James Y. Gibson, public servant and writer on the Zulu people and their history, came to Natal shortly before the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. He entered the public service of Natal in April 1882 as a clerk and Zulu interpreter in the magistrate's office at Newcastle and subsequently held a variety of appointments: deputy clerk of the peace, Newcastle division (March 1887); assistant commissioner and resident magistrate, Nqutu district (February 1889); resident magistrate at Melmoth (1891), Nongoma (1893) and Ndwandwe district (December 1894); member of the boundary commission for the Usuto and Mandhlagazi tribes in the Black Umfolosi region; chief magistrate, province of Zululand, for the trial of certain treason cases (June 1900); magistrate for the colony, Umvoti division (August 1900); acting master of the supreme court (April 1904 to June 1905); magistrate at Richmond (February 1905), Mahlabatini (May 1906) and Umlazi (July 1911); and additional magistrate at Durban from April 1912 to his retirement in March 1919.
Gibson was an exceptional Zulu linguist and well-informed on Zulu law and customs. In 1903 he wrote one of the first books on Zulu history, The story of the Zulus, with a revised edition appearing in 1911. His second book, The evolution of South African native policy was published in Pietermaritzburg in 1919. After his retirement he regularly contributed items to the press, particularly to the Natal Witness, on Zulu history and policy. He had a quick sense of humour, was well-acquainted with Scots literature, and contributed descriptive verses to a children's book in 1927. He was married to Harriette Augusta Norman, but they had no children.
Gibson's contribution to science consisted of the collection of small marine Crustacea in Durban Bay. His finds were described by G.S. Brady* in Annals of the Natal Museum (Vol. 1, pp. 173-186) in 1907, and in Annals of the Durban Museum for 1914-1917 (Vol. 1, pp. 1-9 and 25-28).