St Joseph's Missionary Society Collection: 10: 'Mill Hill Sheds Light on the Dark Places of the Earth: Uganda'

This film is held by the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum (ID: 2002/107/010).


Uganda: Reel 1 of 4

Mill Hill Fathers' Uganda Missionary Film - Mill Hill Sheds Light on the Dark Places of the Earth.

The film is in four parts, with frequent intertitles. Internal references date the footage to 1920, although the titles were done in 1922 or later. In addition to the Ugandan stations of Nsambya and Nagalama (Naggalama), there is some footage from Congo and Kenya. The White Fathers and Holy Ghost Fathers (Spiritans) also feature.

Subjects include missionary medical, educational and religious work, the latter including baptisms, catechism classes and last rites. Ugandan converts are shown working at pottery, blacksmithing, basketry, etc. Cultural scenes include music and dance.

Known individuals include Bishop John Biermans, Mother Kevin (Teresa Kearney) and Father Joseph Cayzac.

Production / Donor Details: Shot and produced by the Mill Hill Missionary Society



The early years of British Imperial influence in the independent African kingdom of Buganda were defined to a remarkable extent by the prior presence and activities of Christian missionaries. Buganda itself, one of a complex of independent polities clustered at the northern end of Lake Victoria between Lakes Albert, Kyoga, Edward, and Kivu, had first received missionaries in the late 1870s, soon after the visit of the British explorer H. M. Stanley. The ruler of Buganda, Kabaka Mutesa, had appeared receptive toward Christianity, and Stanley’s visit prompted an 1877 expedition to Buganda by Anglican Protestants. Shortly afterwards, a party of French Catholic missionaries, the White Fathers, also arrived; both sets of Christians were welcomed, despite the prior success of Islam in the area.

Buganda was at this time still wholly autonomous, and the Christian missionaries at Mutesa’s court were guests. The kingdom had always been receptive to the possible benefits that outsiders could bring, and the welcome Mutesa extended to the missions was made with an eye toward the material benefits that might be brought by closer trade contacts with European powers. However, the presence of the missionaries soon caused problems. While Mutesa made no symbolic commitment to either branch of Christianity, Islam or the indigenous Bugandan religion, the missionaries had some success in making converts amongst the courtiers and local chiefs. In the mid-1880s, after the accession of Mwanga as the new Kabaka, this caused a major incident: citing their faith and encouraged by the missions, the Christian courtiers to Mwanga refused to participate in the ritual homosexuality of the court, and during 1886 several dozen were killed as result (of these, 22 were beatified in 1920 as the ‘Buganda Martyrs’) (Hyam, 1991, 186-9). The killings were soon followed by a series of upheavals as the Kabaka first established then attempted to disband several Muslim militias, and then was forced from the throne into temporary exile in 1888 as the Bugandan political system disintegrated into warring camps – initially Muslims versus Christians, then later Catholics against Protestants.

The first agent of British power, Captain F. D. Lugard of the Imperial British East Africa Company, arrived in Buganda in 1890. By this time Mwanga was back on the throne, but without the full powers he had once held; Lugard, against the background of the fractious and suspicious Christian parties (all groups assumed he would side with the Protestants, and were rather surprised when he at first appeared not to), succeeded in obtaining the Kabaka’s signature on a treaty which effectively gave control to the Company. He then continued westward to strike further deals. By the time he returned to Buganda in 1892, relations between Catholics and Protestants were approaching a state of war. After having taken a fateful decision to abandon his erstwhile impartiality by distributing precision firearms to the Protestants, vicious fighting broke out, and Lugard found himself roundly condemned by the Catholic Church the world over, particularly in France, home of the White Fathers. The Catholic Church would eventually claim damages of £10,000 from Britain for destruction wrought by the IBEAC-armed Protestants (O’Neil, 1999, 14-15).

By the time Mwanga signed the final declaration of an official Protectorate over Buganda in August 1894, settlements overseen by the IBEAC had left the Protestant factions in politico-religious control of almost all of the country, with the Muslims and Catholics (now headed by Mwanga) awarded a far smaller share of territory (ibid 15-16; see also Gale, 1959, 51-87, and Low, 2009 passim).

