This film is held by the BFI (ID: 306415).


Travelogue showing scenes from British North Borneo.

Opening with a train journey, the film shows views from the train as it passes through a village and crosses a bridge. The camera is next on a boat, showing rapids, the jungle, locals on a raft and members of the expedition fording the stream. This is followed by scenes of the local industries. Locals quarry for manganese ore, gather rubber from a tree (watched by Europeans) and pick and sort tobacco leaves from the fields. Further scenes reveal locals at a trading post and performing for the camera. Next, Chinese convicts collect their food, before a sequence showing a European supervising two locals as they chop a sago palm tree. Once felled, the trunk is sawed off and buffaloes (ridden by locals) haul the logs off screen. Local boys take part in a swimming race - diving off a gangway, watched by a European figure rowing alongside - before the film concludes with further shots of the buffaloes, driven into, and crossing, the water.



An advertisement for A Trip through British North Borneo in The Erain January 1907 offered some insights into the production history of the film. It referred to this new series ‘by courtesy of the British North Borneo Company’ and reported that ‘this unique and beautiful subject contains the best photographic results of two expeditions organised and conducted by the Charles Urban Trading Co. Ltd., and illustrates the quaint manners and strange customs of the natives of British North Borneo’. A number of the scenes listed within this film – for example ‘Panorama of the Padas River’ and ‘First Trading of Natives with White Man’ – had also appeared in an earlier Urban series released in 1904, and A Trip through British North Borneo appears largely, if not exclusively, to reuse this earlier material (The Era, 19 January 1907, 35).

In 1903 Harold Mease Lomas, a chemist-turned-amateur photographer, had led the ‘Urban Bioscope Expedition through Borneo’, which then travelled through Malay in 1904 (Iversen, 2001, 71). The Urban Films catalogue of June 1905 explained that ‘this expedition was started and equipped by us for the purpose of securing bioscopic records of native life and scenes in the interior of North Borneo’. It noted that the ‘unparalleled idea of taking the bioscope into an almost unknown district of the tropics’ was ‘enthusiastically supported by the Government’ and indeed the trip was financed by the British North Borneo Company, the imperial charter company that administered rule in the country between 1882 and 1946 (Herbert, 2000, 257). A report in the Daily Mail described this as an ‘excellent investment’, as, according to the Company’s managing director in 1904, the photographs and moving pictures ‘had been instrumental in helping the company to raise during the last few years over £500,000’ (The Times, 7 December 1904, 12).

Some of the films were shown at the annual dinner of the British North Borneo Company in December 1903 and again in 1904 (at which ‘guests smoke North Borneo cigars and drink North Borneo coffee’). The Era noted that the films were ‘extremely instructive’ in introducing and explaining the company’s work in an ‘entertaining’ way, while one of the speakers at the dinner in 1904 praised them for highlighting the beautiful scenery and commercial value of the country without ‘the boredom attaching [sic] to long speeches’ (Herbert, 2000, 264). Commenting in January 1904 on the films, The Straits Times noted their appeal to ‘stay at home folk’ who now had the opportunity to behold ‘the descendants of ferocious pirates walking along the iron way’. ‘In the cut-throat days of not long ago they would either have run away or tried to wreck that train’, it continued, ‘Experience has taught them that the native shares in the benefits of British enterprise’. The paper further noted the scenes of local labour ‘under the eyes of Europeans’, which it suggested showed that ‘the natives are eager to work for the British, and when allowed to do so are most zealous’ (Straits Times, 5 January 1904, 5).

The function, funding and exhibition of the films certainly invite comparisons, as film historian Rachael Low argued, with the ‘sponsorship of latter-day British documentaries’. Low used a quotation from The Era after the company’s annual dinner in December 1903 to illustrate this. ‘It occurs to us’, The Era suggested, ‘that other big public companies who are engaged in exploring and mining operations in almost uncivilized parts of the world would be well advised to secure the services of the Urban Trading Company to popularize and give explanations concerning the nature of the work carried on by them so far away from the line of vision of anxious shareholders’ (Low, 1948, 60-61).

