This film is held by the BFI (ID: 765282).


Film on the Copper Belt region of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), specifically the interaction of Christianity and commerce in this region and the work of the United Mission to the Copper Belt (in which the London Missionary society was a partner). The film features scenes from daily life in the communities of the copper ore mining areas, and the work of the church with both men and women. Specific places featured include Mindolo and Mufulira.



At the height of their productivity in the mid-1950s, the mines of the North Rhodesian Copperbelt were by no means small beer, either to a financially straitened post-war Britain, or to the ambitiously nationalist settler communities of the two Rhodesias, North and South. Demand for copper had increased after the war, and production in the Copperbelt rose sharply after 1953, the year that the Central African Federation, composed of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland, was inaugurated. The mines had been a useful bargaining chip as the settler blocs pressed for greater autonomy. After their aims were partially achieved in 1953, tax revenues from the Copperbelt effectively financed the Federation (Butler, 2007, 209-16).

The country itself was relatively sparsely populated, and the low population density had always made the stability of the labour force an issue for the mining companies. During the 1920s and 1930s, the early years of the mining industry’s development, the labour force had been migratory, with the largest proportion of workers hailing from the northern provinces and Barotseland (Berger, 1974, 15). However, the very long distances that most workers had to travel always militated against regular returns to their homes, and though it was unpalatable to the Government, busy towns had quickly grown up around the mines. ‘By the later 1930s,’ writes Butler, ‘it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the fiction that Copperbelt workers were essentially rural tribesmen, temporarily working away from their homes’ (Butler, op.cit., 50).

The companies were relatively sanguine about this, since it helped to stabilise the workforce, but to a Government recently wedded to the concept of ‘indirect rule’ in Africa, the spectre that such nascent urban worlds presented was of a ‘detribalised’ African. This newly urban, industrialised African population would, it was thought, be divorced from the ‘traditional’ rulers, laws, and morals that were supposed to be the instrument of colonial order.

‘Detribalisation’ was a concept that also loomed large for the Church in Central Africa, and a 1932 Commission of Enquiry by the Department of Social and Industrial Research of the International Missionary Council resulted in the publication in 1933 of Modern Industry and the African (Merle Davis ed., 1933). Despite the breathtaking condescension of the book’s general attitude toward Africans and African societies (they are variously described as backward, slow, ‘blundering’, helpless, primitive, etc.), its final recommendations are, as Cooper points out, rather more realistic and serious in outlook than anything being considered at the time by the Government (Cooper, op.cit., 53-4; Merle Davis, 376-93). Despite the prejudices about African life that the Commission held, it had understood that the processes of industrial urbanisation were not about to go into reverse. The basic thrust of the Commission’s findings was that rural communities should be strengthened and developed so that they might cope better with this new world, and that the infrastructure and institutions of city life should be established in the mining towns.

The missions saw their job as preparing ‘the Bantu’ to make the transition between a crumbling past and a bewildering future – it was a time of ‘tutelage and transition’, in which the missions would be on hand to help confused Africans ‘span the gulf between savagery and civilisation’ (ibid., 10). Recommendation 43 of Modern Industry was that the Protestant missions be united in this project (ibid., 385). In 1935 a ‘United Mission to the Copperbelt’ (UMCB) was set up, drawing in numerous missionary groups (including the London Missionary Society, which had a prominent role) to take forward the programme outlined by the Merle Davis Commission (Sundkler and Steed, 2000, 791; Ragsdale, 1986,  128-30). 



The labour situation in the mid-1950s was very different from that of the 1930s, and not only because of the political effects of Federation after 1953. The end of the war had seen the implementation of the 1940 Colonial Development and Welfare Act, which committed the Government to spending on the improvement of working conditions for colonial workers (Cooper, 2004, 302). Labour in the North Rhodesian mines, both black and white, was organized and active. White mineworkers had been unionised since 1936, and African miners’ unions were established at all major mines in 1948. By the time the African unions had come together in mid-1949 as the African Mineworkers Union, over half of African mine labour was unionised; the AMU was recognized by the mine companies that same year (Butler, op.cit., 135). The overall picture was complicated, fast moving and, against the Federal backdrop, increasingly politicised.

