This film is held by the BFI (ID: 17709).


The story of an African boy born in a village in Northern Rhodesia that is revolutionised by the growth of the Copperbelt industry.

The commentator introduces the story over a map, with the title 'Northern Rhodesia 1902'. 'At the time', he states, 'I was a District Commissioner in Northern Rhodesia. That was how I got mixed up with the discovery of copper there and saw the effect it had on the African'. The commentator talks over scenes of traditional African village life, outlining the 'primitive manner' in which they lived. The film's narrative begins with the birth of a baby, Chisoko, to the chief's daughter. The baby's father was the only local not present as he was out hunting with an English prospector, 'a fellow named Collier'. During their trip William Collier shot an antelope and on inspecting the creature discovered copper nearby. He marked the spot, staked his claim and paid Chisoko's father a sovereign, which he buried.

Collier's claim was seemingly forgotten until twenty years later when a couple of prospectors visited the chief. He asked Chisoko - who was 'hankering for some way out of their monotonous, endless existence' - to take them to Collier's spot. They discovered 'copper on a grand scale' and there began a process of developing the industry in the area. 'Every day', the commentator states, 'the primitive talents, adapted and developed by experienced white men, were being put to good use'.

Chisoko was disappointed however to see that nothing had changed within his own village, and after gambling his earnings and getting into a fight, his father had to pay off his debt with the sovereign that he had buried years earlier. A chastened Chisoko now goes to work in the mines. After being examined by a British doctor, Chisoko embarks on a tour of the mining camp, which the commentator labels a 'complete revelation'. The work and life in the mines is shown next, as Chisoko undergoes training and begins working with machinery underground. A happy Chisoko now returns once more to his village with his pregnant wife. After arguing with his father over the best place to have his baby, Chisoko's son 'was born in a white man's hospital'. The commentary claims that this incident 'summed up the whole story'. 'Copper had brought to these primitive places more than a great industry', it concludes, 'It had brought in the heart of a man the final break with a barbaric time, and the certain hope of an enlightened future'.



In a statement before the company’s Annual General Meeting in December 1948, the chairman of Roan Antelope Mines reported that, in conjunction with the other Northern Rhodesian mining companies, ‘we have sponsored the production of four films made by G-B Instructional Ltd’. ‘The first two are technical films’, he explained, ‘which we believe will prove of interest to mining and metallurgical men throughout the world and will be of value and assistance to professional associations and technical colleges. The third film is in colour and deals with general living and working conditions on the Copperbelt, while the fourth is a documentary film’ (The Times, 29 November 1948, 8). A speech given by the Chairman of the Rhokana Corporation a year later, in December 1949, noted the progress of these films and explained that ‘the fourth film has been publicly exhibited under the title Chisoko the African and depicts the beneficial effects of the coming of the industry on the life of an African in Northern Rhodesia’ (The Times, 14 December 1949, 9).

The film was produced by Gaumont-British (Africa), which was established in South Africa at the end of 1946. An article in Sight and Sound explained that in 1945 the Southern Rhodesian Government had ‘arranged for Gaumont British units to come to the Colony to film various aspects of life, primarily from the immigration and tourist points of view’. As well as producing Government-sponsored films, the unit also produced films for Children’s Entertainment Films and for other commercial sponsors (Sight and Sound, Spring 1948, 7).

In his 1965 book, Assignment Africa, the film’s director Donald Swanson explained that he was offered the opportunity to work in Africa or Antarctica. He recalls meeting with a producer in England who told him ‘it’s a big film, the biggest documentary we’ve ever tackled. All about the fabulous copper mines in Northern Rhodesia… the benefits, the prosperity that industry and civilisation has brought them [Africans]… Dramatic stuff… Big stuff… Opportunity for you to make a real winner’. Swanson thus flew to Africa with the specific purpose of making Chisoko the African. He first met ‘Johannesburg-based senior officials of the mining companies who were sponsoring the film’ and spent two or three weeks in Johannesburg as the financial and administrative aspects of the picture were arranged. He writes at length about his experiences in the Copperbelt, highlighting both the camaraderie (and drinking) amongst the European bosses, but also the racist attitudes of the compound managers. While distancing himself from these views and noting that this was ‘before the winds of change blew through Africa’, he quotes a number of the managers, who described the workers as ‘just like children’, ‘raw – like monkeys straight out of trees – that’s how we got most of them’, while another remarked ‘they’re good boys really… just have to watch ‘em and know their ways’ (Swanson, 1965, 2, 17, 18).

