This film is held by the BFI (ID: 60699).


Filmed on behalf of the British Cotton Growing Association and the Empire Cotton Association, the film shows cotton growing and general conditions in the Sudan in the latter half of the 1920s. The areas covered are Kadugli, Amadi, Mardi and Torit.

The film opens with shots of local Sudanese men and women - mostly naked - queuing with large bags of cotton. The cotton is weighed and then inspected by Europeans. Out in the cotton fields, a European man plays with his dog, before the film depicts scenes at a trading post. The cotton is transported on the river and unloaded, as the camera records travelling scenes of the riverside. Two Europeans, having parked their car, sit and enjoy lunch. Locals help push a vehicle, while transportation is also carried out by camels. Amidst sequences of locals digging, working and posing for the camera, the film also shows Europeans inspecting, playing and eating. Later, there is a fire at the cotton hut stores. In the next scene, Europeans inspect the bags of cotton, which are again transported by locals on their heads, before travelling on the river to a trading post. The locals are shown constructing a large hut, while Europeans are waiting outside a train station, and sitting outside on a verandah enjoying tea. Further scenes of trading posts and of the river transportation follow. Locals are then shown making cane furniture, baking mud bricks and pounding grain. The film shows an ox-driven 'saskia' water wheel before again showing Europeans enjoying tea on a lawn. Scenes from a local zoo are followed by further scenes of cotton queues - now featuring locals in Arab dress - and inspections. Once more there is a succession of staged ethnographic shots - for example, a European teaches a topless local girl to smoke a cigarette - and shots from the river. A sign on a tree, shown in close up, reads 'Congo Belge', signifying the Sudanese border, while the final scenes show local village life and Europeans sitting outside a hut.



Cotton Growing in the Sudan was filmed by Brigadier Arthur Birtwistle. Birtwistle was a prominent name in the cotton industry, with the family business owning 17 mills in Lancashire by the early 1930s (Lancashire Evening Telegraph, 10 December 2001). Arthur had assumed the managing directorship of the business from his father William, and visited the Sudan initially in 1923-24 as a member of a party (which included representatives of the Sudan Plantations Syndicate, Dr H. Martin Leake, the director of Agriculture in India and Sir John Russell) to report on the prospects of cotton growing in the area (Tothill, 1948, 842). The footage filmed by Birtwistle seems to be have been intended as a record to show back in England, but there were also plans to produce films on cotton growing for locals. Andrew Roberts noted that by 1929 the Empire Marketing Board was planning a series of sound films for Sudanese farmers on cotton production techniques, although the project was ‘halted by an explosion and fire before the first film was completed’ (Roberts, 1987, 201).

There was a growing emphasis during the 1920s on developing the cotton industry in the Sudan. Schemes had been launched earlier in the century, such as the Sudan Experimental Plantations Syndicate in 1904 (reorganised as the Sudan Plantations Syndicate in 1907), but shortages of water, labour and high transport costs restricted the development (Daly, 2004, 223). In 1920 the Empire Cotton Growing Corporation had issued a report, in response to claims that 80% of the cotton used in Great Britain came from the United States, emphasising the need and capability of the Empire to produce more cotton of its own (The Times, 23 January 1920, 13). At the heart of this development was Sudan, which the Corporation recognised in 1922 as ‘one of the most promising countries for development in connection with cotton cultivation’ (The Times, 16 December 1922, 8). It noted the proposed development of a railway scheme to link Kassala to the Port Sudan railway, while William Himbury, the managing director of the British Cotton Growing Association, stated on his return from the Sudan in 1923, that ‘there is a prospect of the Empire becoming self-supporting in regard to its raw cotton in a few years if certain big irrigation schemes are successful in making a larger acreage available for cotton growing’. Himbury was referring here to the Gezira irrigation scheme, which, he stated, initially intended to put 300,000 acres under irrigation, with 100,000 under cotton (The Times, 31 March 1923, 5).

