Empire Emigrants: South Africa

By Sunny Jane Morton Premium

From the early 1600s until well into the 1900s, Great Britain reigned over a worldwide empire, stretching from Asia to the Americas to Africa. Maritime trade, colonization and conquest made the crown (and many of its privileged subjects) enormously wealthy and powerful. At its height, the British Empire ruled a quarter of the world.

Millions of subjects of the crown shipped off to far-flung areas of the empire. Some sought better fortunes abroad; even more went under the employ of the government. Others were forcibly exiled in penal colonies.

You may discover ties to these “empire emigrants” in your own family tree — an ancestor’s sibling who went to the Cape of Africa with a British army regiment, or a cousin who was shipped to Tasmania in chains. Start uncovering those connections with our guide to genealogical research in South Africa. 

South Africa
The British weren’t first to colonize South Africa; the Dutch settled Cape Town in 1652. But in 1795, the British began angling for possession. They traded ownership twice before the British won the fort for keeps in 1814. In 1820, 4,000 British immigrants arrived to form the foundation of the English presence in the new Cape Colony, South Africa. At first, the British tried to keep their presence small for financial reasons. Instead of encouraging English immigration, they brought slaves from Indonesia and Madagascar (this practice was abolished around 1838). But eventually the crown began assisting immigration, and about 12,000 settlers arrived mid-century.

British influence gradually expanded out from Cape Colony, then leaped inland when gold and diamonds were discovered about 1869 to 1871. Immigrants flocked to work the mines and support the growing population. Race relations worsened into wars among groups descended from natives and colonists, foremost among them the Boers (descendants of Dutch colonists who moved into the interior to escape the British, today part of the group known as Afrikaners).

In 1910, the Union of South Africa was formed from two British colonies (Cape and Natal) and two Boer republics (Transvaal and Orange Free State), and was under British dominion. Though racial segregation in South Africa began in the 1800s, apartheid took formal hold in 1948 and spurred legal racial discrimination and segregation until the first universal election in 1994.

The four original provinces of South Africa were reorganized into nine provinces in 1994. Provincial records have yet to be totally redistributed, and funding problems can lead to slow (or no) response when you write to archives. We recommend you start your search with the many microfilmed and internet resources.

The national archives in South Africa offers a searchable online catalog of collections held nationwide and provides repository and source codes so you can request the right documents. But the archives rarely responds to requests, so consider hiring a local genealogist to get copies for you — look to the Genealogical Institute of South Africa or the South African Genealogy Researchers List

Early British colonists who arrived at the Eastern Cape in 1820 aboard 60 different ships are well documented. Find out more at the 1820 Settlers website and Ancestry24

  • Church records: Church records are the go-to source for British colonial vital statistics before about 1870. The earliest English settlers in the Cape were recorded in Dutch Reformed Church records; Anglican Church records start in 1806. Other Christian faiths followed: Methodists (1816), Presbyterians (1824) and Catholics (1837). In these genealogically holy books, you’ll find records of baptisms, marriages and burials. Original church records are scattered: Find them at parish (local) offices or in other archives, and at Ancestry24, arguably the best data website for South African genealogists.
  • Civil registration: Colonial provinces began keeping civil records at different times. In the Cape, marriages were recorded as early as 1700, but most civil vital records don’t appear until after 1868. The Department of Home Affairs houses birth, marriage and death records but isn’t open to the public. Birth records more than 100 years old and marriage and death registers from more than 20 years ago are accessible to US residents by request through South African consulates (find one at It isn’t expensive to order them, but it takes forever to get a response. Consider hiring a local researcher to get the document for you or searching subscription databases first. (When requesting vital records, always request the unabridged or “vault” version rather than the abridged one.)

    Death notices and certificates are worth defining: The deceased’s next-of-kin informed the Master of the Supreme Court via a death notice if estate papers had to be opened. A death certificate was a different document issued by a doctor or coroner, beginning in 1895.

  • Burial records: Cemetery records and gravestone transcriptions can give amazing — and often sobering — insight into life and death. A cemetery’s record for a single plot may list many family members, including stillborn children. Poor friends who couldn’t afford a plot or stone might be buried there, too (but likely weren’t listed on tombstones). Comparing burial records to grave markers and to other records can provide additional clues. Stillborn children were listed in burial records (often without specifying them as such) but not on tombstones. Death notices weren’t given for stillborn children, either.

    The cemetery or town council office often holds cemetery records. But the Genealogical Society of South Africa has undertaken the “monumental” Cemetery Recording Project to document every grave in the country.

  • Property records: Property ownership information can help you better understand your family. Land records from the deeds offices throughout South Africa confirm parcel ownership, property appearance and prices paid. In Cape Town, where slavery was legal until 1838, slave ownership records also appear in the deeds office. Estate papers were opened upon the deaths of those with significant property. The Master of the Supreme Court generated estate files with the death notice, will and paperwork detailing the settling of the estate. Estates settled since the mid-1900s are generally still in the master’s office; look to provincial archives for earlier records.

After this whirlwind tour of the British Empire, you may be wondering which direction to navigate first — especially if you’re not sure where your relative went after leaving the British Isles. The answer is the same whenever you start researching any new line: Go back to your home sources and follow your best leads one at a time until you finally find your far-flung kin.

Tracking Natives
British colonists, of course, weren’t arriving in unpopulated places. Genealogical resources on people native to the colonies depend on their record-keeping traditions. European inclusion of indigenous people in colonial records is spotty, especially in earlier years. Here are some places to start researching natives:

Get more details in Records at a Glance: South Africa.

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From the March 2011 Family Tree Magazine.