James Perrin, lexicographer, Zulu linguist and naturalist, worked with the American missionary Josiah Tyler among the Zulus at Esidumbeni [not identified] in the colony of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) from 1850. Under the supervision of his friend, bishop J.W. Colenso, he compiled the first Zulu-English dictionary on the basis of the Zulu vocabularies drawn up by various missionaries (London, 1855, 166p). It was, however, limited in scope. That same year he also published an English-Zulu dictionary (Pietermaritzburg, 1855, 225p), which was of a much higher standard. Later editions of the latter, revised by others, appeared from 1865 to 1912. Perrin was originally a member of the Anglican Church, but following an ecclesiastical quarrel with bishop Colenso he became a Baptist.
During the eighteen-sixties and until at least 1872 Perrin resided in Pietermaritzburg, where he showed an interest in horticulture. In 1864 he was a member of a two-person corresponding committee (in Pietermaritzburg) of the Natal Agricultural and Horticultural Society, Durban. That year the Pietermaritzburg Horticultural Society was established. Perrin served as its honorary secretary (1865-1867) and later as treasurer (1869-1870). From 1866 to 1869 he furthermore served on the management committee of the Natal Society (established in 1851). James Perrin and others were thanked for presenting plants and seeds to the Natal Botanic Gardens, Durban, during 1867, in the annual report of the Curator, M.J. McKen*. By 1872 Perrin was employed as clerk to the secretary of native affairs of Natal, in Pietermaritzburg.
Later in life Perrin wrote descriptions of most of the species of snakes then known to occur in Natal. These were first published in the Natal Witness in seven parts, then as a pamphlet entitled The snakes of Natal (Durban, 1878?, 16p), and also in the Natal almanac for 1879 (pp. 127-141).