South African ancestors

This guide was last updated in 2010

Whether they came to seek a better life as early settlers, to mine gold and diamonds later, or fought in the wars, Heather MacAlister explains how to find South African ancestors.

Since the occupation of the British in 1795, South Africa’s Cape Province has attracted settlers from all corners of the United Kingdom.

Thousands of British troops were garrisoned at the Cape during the first and second British occupation. Many of the soldiers married here, and while their military records will not be found in South Africa, a lot of other details pertaining to their families will.

For instance, you can find records of baptisms, marriages and burials at the local English churches. The registers for the Garrison church at the Castle are housed in the National Archives at Cape Town and are a major source for these records. Other Anglican churches near to military camps and naval bases include St John’s in Wynberg, St George’s and St Francis in Simon’s Town.

South Africa’s long relationship with the British Navy provided the coastal towns of South Africa with a large influx of British seamen and sailors, who perhaps married local girls and settled in the country, or died here after long and treacherous voyages.

In 1820, the first groups of settlers from Great Britain and Ireland arrived under a scheme by the British Government to protect the Cape by forming a barrier against the advancing tribes on the eastern frontier. These settlers formed the backbone of present-day English-speaking South Africans.

Shortly after they arrived, the colonial powers in England made an industry of the export of its children. These youngsters were generally from poor and disadvantaged families. The Friends Society sent hundreds of children, varying in age from as young as three years old, to work as apprentices for merchants, farmers and in private homes at the Cape to better their future.

Between 1856 and 1873, immigrants came to South Africa from England in their tens of thousands. Most of them were drawn by the promise of work on the expanding harbours and extensive railways systems.

From 1870 onwards, emigration to the colony peaked following the discovery of gold and diamonds, with miners from Cornwall and other parts of England descending in droves to seek their fortunes.

Many of these families never returned to England, leaving disjointed and separated families back home. A large proportion of the relatives they left behind lost contact completely with their loved ones – that is, until recently. With online accessibility of records increasing, descendants of these families are now able to renew those long-lost ties.

The late 1800s saw an influx of immigrants, who came to work on the large-scale operation to construct roads in the region. This was mainly undertaken by British engineers and labourers. 

During the Second World War, many British sailors were based in Cape Town and also married into the local community, as did the South African men conscripted into British regiments, never to return home.

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