This film is held by the BFI (ID: 12608).


An account of the slave trade in the West Indies, and the islands' development since emancipation.

Copeland Grant, seated in a living room, speaks of the West Indians' mixed descent and of their loyalty to Britain, before the film considers the history of the West Indies. Using maps, prints and a background poetic commentary set to music, the film recalls the Portugese expansion 'before 1500', and introduces Anton Gonzalez who brought black slaves to the Portuguese. The development of the slave trade is considered, highlighted by Africans pushing a boat through surf, Portugese forts on the Gold Coast and an African voiceover. The commentary describes how village chiefs collaborated with the slave traders, as shots of Africans with spears and tom-toms are shown. A black man points out on a wall-chart the sea route from Africa to Jamaica, as the journey - including the layout of the slave ship and the mortality rates on board - is described. The commentary mentions the 1791 revolt, the development of the Anti-Slavery movement in Europe (the 1807 Act and the 1833 Act of Emancipation) before showing shots of the sky, seagulls, and a laughing local boy. The film again shows Copeland Grant, who states that the slaves' emancipation in reality often meant starvation, but that conditions are gradually improving. This is followed by market and street scenes, and then by shots of field workers. Grant describes the growth of education in the West Indies - the film shows West Indian children in a classroom - and states that the West Indians have an increasing share in government but have not yet obtained self-government. The film concludes with further shots of workers in a field, as Grant explains that 'much still remains to be done'.



In the autumn of 1935 Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden began work on a documentary provisionally entitled ‘Negroes’. Auden described the soundtrack as ‘a most elaborate affair, beginning with quotations from Aristotle about slavery and including a setting of a poem by Blake’ (cited in Carpenter, 1981, 185-186). Britten noted in his diary that much of their work had ‘to be altered for [GPO head, John] Grierson as being too “flippant” and subjective’ and by November, after a couple of months of work, the project was abandoned (Britten, 1991). Aspects of this work finally appeared in 1938 as God's Chillun.

The GPO Film Unit was founded in 1933, effectively as a successor to the Empire Marketing Board. Headed by John Grierson until 1936, the GPO Film Unit was subsequently transferred to the Ministry of Information, where it became the Crown Film Unit early in 1940. Auden and Britten began collaborating for the GPO during the summer of 1935 – most famously on Night Mail (1936) – and their work on God’s Chillun dates from autumn 1935, when they were aged 28 and 21 respectively. Basil Wright explained that ‘soon after Night Mail’ the pair worked together on ‘another highly experimental film on the Negro, based, I think, partly on some material I had shot in the West Indies some three years previously’ (The Musical Times, November 1963, 780). This material dated from 1933, when Wright had travelled to the West Indies and produced Windmill in Barbados (1933) and Cargo from Jamaica (1933). Further footage originated from Walter Creighton and James Rogers’s trip to West Africa in 1932 (see for example, Castes and Fisherfolk), while a report in the Post Office Magazine in 1939 recalls ‘slaves’ wandering around the film unit, suggesting that additional studio filming took place in 1938 (Stedman, January 1939, 16).

Although Wright recalls a session in 1935 in which parts of the score for God’s Chillun were played in his flat, he stated that ‘thereafter the project was abandoned’ (Mitchell, 1981, 129). Auden would reuse some of the writing for ‘Negroes’ inThe Ascent of F6 a year later (for example, the concluding lines of God’s Chillun, ‘the choice is free to all; and light falls equally on black and white’), but was not involved in the film’s completion in 1938. When the film was finally completed, reviews noted its composite nature. ‘God’s Chillun is an experimental film’, Sight and Sound stated in 1938, ‘similar to the early Coal Face in that the sound was completed first, and the visuals later cut and combined with the sound track. It is a poem with music, the poetry by W.H. Auden, the music by Benjamin Britten’ (Sight and Sound, Winter, 1938-9, 171). Rachael Low was far from complimentary about the ‘freakish little film’ finally produced, and suggested that ‘the three editors, not known members of the Film Unit, seem to have created editing chaos’ (Low, 1979, 148). The three editors included Gordon Hales, who would subsequently direct the first Colonial Film Unit production, Mr English at Home (1940) and Max Anderson, who would work for the Crown Film Unit, producing Daybreak in Udi in 1949.

