This film is held by the BFI (ID: 18613).


INDUSTRIAL/ETHNOLOGY. Film on the Nigerian cotton industry and how the natives use cotton themselves in the manufacture of clothing.

""BLACK COTTON" Arranged by BRITISH INSTRUCTIONAL FILMS LTD. SURBITON, SURREY." (10). "Cotton produced in the new cotton fields of the Empire is now becoming an appreciable item of the world's cotton supply. The industry in Nigeria, as far as growing is concerned, is a purely native one." (34). Panning shot of a cotton field (48). "Although the plant is not, strictly speaking, an annual, it is found more profitable to destroy the shrubs after the crop is gathered and sow new seed each year." (64). Another panning shot of a cotton field (78). "During the harvest all the available hands young and old, are called into full employment." (85). LS of male natives picking cotton (97). "Under favourable conditions the average yield of seed cotton per acre is approximately 350 lb." (105). LS of women natives picking cotton (127). "The Boll is a soft downy substance resembling fine wool, with several small seeds attached to it." (135). As per 105-127, including one woman with a suckling child (143). "The cotton is purchased at numerous buying centres and transported to the nearest depot." (150). ELS of a line of natives, men and women, with sacks of cotton on their heads walking through field (179). "Donkeys, mules and camels are used in transporting the cotton to the ginnery." (187). Donkeys, bearing their loads of cotton sacks, being driven down a dirt road (203). As per previous shot, but with camels (221). "Great new areas of production await opening up as soon as the Railways now in course of construction are completed." (232). Shot as per 203-221 (248). "The ready market causes the crop to be regarded by natives as a most reliable source of income." (257). ELS of lines of natives with sacks of cotton on their heads walking in front of tin sheds/warehouses (272). "Weighing the cotton that has been brought in." (276). Sacks of cotton being lifted off a trolley and placed in a pile (286). "It is calculated that Nigeria will soon be exporting a million bales of cotton annually." (294). Lines of natives with cotton sacks on heads, walking towards, and then climbing up, a large mound, several storeys high, of cotton sacks (315). "When the cotton has all been gathered, it is spread out and carefully graded." (323). Panning shot of native workers sitting on ground in large area filled with cotton, and working it through their hands. Others are standing and looking at the camera (337). "The reason for this is that the qualty varies according to the merits of the cotton seed." (347). As per 323-337, but with the camera closer to the workers (365). "When it has been carefully graded it is then passed through the ginning machine - the operation by which the lint is separated from the seeds." (379). An indoors shot of three natives operating three ginning machines. The cotton can be seen moving through the machines at great speed [the shot is quite dark owing to being indoors] (393). "Old methods die hard and some Africans still adhere to a rather laborious manner of ginning." (402). LS of natives sitting on the ground ginning cotton, an operation that involves working the cotton with short, slender sticks (414). "A tedious operation by which one hand could clean only a pound or so of cotton a day." (423). Closer shot as per 402-414 (437). "This seed is remarkably rich in oil. It is used as a substitute for olive oil." (446). Two shots of a row of natives sitting on the ground and rolling sticks over small quantities of cotton held on small flat-topped stones in front of them (470). "When the seed has been separated the lint is then pressed by machinery into large bales ready for shipment." (479). Two shots of native workers in a large room full of cotton on the ground, shovelling it down into a hole in the floor [images dark owing to being shot indoors] (505). "Each bale is 400lb in weight." (509). Shot of a bale (517). Four workers lifting a bale into a rail goods carriage (531). "The cotton plant has been in Africa from time immemorial, and a great deal is used by the Africans for local purposes." (542). Three women sitting on the ground with a ball of cotton in one hand and spinning it into a thin strand with the other. A spindle whorl is on the end of each strand (572). "They have their own methods of spinning - "walking down the Strand is better than walking with the strand."" (582). ELS of the women attaching the strands of spun cotton between pegs placed in the wall of a mud-brick building (606). "In spite of the great import of cheap European cotton cloth the native weaving industry continues to flourish." (615). ELS of six men sitting on the ground and weaving on looms made out of pieces of wood (629). "They are wonderfully expert in the use of machines of their own construction." (639). Closer shot of one of the men working on his loom (653). "The cloth is then placed into vegetable dye pits where native-grown indigo is used." (662). Panning shot of a large group of men sitting on the ground and lifting pieces of cloth in and out of dozens of small pits in the ground containing the dyes (687). "The secret of these vegetable dyes has been handed down for generations." (693). Closer shot of two of the men working at one of the pits (716). "This heavy beating is done to produce a sheen on the cloth." (723). Two rows of four natives in each, sitting on either side of a wooden log on which they are beating pieces of cloth with large wooden mallet-like tools (747). "Excellent results are obtained, the finished article being perfect in texture and colouring." (754). LS of a man holding up a piece of cloth for the camera (762). "Hand embroidery of exquisite design." (766). Two native women sitting on the ground carrying out embroidery work on pieces of cloth [a very dark image] (776). Two LSs of the finished articles being held up to the camera [very dark images] (792). "And greatly appreciated by the ladies." (796). LS of four native women posing for the camera and wearing clothes with embroidered designs (814). "A BRITISH INSTRUCTIONAL FILMS LTD. Production", with the company name around the edge of their logo (830ft).

