Charles J.R. Saunders, civil servant and diplomat of Natal Colony and Zululand, was the eldest son of James R. Saunders and his wife Katherine Saunders* (née Wheelwright). He was educated at the school of the Hermannsburg (Hanoverian) Mission Society and also privately. In November 1876 he joined the civil service of Natal as a clerk of the court and Zulu interpreter to the magistrate of Alexandria County and subsequently held various appointments in the civil service to 1887. In September 1887, following the British annexation of Zululand, he was sent to ratify a treaty with Queen Regent Zambili of Amatongaland (north of Zululand). In July 1889 he served on a commission to define the boundary between Zululand and Amatongaland. Meanwhile he had been appointed in the civil service of Zululand as resident magistrate at Eshowe (then the territory's capital) from January 1888, and from November that year also as justice of the peace for Zululand, holding these posts to 1895. In that year he was charged with the annexation and arrangements for the administration of Amatongaland. For this work he was honoured as a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG, 1895). By this time he had become the senior colonial official in Zululand.
Saunders was one of the early regular collectors of plants in Zululand, though motivated to do so mainly by his mother. He often sent her plants to paint and, under pressure from her, presented specimens also to Kew Gardens and to H. Bolus* in Cape Town, including some new species. Two of these were named after him, namely Dermatobotrys saundersii by Bolus and Pachypodium saundersii by N.E. Brown*. The species Angraecum maudiae was named by H. Bolus after Saunders's first wife, Emily Maud Eastwood, whom he had married in 1885. He later married Catherine Elinor Eastwood and had a total of eight children. One of the Ladies Saunders was commemorated in the name of a land snail, Curvella saundersae, or Lady Saunders's curvella, by Major M. Connoly in 1910.
Saunders was a reserved and uncommunicative man, but had an outstanding knowledge of the Zulu language and culture, which proved valuable in his work. In December 1897, following the incorporation of Zululand into Natal Colony, he became chief magistrate and civil commissioner for Zululand. In 1902, just after the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), he served on the Zululand Lands Delimitation Commission, set up to investigate land ownership and land use. Following the commission's report the coastal plain was designated for European settlement. For this and other work he was raised to a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in 1906. The next year he retired to his farm at Melmoth.