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 [Part 2]

by Donal P. McCracken, University of Durban-Westville

The two major British colonies of South Africa were the Cape of Good Hope, British since 1806, and Natal, taken from the Boers in 1842. Both regions proved to be a security problem for the British, who held them essentially to protect their route to India. Three wars were fought against the Dutch and the Boers, who had been at the Cape since 1652. In addition, seven wars were fought against the Xhosas on the Eastern Cape frontier, one major war was fought against the Zulus; and several African insurrections had to be dealt with by the British authorities in Natal.

Nineteenth-century South Africa was militarily not very stable for the British and, not surprisingly, permanent British garrisons were stationed in Natal and the Cape. Six Irish regiments served in South Africa before the second Anglo-Boer war: 6th Dragoons (Inniskillings); 8th Lancers (King's Royal Irish); 27th Foot, 83rd Foot; 86th Foot; and 88th Foot (Connaught Rangers).6

But despite this sizeable military presence, the settler population, especially in the Eastern Cape around Grahamstown and in Natal, was ever nervous of an African uprising or of a Boer invasion from the Transvaal Republic. There was also the problem of crime, especially cattle rustling, and the magistrates needed their own armed units to impose justice in the African areas and to collect the 'Native Hut Tax'. The obvious solution was to form small, disciplined, armed and mounted paramilitary police units.

At first, police units were under individual magistrates or a field cornet. The first sizeable police unit that could be called a force in South Africa was the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police Force, set up in the Eastern Cape in 1855. So militarily orientated was this force that in 1878 it changed its name to the Cape Mounted Riflemen. How many Irishmen were in the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police is not known but names such as O'Brien, O'Donnell, Kavanagh, McBride and Reilly appear in the early enrolment books.7

Other police forces existed for varying periods. There were the Griqualand West Police, the Piquetberg District Mounted Police Force, the Mashonaland Constabulary, the British South African Police and the Bechuanaland Border Police. In the 1870s in the Cape there was a Special Rinderpest Police unit and in 1902 a temporary Natal Border Police was set up, centred in Vryheid. But the two largest police forces were the Cape Police and the Natal Police.

The Cape Police was raised in 1882 and had headquarters at King William's Town, Kimberley and Cape Town. In March 1904 its name was changed to the Cape Mounted Police (CM?), with its headquarters at Cape Town and 22 smaller divisions. It ceased to exist in 1913.8 The Natal Police, later the Natal Mounted Police (NMP), was raised in 1874 following an African insurrection by Chief Langalibalele. The first commandant was Major John Dartnell of the 27th (Inniskillings), and the first enrolled trooper was Edward Babington of Londonderry. Initially the force mustered 50 whites and 150 Africans. By 1885 the roll-call was 300 whites and 25 Africans. In 1913 the NMP was converted into the 2nd and 3rd Regiments of the South African Mounted Riflemen. Policework passed to the new South African Police.9

The records of the CMP and the NMP are incomplete so exact figures of the Irish component cannot be given. Sixty-five boxes of CMP enrolment forms survive in the Cape Archives in Cape Town and 16 books of NMP records in the Natal Archives in Pietermaritzburg. These surviving records mainly refer to the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century. From them 634 Irishmen have been identified in the CMP and 376 in the NMP, making a total of just over 1,000 men. As these police forces were not large - NMP never had more than 300 whites - so the Irish constituted a sizeable proportion of the men, perhaps a quarter of the CMP and maybe more in the NMP.

The average age of new Irish recruits in the CMP was quite high at 24 and a half years old. This is explained by the fact that some 45% were already living in South Africa for less than one year and 28% were recruited directly in Ireland. Men joining from Ireland had their third-class fare on a Union Castle liner paid for them by the police.

Recruits, who at first had to buy their own horse, were paid six shillings a day. They had to be over 5'6", with a chest of 34" or more, weighing 175 pounds and aged between 18 and 30. Pay was not very good. They signed up for three years but could, and did, often purchase their discharge at a rate of 15 during the first year, 10 during the second and 5 in the last year.

Both the NMP and the CMP were very cosmopolitan. There were to be found in their ranks Canadians, Americans, Australians, Germans, Russians, Norwegians and Anglo-Egyptians, as well as those from the British Isles and local South African recruits. The last of these included a number of men who called themselves 'colonial Irish', that is born fn South Africa of Irish parents. The police forces attracted a cross-section of Victorian society. The occupations given by new Irish recruits included: doctors, engineers, accountants, a large number of clerks, grooms, telegraphists, labourers, miners, commercial travellers, porters, waiters, firemen, shop assistants, farriers, lawyers, men terming themselves 'gentlemen', barmen, a circus artist and a divinity student from Tipperary. But the largest groups, comprising 60% of the Irish in the CMP, were either former military or Royal Irish Constabulary men, or farmers and sons of farmers, both categories deemed capable of riding a horse and shooting straight. There was a high proportion of middle-class and skilled Irishmen in both police forces: in the CMP only 6% of the Irish were unskilled and in the NMP a mere 4%. This reflects the fact that destitute Irish migrants tended to ignore South Africa.

None the less these police forces reflected Irish society in that the main occupational and social divisions of late Victorian Ireland were represented. There were even a few Gaelic Irish speakers in the CMP. But perhaps more interesting than that was the religious breakdown of the Irish troopers in the police, a reflection of the general pattern of Irish society in southern Africa at the time. Of those Irishmen who stated their religion when they enrolled, 60% were Protestant from all parts of Ireland and 40% were Catholic. In the CMP, of the Irish Protestants 65% belonged to the Church of Ireland and 35% were nonconformists, mostly Presbyterians.

There was one Irish Jew. In the early part of the nineteenth-century Irish Catholics had far exceeded Irish Protestants in South Africa. This was partly due to the fact that 96% of the Irish who came out with the 1820 British settlers were Catholic, and partly due to the British army's practice of discharging time-expired soldiers at the Cape to save the expense of shipping them home to Ireland.10 But the Irish who came out to South Africa during the first half of the nineteenth century were not popular in English-speaking society. Finally, in 1860, all assisted Irish immigration to the Cape was halted. From then on any Irish person who wanted to come to the Cape had to pay a full fare. That made emigrating to South Africa a far more expensive proposition than taking an assisted passage to Australia or north America, where, in any case, the Irish were well entrenched, with family and cultural networks firmly established. In 1876 the Cape Town Daily News noted:

"We are afraid we could not induce the Irish labouring classes to come to this colony in anything like sufficient numbers. They know nothing of it beyond having a dim idea that it is associated with Kaffir wars; but they know all about America and Australia, or think they do, having heard them talked about from their infancy by those who had friends there."

Thus South Africa was bypassed by the great waves of post-famine Irish migrants. In 1904 there were about 20,000 Irish-born people living in South Africa, though there were many more of Irish descent.11 But those who did come to South Africa are of interest, for they tended to be either the better off, hence the higher proportion of Irish Protestants than would be found in Australia or the USA, or they were strong and adventurous. The two Irish commandos which fought for the Boers in the second Anglo-Boer war are famous12, but there had been previous Irish commandos in the subcontinent as well as Irish revolutionaries, big-game hunters and explorers.


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