Note: The title "NEW ERA FILMS LTD. present "The Empire Series"" can be briefly seen on a couple of frames at the beginning of the film.

The compilation film NIGERIA contains footage from this film.



Black Cotton was released to cinemas in February 1927 as part of the second set in British Instructional’s ‘The Empire’ series. Described in Kinematograph Weekly as ‘full of interest’ and as ‘a study of Nigerian cotton fields and modern and primitive weaving methods’, the film was subsequently distributed, it seems, under the title ‘Cotton Growing in Nigeria’ (KW, 24 February 1927, 76). Cotton Growing in Nigeria was included in British Instructional’s catalogue of films for non-theatrical distribution in 1928, which stated that ‘in seeing how raw materials are produced, and the processes through which they pass before they are ready for export, the interdependence of one nation upon another is realised’ (British Instructional, 1928, 10).

The film assumes a more prominent place in colonial film history, however, as it was one of three films supplied by the Empire Marketing Board and taken out to East Africa by Dr Julian Huxley in 1929 (Roberts, 1987, 201). Huxley was sent out on behalf of the Colonial Advisory Committee on Native Education to test levels of comprehension amongst African audiences, conducting what Rachael Low described as a ‘small but influential experiment’ (Burns, 2002, 27, Low, 1979, 43). Huxley spent several weeks screening the films in Kenya and Uganda and outlined his conclusions in a report to the Colonial Office and then in a book, Africa View. He explained that the three films ‘had been deliberately chosen to represent three levels of difficulty’. Cotton Growing in Nigeria was the simplest. Huxley asked children from the government schools to write essays about the films. ‘We found that the people of Nigeria are now civilized’, one wrote after viewing Cotton Growing in Nigeria, ‘as I saw the women picking cotton from the pods and put in the sacks, and how they gin it by machines called gins. Also how they tie in bales, and how they make clothing. All these were shown to us. And we were pleased with them’ (Huxley, 1931, 61). Huxley suggested that the film appealed because it ‘represented people like themselves, engaged in familiar occupations’ (Huxley, 1931, 58).

Huxley was encouraged by the results of his screenings and ‘was very enthusiastic regarding the potential of African audiences to comprehend sophisticated film techniques’. Huxley concluded that ‘African audiences should be treated no differently from any other group’, which would contradict subsequent reports and assumptions, promoted most notably over the next two decades by William Sellers, a Nigerian medical officer who would subsequently head the Colonial Film Unit (Burns, 2002, 25). However, in recognising film’s potential in educating African audiences, his experiment would influence and encourage further initiatives in Africa. For example, Rachael Low stated that Huxley’s book was read by Major Notcutt, who ‘was interested to find his belief that films could be used in their education confirmed by Huxley, and was later to take part in the important Bantu Education Experiment’, which produced and screened 35 films for African audiences between 1935 and 1937 (Low, 1979, 44).

