John Paterson (Cape politician)

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John ("Jock") Paterson, businessman and influential politician.

John ("Jock") Paterson (1822 – 1880) was a prominent politician and successful businessman of the Cape Colony, and had a great influence on the development of Port Elizabeth where he was based. He ran newspapers, established the Grey Institute and founded South Africa's Standard Bank. As a politician he was somewhat less successful, playing a role in the failed separatist movement for the Eastern Cape in the 1870s and backing Carnarvon’s ill-fated confederation plan.

Early life and business ventures[edit]

Born and raised in Aberdeen, Scotland, Paterson emigrated to Port Elizabeth in 1841 to take up a position as a school master. Later he successfully persuaded Sir George Grey, then the Governor of the Cape Colony, to take an interest in his proposals for new boys schools and Grey made land and funding available to Paterson for their founding.[1]

On 7 May 1845, he secretly started his first business, the Eastern Province Herald newspaper, with his partner John Phillip as the official owner. As he was still contracted by the state this was an illegal activity so his involvement remained clandestine. After the two men fought, Paterson stopped publication and later sold the newspaper in 1857 to his friend Robert Godlonton who owned the Grahamstown Journal. Philip opened the competing Port Elizabeth Mercury newspaper.[2]

Paterson was however already a successful businessman. He had a life-long interest in boys schools, and founded several in his life, including Grey High School, an elite school for boys in Port Elizabeth that he founded in 1856. In 1862 he started Standard Bank, now one of the largest banks in southern Africa.[3][4]

Political career[edit]

Eastern Cape Separatist League[edit]

In 1854 he was elected to the first Cape Parliament as one of the two members for Port Elizabeth (together with Henry Fancourt White). From the beginning of his political career he made the secession of the eastern part of the Cape Colony a priority. He felt very strongly that the Xhosa people of the eastern Cape frontier were a severe threat to the colonists' safety and that this threat was not helped by the Cape government's relaxed attitude to the frontier.[5] The Cape Town parliament at the time was also dominated by liberals such as Saul Solomon who prevented the settlers of the eastern Cape from cheaply exploiting African labour. Deprived of cheap African labour, Paterson then moved a resolution to import indentured "coolie labour" from Asia to work the farms instead, but the government blocked that motion too. Altogether, Paterson felt that the distant and overly-tolerant Cape government was"...the root of all the troubles with the kaffirs..."[6] and that secession for the white eastern Cape was the only solution.

His leadership of the "separatist league" brought him into a direct showdown with the strong-willed Prime Minister of the Cape, John Molteno – a firm proponent of regional and racial unity in the Cape[7] – who reacted in May 1874 by passing the Seven Circles Act. This re-drew the borders of the Cape’s subdivisions, abolishing the last legal remnants of the East/West distinction. Together with Molteno's policy of drawing ministers from the Eastern Cape into his government, and the general rising prosperity of the whole country, this effectively crushed the separatist movement. Paterson fought the Bill bitterly, but nonetheless kept his seat in parliament as a member of the opposition once it was passed.[8] He went on to become the primary critic of the Molteno Ministry over the following years, even when the official head of the opposition John X. Merriman joined Molteno's unity government.

Not always popular, Paterson's views, and especially the way in which he delivered them, often provoked considerable hostility in parliament.[9] This all too frequently left him isolated and unable to do more than temporarily obstruct government projects.[10]

Enforcement of Confederation[edit]

Starting in 1874, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Carnarvon, having recently federated Canada, began a project to impose the very same system of confederation on the very different states of southern Africa.[11]

John Molteno, Cape Prime Minister and Paterson's lifelong political opponent.

There was little local enthusiasm for the project, and its timing was particularly unfortunate – coming when the various southern African states were still simmering after the last bout of British imperial expansion. However Carnarvon was determined, and appointed Henry Bartle Frere – an autocratic imperialist with little experience of southern African politics – as governor, with instructions to implement Carnarvon's confederation. Molteno turned the confederation idea down flat, saying it was impractical and badly timed, but Paterson saw an opportunity to ensure that his eastern province gained autonomy (albeit within the proposed confederation), and that he himself could win the position of leading it. In a series of letters between him and Carnarvon (The Confederation Despatch, 1876), Paterson discreetly offered the British Colonial Office his support against the Molteno government in exchange for vague promises of a future leadership position.[12] When Molteno, by now furious with Paterson for what he saw as a betrayal of the Cape's independence and democracy, made it clear that he was willing to resign but not to endorse confederation, Frere used the authority of the British Colonial Office to suspend the elected Cape government and assumed direct control in 1878 (appointing Gordon Sprigg as his puppet Prime Minister, instead of Paterson who was at the time considered too divisive a politician for the job). Paterson, disappointed, then travelled to London as a representative of the potential new Eastern Province, while Frere launched his invasion of Zululand in 1879 before being recalled to London to face charges of misconduct.

The confederation scheme was dropped, having by now spawned a trail of wars across southern Africa – including new frontier wars against the Xhosa and the Pedi people, the Anglo-Zulu war, the Basuto Gun War and later the First Boer War.


Paterson died suspiciously on his way back to the Cape in May 1880 in a bizarre double-shipwreck. The ship he was travelling on, the Union R.M.S. American was dramatically wrecked when its propeller-shaft snapped, bent and tore open part of the ship's plating. The passengers evacuated the ship in an ordered way before it sank but, adrift in the Atlantic ocean, the lifeboats became separated. The passengers were all later found and rescued. However, Paterson's lifeboat was separately picked up by the Senegal which then ran aground on the African coast. In the chaos following this second shipwreck, Paterson was reported to have been struck by a hard object (reportedly the ship's propeller) and killed. He was the only casualty from the two shipwrecks.[13][14][15]

Upon news of Paterson's death, flags across the Cape were flown at half mast. His obituary in the Cape Argus, while acknowledging the political controversy and hostility he sometimes caused, paid tribute to his zeal for what he believed to be right, and to his enormous achievements. The village of Paterson in the Eastern Cape, South Africa was named after him.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "History of Grey Highschool". 
  2. ^ "History of the Eastern Cape Herald Newspaper and John Paterson". 
  3. ^ "Standard Bank. History" (PDF). 
  4. ^ "The Worlds Top Banks. Standard Bank". 
  5. ^ Wilmot 1897, p. Vol 1:pp 142, 227.
  6. ^ Walker 1929, p. 381.
  7. ^ Molteno 1900, p. 214.
  8. ^ Walker 1929, pp. 488.
  9. ^ Wilmot 1897, p. Vol 2:p 125.
  10. ^ Henry & Siepmann 1963.
  11. ^ Illustrated History of South Africa. The Reader's Digest Association South Africa (Pty) Ltd, 1992. ISBN 0-947008-90-X. p.182, "Confederation from the Barrel of a Gun"
  12. ^ "The History of South Africa from 1795 to 1846". 
  13. ^ Wilmot 1897, p. Vol 2:p 124.
  14. ^
  15. ^ "Shipwrecks. The Paterson family". 
  16. ^ "Paterson, Eastern Cape". 
Political offices
New title Representative of Port Elizabeth
1854 – 1857
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Representative of Port Elizabeth
1873 – 1879
Succeeded by