Swanson’s account is filled with anecdotes from his trip that are based on the cultural differences between Europeans and Africans. He recalls, for example, his difficulties in filming a new-born child in the hospital as many of the locals ‘have a deep rooted superstition that if you point a camera, it is a sort of evil eye that will take away their spirit’. ‘We took the required shot and within twenty-four hours the child was dead’. It was, Swanson noted, ‘strange and inexplicable’. He also noted the difficulties of filming the ‘bush’ sequences, explaining that he had to pay an extra sixpence to get the local women to appear bare-breasted, even though he had ‘noticed no marked modesty amongst the village ladies until then’. The women then collected their money, rolled down their tops and queued again. ‘It was impossible to identify them all personally. So many contrived to get paid twice’ wrote Swanson. ‘To our untrained European eyes, they all looked much the same. And, no doubt, to their eyes, we Whites also looked identical – identical suckers’ (Swanson, 1965, 32, 44).

Swanson is best known now for his hugely influential ‘all-African’ urban dramas – African Jim (often known as Jim Comes to Jo’burg) made in 1949 and The Magic Garden (1951) – both of which centred on African characters and offered a ‘liberal perspective on black experience and identity’ (Maingard, 2007, 78). These films are now largely established within African cinema history, but much of Swanson’s concurrent work – for example, Chisoko the African – has been almost entirely overlooked.

Chisoko the African was initially released theatrically in England through the Gaumont circuit. It played as a ‘B movie’ alongside a cartoon entitled The Ostrich, on a programme headlined by the 1948 David Niven film Enchantment, and was, according to Louis Nell of the Central African Film Unit, ‘widely shown in British cinemas during 1949-1950’ (Eyles, 1996, 190, Nell, 1998, 196). The film was subsequently distributed non-theatrically through the large commercial library Sound Services Ltd, who advertised it as a film for ‘teaching history’ (Williams, 1962, 52). Indeed, a review in Today’s Cinema upon the film’s theatrical release suggested that it would play ‘surely, in the school rather than in the cinema, for the film is probably more educational than entertaining’. The review argued that the mining scenes would offer ‘some educational value for adolescents’ but are not ‘the sort of thing the average patron expects in his entertainment programme’. It did however note the ‘unaffected native portrayal’ and the ‘authentic African backgrounds’ but suggested that the images of African village life were already familiar to cinemagoers (Today’s Cinema, 29 April 1949, 7).

The film may also have played to African audiences and, in particular, to the mineworkers of the Copperbelt. Historian Charles Ambler, in his analysis of colonial audiences in Northern Rhodesia, outlined the establishment and growth of film shows on the Copperbelt, from their first public showing in 1928. Ambler shows that by the late 1930s film shows ‘were a well-established feature of life in the copper-mining towns and company compounds’ (Ambler, 2001, 82). In 1944 approximately 17,000 Africans saw films each week in the established municipal and mine-company cinemas, while Ambler further notes that ‘at the Roan Antelope Mine in the mid-1950s, two thousand or more would gather for weekly film shows that were social events as much as entertainment’ (Ambler, 2001, 88, 95).

Chisoko the African outlines an established history of the copper industry, which was widely repeated within many of the industry’s sponsored books, but it also indicates an increasing emphasis on worker welfare, which was evident in post-war company reports. For example, a statement by the Consolidated African Trust in 1949 outlined that ‘our policy of raising the living standard of our African employees and of providing healthy living conditions is being consistently pursued’ (The Times, 22 November 1949, 8). Historian L. J. Butler examined labour relations in the mines during the 1940s and noted the development of trade unionism ‘assisted by the colonial state’ after the war (Butler, 2007, 135). The African Mineworkers’ Union was established in March 1949, and helped secure a pay increase for African workers during the year, although demands for greater equality continued. European employees, represented by the Northern Rhodesia Mine Workers Union, also confronted the companies in 1949 over the issue of working hours. By 1949 there were 4,746 Europeans and 38,140 Africans employed in the mining industry in Northern Rhodesia, which was comfortably the biggest employer for both races (Annual Report, 1949, 12). 