However, this was not a situation that the London Missionary Society was interested in addressing on film. On the evidence of Christianity and Copper it seems that the LMS had no desire to present a picture any more complex than that of the Copperbelt African as a lost soul, ‘torn away from his ancestral roots and…sucked into the swirl of the modern torrent, a man who had lost his gods but had not found God’ (Chirgwin, in Theobald, 1946, 10). This view had been codified in the 1930s by Merle Davis’s Modern Industry, and Christianity and Copper cleaves close to this orthodoxy.

The film presents a picture of African mineworkers and their wives as a baffled herd, cut off from the security of ‘the tribal social life of the Bantu farming village’, buffeted by the desires and pressures of modernity, menaced by ‘Westernisation,’ and prone to moral decay. The women do not know how to use their ‘leisure time’, and the men become addicted to drink. When contemporary social issues are addressed, the commentary vacillates: a sequence that begins as a sharp criticism of the colour bar fizzles out with the resigned statement that segregation is a ‘baffling’ problem for the Church.

It is a crude picture, as crude as the stereotypes that underpin Modern Industry, and the overall message is simple: while commercial development is of undoubted benefit to Africa, it has brought moral and social trouble to Africans, and only the Church can help set them on the right path toward a new, modern life.  African people themselves are described throughout as ‘the African’, and this tendency to reduce and generalise is formally reflected by the fact that Africans generally tend to occupy the edges of the shot. They are almost never focussed on as individuals, and perhaps more significantly, the centre of the screen tends to focus on manual actions or objects, not faces or whole people: in the drinking scenes, the bottle and cans are at the centre of the shot; in the washing and cooking scenes, the action of lathering the clothes or the cooking pots are at the centre; in the basket-making scenes, the baskets and busy hands are, once more, central.

If there is no definite action, the screen’s centre is often strangely empty. Africans are a mass at the periphery even when they are the ostensible subject of the camera. Beyond the manual labours they perform their presence is barely registered,and the film thus formally echoes the relation of labour to administration in the Copperbelt, and so in much of the industrial Empire. The outdated 1930s ideology that is ostensibly being propounded by the film has withered to nothing more than an empty husk, retaining only elements of racial caricature, and seems incapable of responding to an iniquitous social status quo with anything more morally, politically or indeed religiously edifying than a confession of bafflement. 

Francis Gooding (October 2009)


Works Cited

Berger, Elena L., Labour, Race and Colonial Rule: The Copperbelt from 1924 to Independence  (Oxford: Clarendon,1974.). 

Butler, L. J. Copper Empire: Mining and the Colonial State in Northern Rhodesia, c. 1930-64  (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

Chirgwin, A. M. ‘Introduction,’ in Theobald, 1946, 9-15.

Cooper, Frederick  Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Cooper, Frederick 2004 ‘African Workers and Imperial Designs’ in Morgan and Hawkins eds. 2004, 286-316.

Merle Davis, J ed. Modern Industry and The African: An Enquiry in the Effect of the Copper Mines of Central Africa upon Native Society and the Work of Christian Missions made under the Auspices of the Department of Social And Industrial Research of the International Missionary Council (London: Macmillan, 1933).

Morgan, Philip D. and Hawkins, Sean  Black Experience and the Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Ragsdale, John P. Protestant Mission Education in Zambia, 1880-1954 (London: Associated University Presses, 1986).

Sundlker, Bengt and Steed, Christopher  A History of the Church in Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Theobald, Hugh  Moore of the Copper Belt (London: Livingstone Press, 1946).




Technical Data

Running Time:
12 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film

Production Credits

London Missionary Society
SMITH, Norman Ingram
ABEL, R. Owen
Production Company
London Missionary Society
United Motion Pictures





Production Organisations