The film begins with a title explaining that ‘Cotton produced in the new cotton fields of the Empire is now becoming an appreciable item of the world’s cotton supply’. Certainly during the 1920s a series of reports, tours and initiatives within Africa illustrated the importance of cotton to the Empire and highlighted the attempts to expand the industry within Nigeria. The Annual Report of the British Cotton Growing Association outlined in 1925 that ‘experiments continue to be made by the Government Department of Agriculture with a view to improving the quality of the cotton produced’ in the less conducive Southern Provinces, while two new ginning plants and improved grading and inspection processes were introduced in the Northern Provinces (British Cotton Growing Association, 1925, 27, 30). However, central to any further progress was the development of transport links. In 1923 The Times had reported that cotton growing in Nigeria was ‘still hampered by the lack of transport facilities’ and after the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, William Ormsby-Gore visited the cotton growing areas of Nigeria in 1926, he reported that ‘Nigeria, and particularly Northern Nigeria, is one of the great potential cotton-growing areas of the Empire; but the development of that industry has been retarded by the lack of adequate transport facilities, a deficiency that is now beginning to be made good’ (The Times, 7 December 1923, 19, 22 May 1926, 11). Ormsby-Gore noted the need for rail links to the northern districts and added that ‘as cotton was the prospective premier crop of Northern Nigeria, more ginneries equipped with modern appliances were needed and cheaper transport’ (The Times, 17 March 1926, 13). 



As with all of the films within The Empire Series, Black Cotton was intended for British audiences, initially for cinematic release, before it was then distributed non-theatrically as an educational film. As such, the film may appear to follow the traditions of other British imperial non-fiction films, exemplified by its ethnographic shots of African workers and the highlighting of contrasts between the modern methods and machinery of the British and the traditional, ‘primitive’ methods of the locals (‘old methods die hard and some Africans still adhere to a rather laborious method of ginning’). The film also outlines a familiar colonial rhetoric. While explaining that the cotton growing industry ‘is a purely native one’, it emphasises the developments introduced by the British – ‘great new areas of production await opening up as soon as the railways now in course of construction are completed’ – and highlights the importance of improved transport, and of the recently introduced grading system. In keeping with many British Instructional productions, the film displays the whole industrial process and, as an educational film, details through the titles both the methods of production and the amounts produced – ‘under favourable conditions the average yield of seed cotton per acre is approximately 350lb’.

However, Black Cotton is unusual – and possibly unique – within The Empire Series in playing to African audiences as well. The film assumes a historical significance as part of an early experiment in analysing African audiences, yet it differs from many of the subsequent films screened in Africa – from Williams Sellers’ productions, to the BEKE films and those of the Colonial Film Unit – in that it was not intended for, or specifically tailored to, an African audience. Furthermore, the conclusions drawn from the screenings of Black Cotton challenge and contradict the assumptions about African audiences that would inform these future productions and dominate colonial filmmaking for the next thirty years.

Tom Rice (March 2009)


Works Cited

British Cotton Growing Association, Annual Report, 1925 (Manchester: British Cotton Growing Association, 1925).

British Instructional Films, Catalogue of Films for Non-Theatrical Exhibition (1928).

Burns, J. M., Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe (Ohio: Ohio University Research in International Studies, 2002).

Huxley, Julian, Africa View (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1931).

Kinematograph Weekly, 24 February 1927, 76.

Low, Rachael, The History of British Film, 1929 - 1939: Documentary and Educational Films of the 1930's (New York and London: Bowker, 1979).

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

‘Empire Cotton Prospects: Large Yields Expected’, The Times, 7 December 1923, 19.

‘Mr. Ormsby-Gore On Nigeria. A Land Of Great Promise’, The Times, 17 March 1926, 13.

‘Progress In West Africa. Mr. Ormsby-Gore's Tour’, The Times, 22 May 1926, 11.



  • Cotton Growing in Nigeria (Alternative)
Series Title:

Technical Data

Running Time:
12 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
828 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Production Company
British Instructional Films





Production Organisations