The speeches delivered at the company’s annual dinners worked closely alongside the films in emphasising the company’s ongoing development programmes within North Borneo. In 1904, W.C. Cowie, the managing director, told the assembled diners that since the development of the railways had begun in 1896, 110 miles of track had been constructed as well as 600 miles of telegraph (The Times, 7 December 1904, 12). In 1906 Cowie emphasised the importance of the country’s minerals ‘in attracting further capital’ and in 1908 he advised that there were further plans to turn ‘jungles into permanent rubber estates’ (The Times, 5 December 1906, 4). Cowie also repeatedly highlighted the social developments within the area, informing those gathered in 1908 that when the company ‘took possession’ of North Borneo ‘chaos reigned’, yet now the ‘former pirates and head hunters had become exemplary subjects’ (The Times, 10 December 1908, 13). In encouraging further investment, the speeches also reiterated the need for ongoing development – only a ‘small portion’ of the country had been developed and there remained a ‘vast dormant mineral wealth’ – and this message of ongoing development and discovery was endorsed in the discourses surrounding the films. The Citizen noted that the films showed places ‘which had never been trodden by a white man before’, while Music Hall commented on the ‘tribes of the interior trading for the first time with white men’ (Herbert, 2000, 263-4). When A Trip through British North Borneo was released in 1907, it was advertised in The Era under the subheading ‘From Barbarism to Industrial Development’ (The Era, 19 January 1907, 35).

The 1904 films had played to a paying public, most notably at the Alhambra in London, and in January 1907, A Trip through British North Borneo would also play at the Alhambra. The Optical Lantern and Kinematograph Weekly praised the colour-tinted 1907 release as ‘one of the best we have seen’, but claimed, erroneously it would appear, that the pictures were taken during Urban’s ongoing ‘From Cape to Cairo Expedition’ (Optical Lantern and Kinematograph Journal, February 1907). The film was also released in America, as Trip to Borneo, in March 1907 through Kleine Optical Company, Urban’s American distributor (MPW, 6 April 1907, 78).



A Trip through British North Borneo serves both as an example of the early film travelogue – featuring familiar types of shots, such as the ‘phantom rides’ shot from a train – and also of the sponsored, industrial documentary. In representational terms, the film is a rare and valuable record of the development, industries, and customs of the local communities, showing local sites (such as the Padas River and the Darvel Bay tobacco estates) and in particular, the relationship between the local – as workers, convicts and at leisure – and the colonial administrators. As a film sponsored by the British North Borneo Company, it promotes the company’s administration and seeks to encourage further investment. This is achieved first through the film’s emphasis on travel – following the expedition by train, and across the river – which affirms an ideology of colonial exploration, adventure and discovery and encourages the viewer to identify with those developing the country. Secondly, the film shows the social work of the company – reports noted its role in bringing peace and order and it is shown, for example, providing food to convicts – and thirdly, it emphasises the commercial possibilities and ongoing development within the area. The varied industries of the region are shown, including rubber, tobacco and manganese, and this chimes with both the company’s own emphasis on increasing the export trade, and with the broader imperial rhetoric of increased productivity within the colonies.

The British North Borneo Company evidently recognised the pedagogical and commercial value of film in promoting the company’s development plans and in generating further investment. Indeed the company’s engagement with film is an early example of a colonial administration using film, not only as a tool for imperial governance, but effectively as advertising, as a means of encouraging direct investment from the viewer.

Tom Rice (April 2009)


Works Cited

The Era, 19 January 1907, 23, 35.

Herbert, Stephen, A History of Early Film (London: Taylor and Francis, 2000).

Iversen, Gunnar, ‘Norway in Moving Images: Hale’s Tours in Norway, 1907’, Film History, Vol. 13, Number 1 (2001), 71-75.

Low, Rachael, The History of British Film, 1896-1906 (London: George and Allen, 1948).

Moving Picture World, 6 April 1907, 78.

‘Urban Trading Co.’, The Optical Lantern and Kinematograph Journal, February 1907.

‘British North Borneo: “Worthy of the Empire”’, The Straits Times, 5 January 1904, 5.

'British North Borneo', The Times, 7 December 1904, 12. 

‘The Annual North Borneo Dinner’, The Times, 5 December 1906, 4.

‘The Annual British North Borneo Dinner’, The Times, 10 December 1908, 13.  



  • BORNEO (Acquisition)
  • TRIP THROUGH BORNEO (Alternative)

Technical Data

Running Time:
7 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
490 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
British North Borneo Company
Production Company
Charles Urban Trading Company