Abrahams' father was from Ethiopia and his mother was classified by South Africa as a mixed-race person, a "Kleurling" or Coloured. He was born in Vrededorp, a suburb of Johannesburg, but left South Africa in 1939. He worked first as a sailor, and then as a journalist in London.
Hoping to make his way as a writer, he faced considerable challenges as a South African, as Carol Polsgrove has shown in her history, Ending British Rule: Writers in a Common Cause (2009). Despite a manuscript reader's recommendation against publication, in 1942 Allen and Unwin brought out his Dark Testament, made up mostly of pieces he had carried with him from South Africa. Publisher Dorothy Crisp published his novels Song of the City (1945) and Mine Boy (1946). According to Nigerian scholar Kolawole Ogungbesan, Mine Boy became "the first African novel written in English to attract international attention." More books followed with publication in Britain and the United States: two novels --The Path of Thunder (1948) and Wild Conquest (1950); a journalistic account of a return journey to Africa, Return to Goli (1953); and a memoir, Tell Freedom (1954).
While in London, Abrahams lived with his wife Daphne at Loughton. He met several important black leaders and writers, including George Padmore, a leading figure in the Pan-African community there, Kwame Nkrumah of the Gold Coast and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, both later heads of state of their respective countries. In 1956, Abrahams published a roman à clef about the political community of which he had been a part in London: A Wreath for Udomo. His main character, "Michael Udomo", who returns from London to his African country to preside over its transformation into an independent, industrial nation, appeared to be modeled chiefly on Nkrumah with a hint of Kenyatta. Other identifiable fictionalized figures included George Padmore. The novel concluded with Udomo's murder. Published the year before Nkrumah took the reins of independent Ghana, A Wreath for Udomo was not an optimistic forecast of Africa's future.
One of South Africa's most prominent writers, his work deals with political and social issues, especially with racism. His novel Mine Boy (1946), one of the first works to bring him to critical attention, and his memoir Tell Freedom (1954) deal in part with apartheid. His other works include the story collection Dark Testament (1942) and the novels The Path of Thunder (1948), A Wreath for Udomo (1956), A Night of Their Own (1965), the Jamaica-set This Island Now (1966, the only one of his novels not set in Africa) and The View from Coyaba (1985). He also wrote This Island Now, which speaks to the ways power and money can change most people's perspectives.
- Dark Testament (1942)
- Song of the City (1945) 179p, novel, published by Dorothy Crisp & Co Ltd London
- Mine Boy (1946) published by Dorothy Crisp & Co Ltd London - his seminal novel, the first author to bring the horrific reality of South Africa's apartheid system of racial discrimination to international attention.
- The Path of Thunder (1948)
- Wild Conquest (1950)
- Return to Goli (1953)
- Tell Freedom (1954)
- A Wreath for Udomo (1956)
- A Night of Their Own (1965)
- This Island Now (1966)
- The View from Coyaba (1985)
- The Black Experience in the 20th Century: An Autobiography and Meditation (2000)
Music inspired by his works
- The ballet İldırımlı yollarla ("The Path of Thunder") (1958) by the Azerbaijani composer Gara Garayev.
- Carol Polsgrove, Ending British Rule in Africa: Writers in a Common Cause (2009), pp. 61, 76, 83.
- Carol Polsgrove, Ending British Rule, p. 133.
- Larson, Charles R. (1 March 2002). "Self-Exile From Wretchedness : South African novelist Peter Abrahams left his homeland amid the horrors of apartheid and resettled in Jamaica.". World and I (News World Communications, Inc).
- Thomas, Cornelius (29 October 1999). "The pen is mightier". Daily Dispatch.
- Jackson, Sally-Anne (22 December 2007). "Peter Abrahams's Mine Boy: a study of colonial diseases in South Africa". Research in African Literatures.
- Tymieniecka, Anna-Teresa, ed. (2007). "Temporality in Life as Seen Through Literature". Analecta Husserliana. Analecta Husserliana 86 (Springer Netherlands). pp. 37–46. doi:10.1007/1-4020-5331-2. ISBN 978-1-4020-5330-6
- Mason, Philip (January 1955). "Review". International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs) 31 (1): 93–94. JSTOR 2604615.