This film is held by the BFI (ID: 403239).


Members of the 'Savage South Africa' troupe at Southampton Docks.

The film shows a group of Africans (Zulus) in full tribal attire at Southampton docks. They chant and pace forward, performing for the camera. A white man comes forward and with a glance to the camera leads a small group of them forward.

Note: Originally filmed in 68mm. This film was previously identified as being a Kaffir war dance at the Ferari Mines, Johannesburg (!).



‘An unlikely scene was witnessed at Southampton Dock on Wednesday morning on the arrival of the Union liner Goth from South Africa. The vessel had on board the whole of the stock-in-trade of “Savage South Africa,” which is to be produced at Earl’s Court this summer’. The Western Mail further explained that ‘among the effects were over 200 natives of South African tribes, a number of Boer families, representatives of the mounted police, and a number of animals’ (Western Mail, 20 April 1899). These animals included six elephants, seven lions and eight tigers along with ‘several members of the Cape Town Rifles, Bechuanaland Police and South African Police’ (Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, 22 April 1899). From Southampton, ‘the natives and animals’ travelled on ‘three special trains’ to Earls Court, where they performed twice daily at the Empress Theatre as part of the Greater Britain Exhibition (The Era, 22 April, 1899).

The Times discussed the performance of “Savage South Africa” and argued that ‘whatever view one may take of the action of the organizers in bringing over a large number of natives to be stared at and to take their chance of being demoralized in such strange and unedifying surroundings, there is nothing to be said against the entertainment itself. It is’, the paper continued, ‘a capital circus performance with a special interest lent to it by the representation of famous scenes in recent South African history’ (The Times, 9 May 1899, 14). Ben Shepherd recognised the exhibition as part of ‘a long tradition of putting “savages” on display in England’, yet suggested that Frank Fillis’s ‘real novelty lay in the scale of his enterprise’. Fillis, a Londoner who had built up a network of theatres and circuses in South Africa, recruited the Africans mainly from white farmers in Natal, with a number, according to Shepherd, under the impression that they were heading for the diamond fields in Kimberley (Shepherd, 1986, 97).

The exhibition was not without controversy, and The London Star, the Aborigines Protection Society and Joseph Chamberlain in the House of Commons, were among those that condemned the enterprise, while others in South Africa objected on racial grounds, as they expressed fears for the safety of ‘white women’ (Shepherd, 1986, 97). There were questions about the treatment of the troupe, but even stronger concerns about the impact of these well-policed  ‘primitive natives’ on British society (Pall Mall Gazette, 4 May 1899). In August 1899, the London Exhibition Company ordered the ‘Kaffir kraal’ at the exhibition closed to women. The story reached America where it was reported that the ‘vilest orgies take place there’ as ‘fashionable women go into the black men’s huts and give them presents’. These fears were fuelled by news of the intended marriage between Prince Lobengula, ‘a former inmate of the Kraal’, and an English girl. The paper concluded that ‘this little band of savages has brought home to the English people for the first time the seriousness of mixed marriages’ (Galveston Daily News, 20 August 1899, 3).

The arrival at Southampton was filmed on 19 April 1899 and exhibited at the Palace Theatre of Varieties in London as part of its programme on 1 May. The Palace, which had originally opened as the Royal English Opera House in 1891 and which was at this time the largest theatre in London, exhibited American Biograph pictures from 1897 to 1902 (Brown and Anthony, 1999, 264). Film historian John Barnes noted the short period between filming and exhibition with Biograph pictures and argued that the Biograph policy ‘was to provide its patrons with an up-to-date record of the most notable happenings around the world’ (Barnes, 1992, 138).

The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company Picture Catalogue described The Landing of Savage South Africa at Southampton as ‘an exhibition by Frank Fillis’s company of Zulu and Swazi warriors in native costumes’ (Brown and Anthony, 1999, 264). Reconstructions of the troupe’s act were subsequently filmed by the Warwick Trading Company – for example, Savage South Africa: Attack and Repulse (1899) – but interest in South African events on screen increased markedly in October 1899, with the outbreak of the Boer War. Cameramen from British Biograph and the Warwick Trading Company immediately travelled to South Africa, and for the next year ‘Anglo-Boer war-related films regularly accounted for slightly more than half of the total Biograph presentation at the Palace’ (Brown and Anthony, 1999, 129).



The Landing of Savage South Africa at Southampton is symptomatic of much early cinema, both in its emphasis on movement and the display of ‘attractions’ – the Africans dance and wave their spears and shields – and in its construction, as the Africans perform to the fixed camera as if on a theatrical stage. Most significantly though, this is an early example of an ethnographic film, displaying and artificially staging a representation of ‘Savage South Africa’ for the British public.

The purpose of the Africans’ visit to England was to serve as objects of display, as exhibition pieces. In particular, these Africans were presented as ‘savage’ and ‘uncivilised’, in accordance with imperial prejudices – apparent in discourses surrounding the show as well – that highlighted British supremacy and emphasised the perceived dangers of the African. This image is also evident within this short film, as the Africans wave their spears at the camera and appear in tribal dress. They appear in contrast to the white man – quite possibly Fillis – who features on screen in top hat and tails. However, the appearance of this white man clearly reveals the artifice behind this representation, as the Africans look at a figure outside of the frame, and then move forward under the direction of the white man who now appears on screen.

Film historian Michael Hammond suggested that this film had two purposes: ‘to advertise the travelling show and, more subtly, to demonstrate the power of cinema in bringing exotic events, locations, people – in fact the Empire – to the British cinemagoer’ (Hammond, 2007, 150). The film camera, that most modern of devices, is used to record traditional Africa. The film highlights – both through the technology used and the representation offered – British primacy and furthermore, in showing the Africans arriving at Southampton, a spirit of imperial adventure and conquest.

Tom Rice (May 2008)


Works Cited

Barnes, John, Filming the Boer War in England: Volume 4 of the Beginnings of the Cinema in England, 1894-1901 (London: Bishopgate Press, 1992).

Brown, Richard and Barry Anthony eds., A Victorian Film Enterprise: The History of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1897-1915 (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 1999).

Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, 22 April 1899.

‘Acting Rights in South Africa’, The Era, 22 April, 1899.

‘London Cable Letter’, Galveston Daily News, 20 August 1899, 3.

Hammond, Michael, ‘Southampton, The Great War and the Cinema’ in Miles Taylor ed., Southampton: Gateway to the British Empire (London: I.B. Taurus, 2007).

“Savage South Africa”: Thoroughly Happy’, Pall Mall Gazette, 4 May 1899.

Shepherd, Ben, ‘Showbiz imperialism: The Case of Peter Lobengula’, in John MacKenzie, ed., Imperialism and Popular Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986).

‘The Greater Britain Exhibition’, The Times, 9 May 1899, 14.

‘Savage South Africa’, Western Mail, 20 April 1899.



  • SCHULTZE CAN 48A (Acquisition)

Technical Data

Running Time:
1 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
110 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Production Company
British Mutoscope and Biograph Company