The sugar merchant who attempted to take hordes of poor Irish families to a fresh life in South Africa

Two hundred years ago, a Cork City sugar merchant attempted to take hordes of poor Irish families to a fresh life in a land of plenty, in South Africa. But things didn’t quite work out as planned, explains Robert Hume

The sugar merchant who attempted to take hordes of poor Irish families to a fresh life in South Africa

Two hundred years ago, a Cork City sugar merchant attempted to take hordes of poor Irish families to a fresh life in a land of plenty, in South Africa. But things didn’t quite work out as planned, explains Robert Hume

During the 19th century, government emigration schemes reduced the number of poor at home and offered a labour force to the colonies. Enticed by prospects abroad, thousands of people signed up to try their luck in the USA, Canada, and Australia, and, to a lesser extent, in New Zealand and South Africa.

Bold designs

William Parker, a 42 year-old sugar merchant from Passage West, a married man and father to six children, devised what he called an “arduous enterprise” to transport to the Cape of Good Hope 500 destitute labourers from the “waste bog” lands of Ireland, “helpless” widows, and orphans of seamen, who had become a “burthen to themselves and a dead weight on society.”

Using what M.D Nash (The Settler Handbook, 1987) describes as “outrageous impertinence and importunity,” Parker boasted “considerable commercial, nautical, and agricultural experience.” He obtained the backing of Charles Grant, secretary for Ireland, and of Sir Nicholas Colthurst, MP for Cork, and even dared approach the Prince Regent himself for approval.

The Colonial Department was keen to allocate a substantial share of the emigration grant to relieve poverty in Ireland, and having considered Parker’s request, granted permission for him to take 100 Irish families. Dissatisfied with this response, Parker bombarded the department with letters, and made a series of personal visits, in which he demanded 500 hammocks, seven-and-a-half tons of old sails, and a full supply of arms and ammunition (including 200 horse pistols, 100 cavalry swords, and 100,000 musket balls). All these items were refused.

By late October 1819, the Cork man had not yet provided a detailed list of the party, as he was required to do, and was informed that his place was at risk, there being many other applicants, “perfectly prepared and equally anxious” to go.

A motley crew... and passenger list

In mid-November 1819, he finally submitted his list. The Colonial Department was furious: nearly two-thirds of his prospective settlers were not from Ireland at all, but from London, and had already been turned down. They accused him of hastily collecting together a group of people “of whom you can know but little.”

After Parker’s belated payment of the deposit money, in late December 1819, 48 London families arrived in Deptford to board the East Indian, Captain Archibald Hogg’s sailing ship, bound for Ireland.

At Cork, Parker and his nephew embarked, together with 26 other Irish families. Ten of the passengers were small farmers — all capable of paying their own deposits, and a world apart from the “starving and emaciated” souls Parker had proposed.

On February 12, 1820 the East Indian finally sailed for the Cape, its passengers comprising but a few of the four thousand settlers emigrating to South Africa that year.

Trouble ahead

Quarrels erupted immediately on the ship, and Parker drew up a list of complaints against several men and women, including the Rev. Francis McCleland, the official clergyman who was accompanying the emigrants. The behaviour of would-be missionary and governess, Elizabeth Coyle, so riled him that he tried to get her certified insane.

New Cork

When the emigrants ventured ashore at the Cape, Parker was offered a “semi-desert” area in Drog Valley, Clanwilliam, which he flatly rejected.

Instead, he demanded land in Saldanha Bay, where he planned to build the harbour city of New Cork. When his request was turned down, he was convinced that sectarianism lay behind the decision of the Catholic colonial secretary to refuse him, a Protestant.

Next, Parker reiterated earlier demands to be appointed superintendent of the town of Knysna and colonel of the militia. When offered neither, he started making threats. “This Individual is suffering under a degree of mental derangement,” declared Acting Cape Governor, Sir Rufane Donkin.

Sir Rufane Donkin
Sir Rufane Donkin

Parker shunned taking any further responsibility for the party, which began to split and elect new leaders.

Only six families remained in Drog Valley. Thirty-one familes, led by shoemaker William Scanlan, and “gentlemen” Joseph Latham and David Francis, moved east to Albany; others trekked south to Cape Town — some 120 miles away — to look for work. The Irish settlers scattered themselves across the Cape, and evidence of their farms can still be seen today, in names such as ‘Home Rule’, ‘Kildare’, ‘Dromore’, and ‘The Dargle’.

A broken and disillusioned man, Parker was offered, and accepted, a free passage back home in 1822. The Colonial Department and governor breathed a sigh of relief. But it was to be short-lived. The Cork sugar merchant now began a hate campaign in print and in parliament, against both of them.

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