March 2009

by Reginald Smith

South Africa has had a fascinating and often tragic history with many groups such as the various African nations of Zulus or Xhosas, the Afrikaaners, English, Coloureds, South Asians, and many others contributing to its story. Though any story of Blacks in South Africa would focus mostly on its Black citizens—the Black African majority and the Coloureds, at one time there was a small but influential Black American and West Indian community in the country.

black-sailorsEarly photo of African-American sailors

In the late 19th and early 20th century, male West Indians and Black Americans turned to the harsh job of seamen in order to escape grinding poverty and discrimination at home. Traveling the seas they naturally came to many ports, one of which was the large city of Cape Town, South Africa. Here was an English-speaking city with well-paying jobs for seamen and port stevedores, and while color prejudice existed, it had not yet been completely closed off to foreign Blacks by immigration restrictions and apartheid.

According to source (1), the 1904 Cape Town census listed 438 ‘Coloured’ West Indians, 93 American Blacks and another 96 Blacks with unspecified origins. Most foreign English speaking Blacks were termed ‘sea kaffirs’ or ‘American Negroes’ and the largest of their number were from the British West Indies, in particular British Guyana, Jamaica, and Barbados. Many were drawn to the town by a Trinidadian dock labor recruiter in South Africa named James Wilson.

capetown-waterfrontHistorical photo of the Cape Town waterfront taken early 1900’s

Another route Blacks from America came to South Africa was as missionaries, particularly through the National Baptist Convention and the African Methodist Episcopal Church (2). In 1894, two Black Baptist missionaries, the Rev. R. A. Jackson and the Rev. Joseph I. Buchanan landed in Cape Town to start missions. Later missionaries expanded their reach throughout South Africa, even into the hinterlands and the Boer Republics and what is now Lesotho, Zambia, and Botswana. The fiery Henry McNeal Turner who toured much of South Africa for several weeks including the Orange Free State and was received by the Boer President Paul Kruger, who he spoke respectfully of despite condemning the prejudice against local Africans. His writings on his trip in part excoriate Blacks back in America for using skin whiteners and hair straighteners remarking on the beauty of local African women who had “no desire” for such things. Other Black Americans and West Indians came to South Africa to seek their fortune in the Transvaal gold rush, though there is no indication any of them were successful.

x4-photosabove: Henry McNeal Turner, Paul Kruger, Jacobus Xaba, Missionary church in Cape Town

Many Black South Africans also left to become expats in the USA to study at universities or seminaries building links with the Black community in the USA. For example, two Xhosa reverends in the Ethiopian Church in South Africa, James Dwane and Jacobus Xaba, traveled to the US to help cement a merge with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Though many of the immigrants to South Africa and Cape Town in particular were only temporary visitors, many settled down in the city and became prosperous. According to (1), Guyana native Timothy Robertson owned a farm, a grocery, and several rental properties in Parow, a rural village outside of Cape Town. Arturo Emile Wattlington from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands was the city’s first Black postman, owned property and a store (where he sold Black American newspapers like the Chicago Defender) and sent his two sons to study in America. A Black American, Andrew Jackson, was able to send his son to medical school in Edinburgh and his son later returned to have a thriving practice as the city’s only Black doctor.


One of the more notable traits of the expat Black community of Cape Town was its political activism. Many of the Blacks were very active in politics espousing the views first of Booker T. Washington and his program of self-help and education and later being the main conduit for the Pan-Africanist philosophy of Marcus Garvey (see photo on left). So much so, that the American and West Indian Black populations became synonymous with the “destabilizing” Garveyism in the eyes of the White population of the city. In fact, outside of the US and the Caribbean, South Africa had more branches of the Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) than anywhere else in the globe with eight chapters in Cape Town alone. The UNIA publication Negro World was brought by Black seamen and later distributed across South Africa and even into Mozambique.

This active political thrust along with the growing segregationist sentiment in South Africa helped spell the decline and near end for the Black American/West Indian community in the country. In 1903, Cape Town government officials complained that West Indian dock workers spread ‘notions of combination and cooperation amongst the disparate ethnic groups’ and in 1910 the legal status of American Blacks, formerly treated as honorary Whites in a legal sense, was restricted. In 1915, the immigration of American Blacks and West Indians was banned and under assault from increasing legal restrictions and racial prejudice, many began to leave the country or stay in America after their studies. Also, almost all the immigrants, who were predominantly men, married local Coloured women and their children grew up as part of South Africa’s Coloured population. Some did stay until their death including Timothy Robertson who was allowed to remain in the White area of Cape Town even after Apartheid by authorities until his death.

waterfrnttablemtn3Loaded wagons leaving the Cape Town waterfront docks with view of Table Mountain in the background

The story of American Blacks in South Africa did not end here, however. Many American Blacks were actively involved in the anti-apartheid struggle and subsequently forged links with South Africa. After the fall of apartheid, many emigrated there, an echo of the previous emigration and became prosperous like their forebears. This story is well-told and documented by Stafford U. Bailey’s outstanding documentary Blacks Without Borders. Available for purchase and shown for a limited time on Showtime. Check it out at the website here:

Further Reading on American and West Indian Blacks in early 20th century South Africa:

(1) Vinson, Robert Trent, “’Sea Kaffirs’: ‘American Negroes’ and the gospel of Garveyism in early twentieth-century Cape Town”, Journal of African History, 47,  pp. 281–303, 2006.
(2) Fierce, Milfred C., “Black American leaders and organizations and South Africa, 1900-1977: Some Notes”, Journal of Black Studies, 17, No. 3, pp. 305-326, 1987.
(3) Cobley, Alan Gregor, “’Far from Home’: The origins and significance of the Afro-Caribbean community in South Africa to 1930”, Journal of Southern African Studies, 18, No. 2, pp. 349-370, 1992.
Photo credits: Black sailors: From Honolulu Star Bulletin courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum, Cape Town historical photos courtesy of, Rev. Jacobus G. Xaba: courtesy of University Library, University of North Carolina, from Wikipedia: Henry McNeil Turner – user  William Avery, Paul Kruger 1898 -user Doormont,  Marcus Garvey – U.S. Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection.

»Return back to 2009 Issue Archives

Comments Closed

Comments are closed.

window.google_analytics_uacct = "UA-1050041-14";