God’s Chillin is introduced by George Copeland Grant – better known as Jackie Grant – a Cambridge graduate who captained the West Indian cricket side in 12 Tests from 1930 to 1935. Between 1932 and 1935 Grant worked in Trinidad as a schoolmaster at Queen’s Royal College, before becoming Principle of the Grenada Boy’s Secondary School in 1935. This represented a move, in Grant’s words, from a position as a ‘member of the colonial service’ to a ‘senior government officer’. A deeply religious man, Grant subsequently spent many years carrying out missionary work in Africa.

In his autobiography, Grant spoke positively of the Colonial office – ‘their high sense of duty and integrity often separated the governing and governed’ – but was critical of their speed in implementing policy. ‘Its declared policy after World War I’, he wrote, ‘was that the interest of the indigenous people of the colonies should be paramount and the political goal should be self-rule. This, I believe, was the genuine desire of the British government; that, in practice, the fulfilment of this desire often left much to be desired, I cannot deny’ (Grant, 1980, 43).



Rachael Low in her assessment of God’s Chillun – a ‘freakish little film’ in which ‘everything that comes to hand is flung together’ – placed the blame for the film’s perceived shortcomings on the three editors who ‘created editing chaos’ (Low, 1979, 148). Certainly the film’s production history – footage from Basil Wright from 1933, a score from Britten in 1935, put together by three editors in 1938 – may explain the broad range of styles (musical, historical, fictional, poetic) within its nine-minute running time. The film also encompasses several voices: an unusual technique that is, however, found in some other of the more experimental films by the British Documentary Movement.

God’s Chillun appears both to criticise the European influences within the West Indies, and endorse the continuing role of the British within the area. In its historical account of the introduction of African slaves to the West Indies, the film uses a variety of African voices, point-of-view shots from the slave ship, and in particular the Britten and Auden soundtrack, to encourage the viewer to empathise and identify with the African slaves.

However, this historical documentary is framed by an address to camera by the West Indian cricketer Jackie Grant, introduced by his academic, rather than sporting, credentials (as M.A.). Grant's speech contextualises the poetic elements of the film, by relating the plight of the African slaves to the modern situation within the West Indies – 'most of the land is still in the hands of Europeans' – and by highlighting, as a senior government officer, the response of the British government to these problems. Grant queries the freedom of the slaves – ‘yes they were free, but free for what? Too often they were free for little more than starvation leisure’ – but appears to qualify his criticisms by explaining that ‘today conditions are somewhat altered’ as he outlines the developments in agriculture and trade introduced by the British.

At a period of extreme industrial and political unrest throughout the Caribbean colonies, Grant emphasises that the 'cosmopolitan' people of the West Indies ‘have one thing in common, namely loyalty to the British crown’. His concluding speech does allude to some of the current labour problems – ‘unfortunately all these crops are grown with the aid of cheap labour’ – and also, in stating that the West Indians ‘have not yet acquired self-government’, anticipates a move towards independence. Yet, at this moment of heightened West Indian nationalism and widespread unrest, Grant calls for gradual change and reiterates the need for continued British assistance. ‘Many changes for the better have taken place since emancipation’, he states, ‘but much still remains to be done’.

Tom Rice (May 2008)


Works Cited

Britten, Benjamin, Letters from a Life: the Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, edited by Donald Mitchell (London: Faber and Faber, 1991).

Bryant, Marsha, Photo-Textualities: Reading Photographs and Literature (University of Delaware Press, 1996).

Carpenter, Humphrey, W.H. Auden: A Biography (London: Allen and Unwin, 1981).

Ferguson, Russell, ‘Dial G.P.O.’, Sight and Sound, Vol.7, No. 28 (Winter, 1938-9), 170-1.

Grant, Jack, Jack Grant's Story. Educator, Cricketer, Missionary 1907-1978 (Lutterworth Press, 1980).

Low, Rachael, Documentary and Educational Films of the 1930s (London: Allen and Unwin, 1979).

Mitchell, Donald, Britten and Auden in the Thirties, the Year 1936 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981).

Osborne, Charles, W.H. Auden: The Life of a Poet (London: Methuen, 1980).

Rotha, Paul, Documentary Diary: An Informal History of the British Documentary Film, 1928-1939 (London: Secker and Warburg, 1973).

Stedman, Edith, ‘My Day’s Work at the Film Unit’, Post Office Magazine, January 1939, 16.

Wright, Basil, ‘Britten and Documentary’, The Musical Times, Vol. 104, No. 1449 (November 1963), 779-780.




Technical Data

Running Time:
9 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
851 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Sound Recording
GRANT, G. Copeland
HALES, Gordon
BRITTEN, Benjamin
Production Company
GPO Film Unit
Sound Re-recording