This film is held by the BFI (ID: 12350).


Film on local life in the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast, in particular the Konkomba country.

After briefly outlining the history of the Northern Territories, the film shows the installation of a new chief in Western Dagomba. During the ceremony - with 'old rites and customs' - the new Chief is received by the British Commissioner. In Konkomba country, in the 'extreme north', 'warriors in full dress' charge towards the camera. The locals dance, displaying their headdresses. They show their war weapons and fire a bow, before an intertitle introduces 'Konkomba women'. Two bare-breasted women with shaved heads smile and laugh directly at the camera. The film then shows the manufacture of shea butter. This is followed by the work on a new road in Tamale, for which locals carry baskets of soil and stones on their heads. A circle of women make 'what is known as a "swish" floor'. Finally the Northern Territory Mounted Police line up in uniform on horseback and ride past the camera.



Northern Territories: The Gold Coast was released in June 1928, as part of the third series of British Instructional Film’s The Empire Series. Also credited to Graham Bell in this set of six one-reelers was Mineral Wealth of the Gold Coast, which looked at the industrial process of ‘gold mining in the Gold Coast’ (Bioscope, 6 June 1928, 43). Northern Territories focussed on different aspects of the country, as it examined the ‘life, manners and customs’ in the northern districts of Western Dagomba, Konkomba and Tamale (British Instructional Films, 1928, 10).

By the 1920s, the Gold Coast consisted of four regions: the Coastal Colony, the Ashanti Hinterland, the Northern Territories, and West Togoland, which was administered by Britain under the League of Nations Mandate after the First World War. Ever since the Northern Territories had been annexed to the British in 1901, they had exercised a largely peripheral part in the economy of the country. In most areas of the Gold Coast during the 1920s – and in the colony as a whole – income exceeded expenditure, but this was very rarely the case in the North. For example in 1925-1926 expenditure was over £100,000, while income was only £9,000 (Sutton, 1989, 646). Inez Sutton has noted that ‘the north had always been deficient in capital, partly through lack of government and other investment, and partly through its own lack of income-generating activities’ (Sutton, 1989, 642). Roger G. Thomas argued that ‘under these circumstances, the major day to day impact of British rule on the chiefs and people lay in the recurrent call for labour, often unpaid, for building, maintenance of public works and transport within the Northern Territories’ (Thomas, 1973, 79).

In 1927 exports from the Gold Coast were worth £14 million, of which 84% came from cocoa, yet the Northern Territories remained ‘without an exportable product’. (Roberts, 1986, 435) Attempts over the previous fifteen years to grow cotton in the Northern Territories had ended in failure, and although shea seeds were shipped from Tamale to Europe, The Times reported in 1928 that this still represented a loss of between £12 and £15 per ton (The Times, 30 October 1928, xx). These problems were intensified by the lack of adequate transport within the area and, while Gordon Guggisberg, the Governor of the Gold Coast, claimed that 233 miles of railway and 3,388 miles of motor roads had been built between 1920 and 1927, the rail development did not stretch to the Northern Territories (The Times, 5 March 1927, 11).

During the 1920s colonial chiefs gained new powers, as Governor Guggisberg – described by historian Piers Brendon as a ‘mixture of patriarch, engineer and Scoutmaster’ – sought to promote Africans to responsible positions (Brendon, 2007, 515). The introduction of the Native Administration Ordinance in 1927 granted African authorities the right to pass bylaws and increased their influence in local jurisdiction. This ordinance was borne out of the Provincial Councils of head chiefs, which The Times suggested, ‘had done valuable work in uniting the chiefs’ and showed ‘the good relations between them [the chiefs] and the government’ (The Times, 5 March 1927, 11). Yet, the power assigned to the chiefs was often to the detriment of their subjects. Furthermore, Guggisberg’s concessions were still seemingly motivated by traditional paternal attitudes, as he emphasised the importance of preventing ‘a child running before it can walk’ (Brendon, 2007, 515).



The formal structure of Northern Territories can be divided into three parts. The first section offers an ethnographic study of the area and its inhabitants. This is followed by an industrial process sequence, which examines the production of shea-butter. The film thus deploys the two most common genres within documentary films on Africa. The final section offers further ethnographic shots of Africans at work, but it deliberately contrasts with the earlier sequences in order to highlight, through shots of Africans building roads and the uniformed and well-organised Mounted Constabulary, the ‘civilisation’ and social development of the area under British rule.

Northern Territories attempts to outline the role of the British in ‘civilising’ this area. An intertitle early in the film reports that ‘the spread of civilisation has not yet reached Konkomba country’. This ‘uncivilised’ land is represented by barely clothed Africans walking and dancing, before another shot of ‘Warriors in full dress’ charging at the camera. This charge at the camera – and thus at the viewer – is a staged sequence, but it is significant in indicating, and playing on, the audience’s expectations of ‘untamed’ Africa. The film constantly reiterates that the local people ‘are now quite peaceful’ and that ‘they do not now find use for their bows and poisoned arrows’, in order to illustrate that the British have brought peace to this area.

There are two scenes within the film that feature British people. First, the British commissioner receives the new chief in Western Dagomba. Although shot from a distance, the British are distinguished by their dress and are seated in the shade. An intertitle emphasises the extreme and inhospitable climate of Western Africa for the white population, when noting that ‘every advantage is taken of the shade’. Later, a white man supervises Africans, who carry baskets of soil on their head, as part of the road building process at Tamale. A local man stands alongside the British man here, and interacts more directly with the local people. This may be indicative of both the hierarchical structure within the Gold Coast, and of the increased responsibility now offered to the local chiefs by Governor Guggisberg.

Indeed, the film indicates and supports the social reforms of Guggisberg. It emphasises the development of the roads, the interaction between the local chiefs and the British commissioner, and shows shifts in local power in its representation of the Northern Territory Mounted Constabulary, ‘a well trained and efficient body of men who are responsible for the maintenance of peace and good order’. Yet, while the film attempts to show the ‘development’ and ‘civilisation’ of the Northern Territories, some of the broader problems of the area are also inadvertently revealed. The economic failings may be indicated by the antiquated production of shea-butter. A title also notes that this ‘is largely used locally’, highlighting the local failure to export products. The plight of the local population, often forced to work unpaid on the roads, can be deduced from the rows of Africans carrying stones on their heads. Again a title explains that ‘these stone-carriers have to bring the stone a distance of two miles and they do six journeys a day’. Furthermore, the emphasis on road building obscures the more pressing transport problem within the area, which is the lack of a railway. There was speculation in 1928 that the railway line would be extended, but for the most part the Northern Territories remained physically and economically cut off from much of the rest of the country.

Tom Rice (February 2008)


Works Cited

‘Third Empire Series’, Bioscope, 6 June 1928, 43.

Brendon, Piers, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781 – 1997 (London: Jonathan Cape, 2007).

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

Gocking, Roger, ‘Controlling the Colony: Colonial Rule and the "Legal Factor" in Ghana and Lesotho', Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 67, No. 1., 1997, 61-85.

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

Sutton, Inez, ‘Colonial Agricultural Policy: The Non-Development of the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 22, No. 4 (1989), 637-669.

Thomas, Roger G., ‘Forced Labour in British West Africa: The Case of the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast 1906-1927’, The Journal of African History, Vol. 14, No. 1. (1973), 79-103.

‘Progress of Gold Coast’, The Times, 5 March 1927, 11.

‘Wealth on the Land’, The Times, 30 October 1928, xx.



Series Title:

Technical Data

Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
798 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
BALL, Graham
Production Company
British Instructional Films