George Greig was an ambitious enterprising young man. He was only 23 when he first arrived in the Cape Colony from Scotland, set up shop and appropriated profits to support his business venture as a publisher.
He was described as a man without reforming zeal, and liberal spirit such as that of fellow Scots and newspapermen Thomas Pringle and John Fairbairn. In Thomas Pringle: South African Pioneer, Poet and Abolitionist, Vigne highlights Greig as a determined and radical business decision-maker.
This son of a Pentonville market gardener, would become an unexpected financial boost for the Pringle and Rev. Abraham Faure Louw’s South African Journal. Greig would also go on to identify a gap in the market only to launch the first commercial and independently run newspaper The South African Commercial Advertiser – whose aim was predominantly to publish advertising and business transactions, promote trade and commerce, and improve Agriculture.
When Greig first arrived in the Cape Colony on 9 March 1823, he set about acquiring funds to finance his publishing business ventures. He opened a general dealer at No.1 Longmarket Street, where he traded books, stationery as well as household goods and committed his profits to financing his printing and publishing ventures. At that point, Pringle and Rev. Louw were working on setting up the South African Journal and its prospectus as a proposal to Governor Lord Charles Somerset. Greig helped finance their journal. On 2 December of that year Pringle was summoned by Somerset, abruptly telling him that Lord Bathurst, the colonial secretary, had permitted publication of the proposed magazine on condition that it should contain nothing ‘detrimental to the peace and safety of the Colony’.
While Vigne mentions that Greig was unschooled in the Enlightenment ideals of the late Georgean Edinburgh he did stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of the well-schooled Fairbairn and Pringle and sometimes even above them.
Greig managed to steal the thunder from Pringle and Fairbairn when he discovered through widespread enquiries that though the law expressly forbade unlicenced magazines, the same apparently did not apply to newspapers. He decided to proceed without official permission. By 29 December 1823, less than three weeks after Pringle got the go ahead with their publication, Greig published his prospectus for a weekly paper, the South African Commercial Advertiser.
He sent a copy of his prospectus to Somerset as the governors’ ‘most obedient, very humble servant’, refraining however from formally asking permission (De Kock, 1982:42). He explained that his publication would not write about matters related to the policy and administration of the government of the Colony or any other personal controversy.
When Pringle’s fellow countryman Fairbairn arrived to join him in the Cape Colony, Greig was to build a lasting legacy by appointing the duo – Fairbairn and Pringle editors of the publication The South African Commercial Advertiser, as their South African Journal would close just after publishing two issues because of Pringle’s protest against Somerset.
The South African Commercial Advertiser would be used as the platform to launch independent publishing and pioneer stages of Freedom of the Press.
His Prospectus of 20 December 1823 reveals Greig’s vision about the newspaper – The South African Commercial Advertiser – that was aimed at focusing on predominantly publishing advertising and business transactions, promoting trade and commerce, and improving Agriculture. He edited the first two editions then later invited Pringle and Fairbairn to edit the paper. The two took control of all its editorial writings. Issue No.1 of the Cape’s first independent newspaper appeared on 7 January 1824 and 17 more issues were published, before Greig was to be victimised by the authoritarian Governor Somerset of the Cape Colony whose intention was to clamp down on freedom of the press. Of the eight page newspaper, four were advertisements. The publication became an overnight success welcomed by English mercantile community because it gave them advertising as well as commercial information, and local news contrary to its counterpart The Cape Town Gazette that had limited offerings. After 18 issues, confrontation brewed between the Governor, and the proprietors on the issue of pre-publication censorship. As editors of The South African Commercial Advertiser, the duo published an editorial that declared that “No Government has yet been found capable of resisting, for any protracted period the united voice of Public Opinion.” (MacKenzie, J.M and Dalziel N.R: 2007)
This resulted in Somerset banning the paper and its printing presses sealed – an action familiar to later generations of newspaper proprietors. (Berge: 2004). Somerset would make Greig, Pringle and Fairbairn’s lives a living nightmare, as he attempted to reign them in. He had been after Pringle and Fairbairn’s The South African Journal leading to Pringle refusing to publish under Somerset’s strict conditions.
This would be a battle over years of bannings and persecution, the trio eventually got the British authorities in London to formally grant press freedom to South Africa in 1829. Comments the author Frank Barton: “Thus the principle of press freedom was established in South Africa. It is significant that the battle had been won by a White man who was able to bring influence to bear in the corridors of power of Whitehall.” (Berger: 2004).