William Coates Palgrave, Cape civil servant and diplomatic agent, was the son of William Palgrave and his wife Anne. He came to the Cape Colony early in 1859 to seek relief from tuberculosis. Soon after his arrival he set out on a journey of exploration into the interior, accompanied by a Captain Thompson and Dr W.C. Holden. From Graaff-Reinet (March 1859) they travelled via Kuruman to Shoshong in present Botswana (August), on to Lake Ngami (November) and, after meeting James Chapman*, on to Damaraland in present Namibia, arriving at Otjimbingwe in February 1860. During the next eight years Palgrave remained in northern Namibia as a hunter (he killed 275 elephants during his lifetime), trader and prospecter, though he had little success in finding minerals. With Harry Hartley he bought equipment from C.J. Andersson* in order to search for suitable harbours along the Namibian coast, but became seriously ill on the journey. They were probably the first Europeans to explore and prospect on the skeleton coast, but went bankrupt in 1865. Palgrave then began working the Ebony Mine in Damaraland, but again without success. In 1867 he went big-game hunting and trading in Damaraland with Frederick Green*.
In October 1869 he was appointed as a sub-inspector in the Northern Border Police Force, but resigned in 1871. The next year he was appointed in the administration of Griqualand West, first as magistrate at Du Toit's Pan, then magistrate at Kimberley, and then civil commissioner and resident magistrate at Barkly West. While holding the latter post he was appointed (in 1874) as special commissioner of the Cape government to the Bechuana tribes, and later to the tribes north of the Orange River. In 1876 the Cape government sent him to the territory that is now Namibia to assess its resources and the attitudes of the Damara and Namaqua chiefs to incorporation into the Cape Colony. From Walvis Bay he travelled to Okahandja, Windhoek, Rehoboth, Berseba and Warmbad, and returned to Cape Town overland. This mission resulted in the Report of W. Coates Palgrave, Esq., Special Commissioner to the tribes north of the Orange River, on his mission to Damaraland and Great Namaqualand in 1876 (Cape of Good Hope Parliamentary Reports G50-1877), and an article on "Damaraland and Great Namaqualand" in the Cape Monthly Magazine (1877, Series 2, Vol. 15, pp. 59-64). He was sent on a second mission to the territory later that same year to initiate the settling of white farmers, but the idea did not gain the support of local chiefs. His plan for British annexation of the coastal region of the territory was not carried out, though Walvis Bay and the surrounding region were annexed by the British in March 1878. Returning to Cape Town in January 1879 he was sent on a third mission to the territory in January 1880, but was recalled later that year when war broke out between the Damaras and Hereros. In 1881 he was appointed civil commissioner and resident magistrate at George, a position he still held in 1896, but in November 1884 was again sent on a diplomatic mission to Namibia. Though he obtained a request from the Herero chief Maharero for his tribal land to be placed under the protection of the Cape Colony, nothing was achieved as the whole territory had already been occupied by Germany earlier that year. Palgrave was a capable and energetic man, a skilful diplomat who served the Cape Colony with great dedication. On 11 November 1873 he married Anna Wilhelmina Gilfillan, with whom he had two sons and four daughters.
In 1870, in response to an appeal by L. Dale* for information on the possible contemporary use of stone tools by indigenous people, Palgrave sent him an arrow then still used by Bushmen in the Northern Cape, composed of a reed shaft, a bone link-shaft, and an arrowhead manufactured from quartz crystal. Dale described the implement in an article in the Cape Monthly Magazine in 1870. In 1885 Palgrave presented a collection of insects from Damaraland to the South African Museum in Cape Town. His contribution of a small collection of butterflies from Namaqualand and more from Damaraland was acknowledged by Roland Trimen* in the preface of his book, South African butterflies... (1887-1889). He was an early member of the South African Philosophical Society, but for a few years only.