Both the Empire Cotton Growing Corporation and the British Cotton Growing Association continued to work closely with the Sudanese Government in developing cotton production in the latter half of the 1920s. William Himbury returned to the Gezira in 1929 and commented that ‘the amount of work that has been done since I was through here three years ago is enormous’. ‘The blocks of land are about 15,000 acres each’, he added, ‘and are under the supervision of inspectors, who have two sub-inspectors under them. These officials are supplied with “Baby Austin” cars and are continually round the area, and therefore always in touch with the tenants.’ Himbury noted the cleanliness of the blocks, and the development of the rail links. ‘The greatest benefit, however, must be to the people’ he observed. ‘When we first went to the Gezira the population was often decimated by famine…To-day they have plenty of grain and milk from camels, sheep, goats and cows’ (Himbury, 1929, 39).

The development of a cotton industry within Sudan was thus presented as a benefit not just for the English mills, but also for the development of Sudan. This emphasis on local development – represented through the establishment of markets, transportation, education and public health services – also served a political purpose, in promoting the British role at a moment when the status of Sudan was a crucial issue in Anglo-Egyptian negotiations, and when anti-British sentiments and Sudanese nationalism were on the increase. Sir John Maffey, Governor General of the Sudan, told a lunch for the Empire Cotton Growing Association in 1928 that this was ‘a very critical time for the Sudan administration, but it was the Gezira scheme which had been the main factor in maintaining the stability of the country’ (The Times, 3 October 1928, 8). 



As a film sponsored by the Empire Cotton Association and the British Cotton Growing Association, Cotton Growing in the Sudan highlights broader attempts to develop the industry throughout the Empire, and in particular in the Sudan, during the 1920s. However, in closely following the generic and representational tropes of other imperial documentaries, such as those produced by British Instructional, and those shown at the Wembley Exhibition, it also serves as an ethnographic record of the people and places of the Sudan.

Although the filmmaker and sponsors were ostensibly interested in the prospects of cotton production in the Sudan, the cameraman repeatedly turns his camera onto local life. When travelling on the water, he films the people and their huts along the river. He also presents a succession of staged shots, in which locals perform directly to the camera. In one scene, they dance for the camera, while in another, the men finish digging and then pose for the cameraman. Later sequences also show other industries and skills, depicting, for example, locals making a chair from cane for the Europeans and producing mud bricks.

The film also shares much in common with expedition films of the 1920s – for example, Crossing the Great Sahara (1923) – as it constantly emphasises the travel and exploration across the country. The camera shows the British travelling by car, lorry, ship and train, as it highlights the ongoing development of the country, and illustrates the ways, through modern technology, in which they are able to traverse the country.

Within this rhetoric of exploration, the locals are objectified as further ‘discoveries’, while the British are shown as supervisors, organising and modernising this still undeveloped land. Even when the British are pictured with the locals away from work, the staged shots still emphasise cultural differences. For example, a British man teaches a local how to smoke, while another shot shows two British men inspecting the spears carried by locals. These shots reveal the British at leisure, and serve as part of a broader promotion of British life within Africa. The British raise a glass (and bottle) to the camera, eat meals on a verandah, and take tea in the gardens of opulent buildings. The footage may thus have served not only to reveal the ongoing work and investment of the imperial cotton companies within the Sudan, but also to highlight to potential emigrants the opportunities and lifestyle available within the colonies.

Tom Rice (March 2009)


Works Cited

Daly, M. W., Empire on the Nile: The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1898-1934 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Himbury, William, ‘Part II – Egypt and the Sudan’, Iraq to the Sudan, 1929 (Manchester: British Cotton Growing Association, 1929).

‘Rise and fall of the Cotton Emperors’, Lancashire Evening Telegraph, 10 December 2001.

Roberts, Andrew D., ‘Africa on Film to 1940’, History in Africa, Vol. 14 (1987), 189-227.

‘Cotton-growing in the Empire’, The Times, 23 January 1920, 13.

‘Empire Cotton’, The Times, 16 December 1922, 8.

‘Empire Cotton Growing. Prospects In India And The Sudan’, The Times, 31 March 1923, 5.

‘Cotton-Growing In The Sudan’, The Times, 3 October 1928, 8.

Tothill, John Douglas, Agriculture in the Sudan: Being a Handbook of Agriculture as Practised in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948).




Technical Data

Running Time:
28 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
2507 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
British Cotton Growing Association
Empire Cotton Association