BASUTOLAND AND ITS PEOPLE

This film is held by the BFI (ID: 18578).

Synopsis

Scenes from Basutoland.

The intertitles outline a history of Basutoland, interspersed with shots of a Bushman and a tribal leader, before showing a local village, and its 'native huts'. Aspects of local life are depicted, such as basket-making and pottery, as well as the process of beer-making, 'which is also undertaken by women'. The Basuto women shave their children's heads with 'any old piece of steel' and then polish them. The film then shows the Basuto children running into a hut to hide from the camera, and a European then entices them out by offering coins. Locals are shown curing animal skins, before the 'great tribal meeting or "Pitso"' is shown. Thousand of Basutos arrive, while the camera shows the distinctive head dresses of the local chiefs. The chiefs address the assembled warriors, after which there is a feast, followed by song and dance. The film concludes with village children waving farewell as the 'tribesmen set out on their long ride home'.

 

Context

Although listed for release in November 1925 as part of the first set in the British Instructional Film series ‘The Empire’, Basutoland and its People was seemingly not included in trade shows for the series and was thus not reviewed alongside the series’ other episodes. Furthermore, An African Derby, released in February 1927 as part of the second set of the Empire series, opened with a title claiming that ‘The following motion pictures are the first ever taken in the native territory of Basutoland.’

It is most likely that both Basutoland and its People and An African Derby were filmed in May 1925 when the Prince of Wales visited Basutoland as part of his African tour. A 14-part series recording the Prince’s tour was made by British Instructional Films and distributed by New Era Films, the team responsible for The Empire series. Furthermore, footage included in Basutoland and its People (1925) also features in An African Derby (for example a shot of a local woman eating), while scenes from An African Derby were again reused in a 1948 British Instructional film, also titled Basutoland and its People.

In 1924 the new South African Prime Minister, General JBM Hertzog, who strongly favoured complete independence from British influence, had supported a proposal that Bechuanaland and Swaziland should be incorporated into the Union of South Africa. The influence of the Union of South Africa on its landlocked enclave Basutoland was increasing as men from Basutoland moved to work in the Transvaal mines. Indeed, unemployment and labour migration ensured that while in 1911 a third of able-bodied men were out of the country, by 1936 at least half of the adult male population was absent. After 1925 agricultural life would suffer further with drought and economic depression contributing to a reduction in wool prices and ensuring that the export of cattle was, by 1933, barely a third of its 1928 total (Roberts 1986, 557,600).

The influence of the British within Basutoland was already limited. Basutoland had a white population of less than 2,000 (out of a total of 662,000), comprising civil servants, missionaries and licensed traders. Sir Arthur Pim, in his influential 1935 report for the Colonial Office on Basutoland, commented that ‘there was no rule either direct or indirect by the British Government. The nation is run by its Chiefs and the Government can merely proffer advice … the Basuto receives protection without control’ (Spence 1964, 223).

The Prince of Wales’ tour to Africa presented an opportunity to restate the role of the British within Basutoland and for Africans to reaffirm their loyalty to the British crown. Speaking at ‘the greatest Pitso that Basutoland has known’, the Prince presented the British crown as a source of protection and promoted a form of paternal imperialism. ‘To-Day you live in peace and prosperity under British rule’, he stated. ‘The King continues to watch over you with fatherly care. You must show yourselves worthy of his protection by listening to the words of the officers appointed to guide and instruct you. They will educate you’ (TheTimes, 30 May 1925, 12).

 

Analysis

Basutoland and its People attempts to outline the need for continued British involvement within Basutoland, while still advocating a clear division between the local population and the colonial rulers. The film, promoted as an educational picture, begins with a series of statements presented as historical fact. The film reports that ‘tribes are ruled by their native chiefs under the protection of the imperial government’. A further title espouses the necessary function of the British and affirms the popular imperial notion that the British have brought peace to the area: ‘Incessant tribal warfare was the rule until 1884, when the Imperial Government took control. Since then peace has reigned.’ The film also emphasises the function of the British in ‘civilising’ the Africans, as an intertitle claims that ‘the country was originally inhabited by a few wandering Bushmen, primitive people of a dirty yellow colour, and only some 4 feet high .’

Although the initial titles outline and support British involvement in Basutoland, the images within the first half of the film focus largely on the local customs of the area.  The Empire series promised to show ‘peoples, homes and habits’ and the film follows the formal and narrative conventions of other ethnographic pictures in representing local customs (KW, 19 November 1925). The film literally presents the African as a subject of study, as the camera presents a local boy from front view and then in profile. It depicts unclothed Africans outside huts, local people with circular baskets on their heads carrying grain, the process of beer-making, and African women cutting the hair of their children.

There are two significant factors to address here. First, the film highlights the difference between the Africans on screen and the British viewer. After showing the local method of cutting hair, an intertitle states ‘They polish them with sand and water!’ The use of the exclamation mark highlights how alien this custom is intended to appear to the viewer, while another title remarks that ‘none of the young children are overburdened with clothing’. Clothing served as a signifier of civilisation and the somewhat flippant tone of the commentary privileges the white viewer as a knowing authority, finding humour in the ‘unsophisticated’ customs of the Africans.

Secondly, these sequences, presented as documentary facts, are very evidently staged representations of Africa. The local people smile and repeatedly look up at the camera. When the commentary – again emphasising division – states that the youngsters are ‘shy of white people’, the film cuts to an image of a group of children running into a hut as a white person approaches. The staged sequences promote traditional western images of ‘Africa’, which the commentary endorses. A further title explains that the children ‘respond to a little gentle bribery’. 

This sequence provides the only brief appearance of a white person within the film and offers their only acknowledged intervention. The final act of the film, the ‘pitso’, is seemingly organised and run without British involvement or influence, but again the influence of the white cameraman is apparent, both in watching over the Africans and in positively directing their actions on camera. Structurally, the pitso also provides a clear conclusion to the film, as the final shot depicts the local children waving goodbye to the camera.

Tom Rice (February 2008)

 

Works Cited

Kinematograph Weekly, 19 November 1925.

Roberts, A. D., ed., The Cambridge History of Africa, Volume 7 1905-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Spence, J. E., ‘British Policy towards the High Commission Territories’,The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2., July 1964, 221-246.

‘S. African Native Territories’, The Times, 16 December 1924, 13.

‘The Prince in Basutoland’, The Times, 30 May 1925, 12.

 

Titles

  • BASUTOLAND AND ITS PEOPLE
Series Title:
EMPIRE SERIES
 

Technical Data

Year:
1925
Running Time:
9 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
Colour:
Black/White
Sound:
Silent
Footage:
857 ft
 

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Production Company
British Instructional Films
 

Countries

 

Themes

 

Production Organisations

 
 
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