James G Robertson (1854 –1900): The world’s first black rugby player

James G Robertson is widely thought of as the world’s first black rugby player but very little is known about his journey into the game.

Born in Gambia in 1854, his father was Scottish surgeon Dr Daniel Robertson who dedicated his life to working in the West African country, rising to become colonial secretary in 1849. There is no record of Daniel Robertson marrying and it is believed he had two sons with a Gambian woman – James George, and his brother John, who was born three years later.

Aged seven, James arrived in Scotland to continue his education where he boarded in Crieff before joining his father and brother in St Andrews. He attended Madras College but there is no record of what sports he played.

Rugby did not quite resemble the game it is today. In fact, there were various forms of rugby being played – teams of 20 players with 15-man scrums going on for minutes at a time.

Inter-club games started taking off regularly in the 1860s but there were no concise laws, with games often being halted while captains and umpires argued over decisions. The disputes and mix-ups could not continue and in 1868, the Laws of Football as played by the Principal Clubs in Scotland rule booklet was produced – commonly known as the Green Book. Interestingly, the Scottish Football Union, which was formed in 1873, only changed their name to Scottish Rugby Union in 1924.

How James G Robertson was introduced to this new game is unclear, but his interest started at university. He attended Edinburgh where he read medicine before switching to Glasgow, but he chose to play for Royal High School Former Pupils, one of the Scottish Rugby Union’s founding teams.

A team picture from 1871 shows him standing between Angus Buchanan and Alexander Petrie. Both played in the first-ever international game in the same year when Scotland played England, with Buchanan having the honour of scoring the first-ever international try.

Robertson, who played in the forwards, featured in a total of 46 games for Royal High School FP and also represented Edinburgh four times against Glasgow.

Robertson left Edinburgh University in 1876 with a medical degree and moved to County Durham. He continued to play rugby for Northumberland club, based in Gateshead, captaining the side for four years from 1879.

Records show he married Emily Joel in 1879 and had three sons and a daughter. In 1894, the family moved to Ashwell in Hertfordshire where he was the village doctor and heavily involved in the tennis and cricket clubs.

But Robertson died unexpectedly in 1900, aged 46, and was buried in St Mary’s Churchyard where some 300 mourners came to pay their respects.

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