This article was originally published in Familia, journal of the Ulster Historical Foundation (volume 2, no. 7, 1991). Published annually.

The Irish in South Africa

The Police, A Case Study

by Donal P. McCracken, University of Durban-Westville

Nineteenth-century South Africa did not attract mass Irish migration, but Irish communities were to be found in Cape town, port Elizabeth, Kimberley, and Johannesburg, with smaller communities in Pretoria, Barberton, Durban and East London. As one would expect, a fair number of those in British colonial service in the sub-continent were Irish. A third of the Cape's governors were Irish, as were many of the judges and politicians. Both the Cape Colony and the colony of Natal had Irish prime ministers: Sir Thomas Upington, "The Afrikaner from Cork"; and Sir Albert Hime, from Kilcoole in County Wicklow. Place names such as Upington, Porteville, Caledon, Cradock, sir Henry Lowry's Pass, the Biggarsberg Mountains, Donnybrook and Belfast reflect Irish impact on the development of the subcontinent.1

One of the reasons for the prominence of the Irish was the fact that, while a few in numbers, they tended to be concentrated in specific occupations. Excluding the Irish administrators who could be found in any part of the British Empire, there were several professions and trades in South Africa which attracted the Irish.

There were the professional men: the lawyers, dentists and doctors. Though part of middle-class society in the colonies, they retained their attachment to Ireland There were the Irish Catholic priests, led initially by the Wexford-born Bishop Griffith, and especially strong in Eastern Cape. There were the retailers, their profession dominated by Ulster Protestant-owned chain stores such as John Orr, William Cuthbert and R. H. Henderson - well-known names even today.2 Irish journalists worked on major newspapers and often edited them, the most important being Frederick St. Leger, founder and editor of the Cape Times. In the 1890's the railways and the diamond and gold mines absorbed numbers of Irishmen as well. And finally there were the Irish in British Colonial police forces.

Two salient points emerge from any study of police work in South Africa in the colonial period before 1910. The first is the extraordinary number of police forces which existed. We find borough forces in towns such as Ladysmith and Kimberley. Durban had its own Water Police, which contained many Irishmen.3 The Natal Government Railways also had their own police force. The situation was complicated by the multitude of political divisions in southern Africa. There was the Cape Colony, which contained the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape, British Kaffraria and later Griqualand West and the Transkei. There were British Bechuanaland, British Basutoland, the land of the British South Africa Company. In south-eastern Africa Natal and Zululand had their own police forces.4 And finally there were the Boer Republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal, both of which survived until 1901. Little is known of the composition of the early Transvaal police but interestingly enough it was Fermanagh journalist, Andrew Trimble, who helped found the Republic's detective force in 1894.5

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