This film is held by the BFI (ID: 18642).


The film opens with a globe, on which Zanzibar is highlighted. The titles outline the role of the island as 'one of the most important centres for the commerce of the Indian ocean' as the film shows shots of a local market. Further titles outline a history of the island - and its Arab slave market - before showing the current sultan, H.H. Seyyid Khalifa bin Harub. This is followed by shots of local inhabitants and the local Indian shops. 'Through the open doorways workmen can be seen plying their crafts', as a 'clothmaker' weaves on a loom. The film then focuses on the production of cloves. First, a local man climbs a clove tree and then locals collect water from the well and look after the plants. The cloves are picked and brought in from the plantation in sacks. The cloves are dried on a cement floor and then turned over by locals, who look towards the camera. The cloves are swept into baskets and sorted by large groups. An overseer inspects them. The film concludes with a young boy climbing down a tree. He holds up a coconut to the camera. Five young men and boys then drink from the coconuts and laugh towards the camera.



Zanzibar and the Clove Industry was released in November 1925 as part of the first set of British Instructional Film’s ‘The Empire Series’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 19 November 1925). The series comprised films ‘taken by the colonies’ that had been shown as part of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley and films taken by British Instructional Films during the Empire Cruise of the Special Squadron. Footage from Zanzibar was included in British Instructional’s official 1925 film of this cruise, Britain’s Birthright.

In July 1925, The Times reported that New Era Films, the distributors, had exhibited ‘some examples of a new short series of films dealing with different parts of the British Empire’ and mentioned Zanzibar as one of the areas from which the subjects were drawn (The Times, 28 July 1925, 12). However, when the films were trade shown in November, Zanzibar and the Clove Industry was seemingly not one of the six films – from a series of twelve – screened and as a result the film was not reviewed in the press. The film was however shown to the press in 1927 at the Imperial Institute in preparation for the launch of the new cinema there (The Times, 29 June 1927, 14). The film was also subsequently available for hire, and was included – under the title Zanzibar – in British Instructional’s 1928 catalogue of films for non-theatrical exhibition. The catalogue stated that the film ‘gives some scenes suggestive of the history of Zanzibar, and then pictures the present-day clove industry. The varied population of Zanzibar is also shown’.

An article entitled ‘Zanzibar Trade’ in The Times in 1928 began by claiming that ‘in the trade of the Zanzibar Protectorate cloves rank first in importance, and supply over 90 per cent. of the world’s demand’. The article further stated that the average output over the past five years had reached ‘over 9,000 tons’, while production in the coconut industry – which ‘ranks next in importance’ – was said to have ‘considerably increased in recent years’ (The Times, 13 March 1928, 21). Although the production of cloves and the country’s export earnings reached their peak in the early 1920s, Andrew Roberts argued that ‘in marked contrast to mainland East Africa, the economy of the Zanzibar Protectorate scarcely expanded at all between 1905 and 1940’ and nor was there any marked increase over this period in the ‘output of the principal crop, cloves’ (Roberts, 1986, 699).

By 1925 the clove industry in Zanzibar was still closely tied to the economics of slavery. The British had abolished the legal status of slavery in Zanzibar in 1897, but they did not emancipate the existing slaves and, to an extent, encouraged legally free but economically tied labour. Frederick Cooper has examined the development of this plantation society under British rule, and while much remained unchanged, by the 1920s indigenous Africans owned nearly a quarter of the clove trees on Zanzibar island and half of those on the more lucrative Pemba (Roberts, 1986, 699). Contract labour was imported from mainland areas, ensuring that plantation labour now consisted of several racially distinct communities. The Times wrote in 1920 that ‘Zanzibar is unique, in that it is here that Africa, Arabia, India and Persia may be said to meet’ (The Times, 25 May 1920, 29). Yet, for the most part, the social position of local Africans remained largely unchanged as the British officials continued in their support of Sultan Khalkifa – who features in the film – and the Arab minority, while by 1933 half of the clove trees in the Protectorate were said to be mortgaged to Indians (Roberts, 1986, 700). 



Zanzibar and the Clove Industry incorporates a number of different tropes and styles, popularly featured within the 36 films of The Empire Series. The film combines elements of the travelogue, historical, ethnographic and industrial documentaries, and these different elements are united by the film’s twin messages of British supremacy and British development within Africa.

The initial shots of a globe on which Zanzibar is marked is not entirely typical of the series – reviews for the series complained about the lack of maps and diagrams – but the film’s subsequent historical account of the country offers a familiar image of the British as moral liberators bringing peace, as they transform ‘a market for traffic in human souls’ into one ‘devoted to peaceful commerce’. From the opening title – ‘the island of Zanzibar is about the size of a small English county’ – the film presents Zanzibar in relation to England. For the most part this comparison privileges the British viewer and highlights the differences between the two countries. For example, a title refers to a local using the ‘primitive loom of Ancient Arabia’, aligning Africa – as within many British Instructional films of the period – with ‘the primitive’. The ethnographic shots of the local people present them in close-up looking directly back at the viewer and serve a similar purpose within this discourse of difference.

The latter half of the film represents a shift, focussing now on the industrial process of clove manufacture. The film now presents the process – rather than the people – in close-up and thus as the film’s subject. It depicts a non-mechanised industry, where workers carry sacks on their heads, which reiterates this division between the ‘primitive’ on screen and the British viewer. However, the sequence also now emphasises the British involvement in the ongoing development of this industry, as the camera reveals a European ‘overseer’ inspecting the work performed by the many locals. This sense of British supervision is also inadvertently shown in an earlier scene, as a white hand comes out from behind the camera and directs a local African as he walks towards the screen.

The film concludes with an ethnographic sequence, which is symptomatic of much of the work within The Empire Series. The image of a local climbing a tree – which is completely removed from the narrative – is a familiar ‘postcard’ image, often used as a signifier of traditional Africa. This image is contextualised by the titles – ‘Closing Hours are unknown in Zanzibar. When a drink is required, a tree is climbed’ – which again creates comedy by demarcating a clear contrast between the British viewer and the African subjects on screen.

Tom Rice (August 2008) 


Works Cited

British Instructional Films, Catalogue of Films for Non-Theatrical Exhibition (1928), 8.

Cooper, Frederick, From Slaves to Squatters: Plantation Labor and Agriculture in Zanzibar and Coastal Kenya 1890-1925 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980).

Kinematograph Weekly, 19 November 1925.

‘Letter from Crown Agents to the Under Secretary of State, Colonial Office’, dated 11 July 1927, accessed at the National Archives (CO 323/985/23).

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

‘Zanzibar: Flourishing Clove Industry’, The Times, 25 May 1920, 29.

‘The Film World’, The Times, 28 July 1925, 12.

‘The Film World: Imperial Institute Theatre’, The Times, 29 June 1927, 14.

‘Zanzibar Trade’, The Times, 13 March 1928, 21.



Series Title:

Technical Data

Running Time:
9 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
829 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
WOOLFE, H. Bruce
Production Company
British Instructional Films





Production Organisations