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KS3/4 History: Sanders of the River (1935)

Explore British colonial attitudes towards Africa in the 1930s.

Main image of KS3/4 History: Sanders of the River (1935)
AuthorRakesh Pathak, Felsted School
TopicBritish Empire
Key WordsEmpire, Africa, imperialism
Show full lesson spec

An Alexander Korda film depicting the relationship between a colonial administrator, Sanders, and African chiefs including Bosambo and Mofalaba.

A useful film for looking at British colonial attitudes at a point in time when the British ruling class had not yet accepted the inevitability of decolonisation in Africa.

This lesson idea uses the film as the starting point for considering British attitudes towards subject peoples of the Empire during the 1930s by getting students to watch the extract and make inferences and deductions. Students are then asked to question why Paul Robseon (who plays Bosambo) later disowned his part in the film and evaluate Sanders's assessment of the benefits of British rule. In the final part of the lesson students are encouraged to either support or challenge Sanders's viewpoint with evidence of their own.

This lesson would work well as one of the final lessons in a unit on the British Empire so that students have a solid contextual understanding of the topic.

Lesson Objective

To consider the following questions:

  • What does Sanders of the River reveal about British attitudes towards Africans during the 1930s?
  • To what extent do you agree with Sanders's assessment of the benefits of British rule?


Divide students into small groups to discuss the following questions after watching the second extract Sanders and Bosambo:

  • How are the Africans being treated in this extract (it may even be worth pausing the film at the moment the African chiefs are lined up, to drive home the point that they are being infantilised)?
  • What kind of attitude does Sanders seem to have towards Africans?
  • According to Sanders, what are the benefits of British colonial rule?

A spokesperson from each group can then report back within the context of a brief whole-class discussion. The third question, in particular, will provide a grounding for the main lesson task.


Main Attraction

Explain to your students that Paul Robeson (playing the part of Bosambo) later disowned the film and vowed never to work with Alexander Korda again. Why do students think that Robseon might have taken such a step? If time allows, encourage them to write a short statement from Robeson, in which he justifies his decision to a public audience. A selection of these statements can then be read to develop students' understanding of how 'Sanders of the River' (and by implication, the British Empire itself) can be criticised.

Now it's time to look at these different interpretations of Empire in a little more detail. Divide the class in half, asking half your students to argue in support of Sanders's belief in the positive role of Empire, the other half challenging his faith in the benefits of British imperial rule. Students could perhaps work in small groups to generate a list of evidence to support their particular interpretation, using their own contextual knowledge as well as independent research based on the resources you have available (some useful websites are listed below).


End Credits

Finish the lesson with a whole-class debate, based around the focus question:

  • To what extent do you agree with Sanders's assessment of the benefits of British rule?

Encourage students to respond to others' ideas while collecting their ideas in two separate lists on the board. At the end of the debate, perhaps take a class vote on the question or ask students to evaluate how strongly the agree or disagree with Sanders's view on a scale of one to 10.

A full debate might easily constitute a separate lesson, so you may prefer to conclude with a simpler and shorter whole class discussion based around the focus question and perhaps using the remaining extracts from the film.


External Links
British Empire exhibition from The National Archives
The Story of Africa: listen to extracts from the BBC's radio programme

Video Clips
1. War song (3:10)
2. Sanders and Bosambo (3:52)
3. 'Sandi is dead' (4:26)
Downloadable Teaching Resources

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Sanders of the River (1935)Sanders of the River (1935)

Read more about this film

See also

Thumbnail image of British African StoriesBritish African Stories

Stories of colonial and post-colonial Africa

Thumbnail image of Korda and EmpireKorda and Empire

Four 1930s Alexander Korda films that championed the British Empire