois Leguat,' 1891 (Hakluyt Society).

3. 'The Memoirs and Travels of Mauritius Augustus Count de Benyowsky,' 1893.

4. 'The Voyages made by the Sieur Dubois,' 1897 (translation).

In addition to these works he assisted in the preparation of 'The Life of Sir Charles MacGregor,' published by his widow in 1888, and from the notes and documents collected by Sir Charles MacGregor he compiled the abridged official account of 'The Second Afghan War, 1878-80' (posthumous, 1908). 'The Life of Philibert Commerson,' which appeared posthumously in 1909, was edited with a short memoir of Oliver by Mr. G. F. Scott Elliot. To this Dictionary he contributed the articles on François Leguat and Sir Charles MacGregor.

[Memoir of Capt. Oliver prefixed to the Life of Philibert Commerson, 1909; S. P. Oliver, On and Off Duty, 1881; Athenaeum, 17 Aug. 1907; Worthing Gazette, 14 Aug. 1907; private information from Miss Ofiver.]


Gabriel Stanley Woods, Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement. pgs. 44-45

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