An article in Business Archives in 1979 examining mining records in Zambia described Chisoko the African as ‘a glowing tribute to the companies’ paternalistic care for black employees’ (Business Archives, November 1979, 24). Certainly, as a film sponsored by the mining companies, Chisoko the African endorses a rhetoric of British development in Africa and emphasises the companies’ welfare work for its African employees. The film, which uses a predominantly African cast – although all dialogue and thoughts are expressed through the British commentator – may also be of interest to film historians in the context of Donald Swanson’s more celebrated African productions.

In emphasising the perceived benefits of European development in Northern Rhodesia, the film initially represents the Africans as undeveloped, ‘primitive’ and ignorant. From the outset, the British commentator notes that ‘the Africans led the simplest of simple lives’, worked with ‘primitive implements’ and ‘prepared their food in the most primitive manner’. ‘I suppose they were happy because they didn’t know any better’, he suggests, while also noting that ‘they were all very happy, very human’.

As Today’s Cinema suggested, the film may offer a familiar cinematic representation of African village life, but this helps to fulfil the film’s primary function of promoting the developments and opportunities now provided by these companies. When Chisoko is born early in the film, the commentator describes conditions as a ‘bit grim’ and argues that this was ‘one of the most important things that would be remedied by the coming of civilisation’. The mining village is, in contrast to the earlier scenes, a ‘complete revelation’. It is presented as an idyll, in which ‘people of all tribes [are] living side by side’, while the workers receive training, education, housing and medical care from a British doctor. The film emphasises the co-operation between the contrasting African and European cultures, as the commentator states that ‘every day the primitive talents, adapted by experienced white men, were being put to good use’. The language here indicates the inherent division along racial lines, which is again evident at the film’s conclusion as Chisoko’s son is born in a ‘white man’s hospital’.

The film’s message of African social development, enacted through business and industry, is reinforced in the film’s final lines. ‘[C]opper had brought to those primitive places more than a great industry’ the commentator concludes. ‘It had brought in the heart and mind of a man the final break with a barbaric time and the certain hope of an enlightened future’. Swanson’s script further notes that this final sequence – as the worker, his wife and new-born child leave the hospital – is ‘symbolic of the new Africa which is arising’ (Swanson, 1965, 21).

Tom Rice (February 2009)


Works Cited

Ambler, Charles, ‘Popular Films and Colonial Audiences: The Movies in Northern Rhodesia’, The American Historical Review, Volume 106, Number 1 (February 2001), 81-105.

Business Archives, Number 45, November 1979, 24.

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

Colonial Office, Annual Report on Northern Rhodesia (London: H.M.S.O., 1949).

Connolly, Brian M., ‘Southern Rhodesia – Is This Your Country?’, Sight and Sound, Spring 1948.

Eyles, Allen, Gaumont British Cinemas (Cinema Theatre Association, 1996).

Maingard, Jacqueline, South African National Cinema (London and New York: Routledge, 2007).

Nell, Louis, Images of Yesteryear: Film-Making in Central Africa (Harper Collins (Zimbabwe), 1998).

Swanson, Donald, Assignment Africa (Cape Town: Simondium, 1965).

‘Roan Antelope Copper Mines’, The Times, 29 November 1948, 8.

‘Consolidated African Selection Trust’, The Times, 22 November 1949, 8.

‘Rhokana Corporation Limited Dividend Maintained And Reserves Strengthened’, The Times, 14 December 1949, 9.

‘Chisoko the African’, Today’s Cinema, 29 April 1949, 7.

Williams, Gwyneth A., Guide to Illustrative Material for Use in Teaching History (London: Historical Association, 1962).

Zambia's Mining Industry: the First 50 Years (Ndola, Zambia: Public Relations Department, Roan Consolidated Mines Ltd., 1978).




Technical Data

Running Time:
36 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film
3264 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Nchanga Consolidated
Rhokana Corp
Roan Antelope Copper Mines
Assistant Director
Associate Producer
SUMNER, Geoffrey
Production Company
Gaumont-British Instructional
Production Manager
Script Supervisor







Production Organisations