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Men of Africa (1940)


Main image of Men of Africa (1940)
35mm, 19 min, black & white
DirectorAlexander Shaw
Production CompanyStrand Film Company
SponsorColonial Office
ProducerBasil Wright
PhotographyJo Jago
 Harry Rignold

Commentary: Leslie Mitchell

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The work of the Colonial Office, in particular its educational programmes in East Africa.

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"Men of Africa is a proud answer to those who decry the work of Great Britain as trustee for the Colonial Empire" - Documentary News Letter, June 1940.

By the end of the 19th century, the British Empire comprised nearly a quarter of the Earth's land surface and included more than a quarter of the world's population, reaching its widest extent in the period between the two world wars. After World War II Britain's difficult economic position and the increasing denunciation of imperialism at home and in the colonies marked the beginning of the dismantling of the Empire. By the end of the 1960s, the Colonial Office was left with only a few territories to administer.

The British colonies of Hong Kong, Fiji, Malaya, British Honduras and British Guiana receive a cursory mention in the first part of this film, but the main focus is on Africa, patronisingly referred to as "home of more primitive people" by the commentator. The contemporary shift in public attitude regarding imperialism is reflected in the film's wavering between old imperialistic hubris (most apparent in the opening sequence, in which Britain's vast colonial empire is graphically hailed in the form of a global map), and a new commitment to bettering the livelihoods of the people of its colonies. The Colonial Office's programmes on health, education and agriculture are described in detail, with the intended outcome being delegation of responsibility to the tribal councils of East African villages. Britain's willingness to encourage the colonies to manage their own affairs was very much in line with the contemporary disavowal of its historically mercantile philosophy.

Paving the way for independence might be the implicit message here but the rhetoric of patronage and subordination is ever present in the commentary: "the control of all these colonies lies with the Colonial Office in London... British rule has bought peace but there is still a long battle to be fought with poverty, ignorance and disease."

The mid-century process of decolonisation saw colonies in South-East Asia, Africa and the West Indies gain independent statehood. With this the role of the Colonial Office diminished, and in 1966 it merged with the Commonwealth Relations Office to form the Comonwealth Office. Two years later they were both integrated into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, more commonly known today as the Foreign Office.

Katy McGahan

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Defeating malaria (2:21)
2. Eager for education (1:43)
3. Lessons for progress (2:00)
Complete film (27:31)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Wright, Basil (1907-1987)
British African Stories