The situation in Buganda at the dawn of the Imperial era proper was thus highly complex: an IBEAC charter had given way to an official protectorate over a country whose indigenous political system had persisted in a febrile and highly convoluted sectarian Christian form, with various factions grouped around differing Christian missions. These missions were often no longer connected to their home churches in any certain way, and after several years of mutual hostility were now intimately tied up in matters of state – so much so that the separation of church and state became a highly contentious issue, with missionaries at the turn of the century comparing the situation ‘to the one obtaining in the Middle Ages’ or even ‘the 4th and 5th centuries’ (Hansen, 1984, 3). Moreover, though there was no official French presence in the country, the Catholic faction was indelibly associated with France, and the Protestant with the English.

It appears to have been to dispel this last illusion that in 1894 the Foreign Office approved a plan supervised by Cardinal Herbert Vaughan to send a missionary party of British Catholics to Buganda. To reduce tension with the French missions, a papal decree authorised the division of Buganda into two spheres, with the eastern regions being the provinces of the British mission as the Apostolic Vicariate of the Upper Nile. In 1895 five missionaries from St Joseph’s Missionary College at Mill Hill departed for Buganda. They arrived at Kampala on 6 September, and by the 11 September Mwanga had arranged for them to take ownership of land at Nsambya Hill for their mission station. A second mission at Naggalama was soon opened, and by the end of their first year, the Mill Hill missionaries had baptised over a thousand Bagandan souls. 



The St Joseph’s collection at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum consists of 29 reels, showing aspects of Mill Hill missionary work in various parts of the world including Borneo, the Philippines, India and Uganda. As with many missionary films, the four-reel picture Mill Hill Fathers’ Uganda Missionary Film (subtitled Mill Hill Sheds Light on the Dark Places of the Earth) was very likely a fund-raising picture aimed at a British church-going audience; in keeping with this probable use, it begins by setting the scene with a sequence showing the departure of several new missionaries for the Ugandan mission, their arrival and their subsequent departure from Uganda proper for what the intertitles describe as ‘the jungle’ (this section may well be a reconstruction, at least in part). Having thus introduced the mission, the film moves on to briefly detail first ‘the country and its people’ with shots of the landscape, wildlife, and a faux ethnographic portrait of a young man (the subject evidently being his elaborate hairstyle), before warming to its central theme, ‘Barbarous methods to be overcome by Missionaries’. The following scenes are of a frankly exoticist and sensational character, including some unexplained footage of two men manhandling some rather docile-looking snakes, the drinking of blood from a living cow (‘A Human Vampire’), and a scene purporting to show ‘A group of savages who have not yet come under the influence of the Missions’. Very obviously staged, and not a little preposterous, this features nine men with variously painted faces, lined up before the camera. They have evidently been asked to make a show of being ‘savage’: they flap their hands, shout, and gesticulate. When the action flags somewhat, the actors look around, clearly expecting a cue: apparently receiving it, the flapping and shouting becomes animated once more (the man at back right seems to find the proceedings amusing).

The later reels concentrate in large part on the medical aspects of the Mill Hill missionaries’ work, and rather in keeping with the earlier sections, the footage is notable for its exploitative and sensationalist character, concentrating unnecessarily on misery and gruesomeness, and lauding the sisters for not being afraid of filth and disease, rather than actually curing anyone. One unhappy patient (a ‘poor creature’), ill with lupus, is referred to as ‘Sister Magdalen’s pet’; we also learn that the area of the Mission that deals with cases of cancer and the then-incurable leprosy is known by the not altogether sensitive name of ‘Rotten Row’. The rather basic nature of the medical expertise on show here (and the fact that only women are shown involved in the work of healing) may be explained by the fact that, as Etherington notes, Catholic canon law actually ‘forbade clergy to practise medicine or surgery (based partly on a fear of priests being tempted by contact with female patients)’ (Etherington, 2005, 279).

Though there is footage of Joseph Mbubi departing for Rome to witness the beatification of the Buganda Martyrs (a sequence which dates the footage to 1920), at no stage is there any major reference to the true history of Christianity in Buganda – which was at this point both widespread and highly influential, with the Kabaka himself being a Catholic – or the reasons for the Mill Hill Fathers’ presence. Rather, the film provides a particularly hyperbolic account of Uganda as a savage, pagan land, its lost people happy to attend catechism for ‘a pinch of salt’ if they are not suffering miserably from some deadly disease. It is interesting to note that in these aspects it exceeds in dramatic exaggeration and historical omission many films by Protestant missionary groups such as the London Missionary Society, which tend in general to focus on sub-ethnographic travelogue-style ‘local interest’, successful conversion or bona fide medical advances. Here, the Mill Hill Fathers instead dwell on aspects which are evidently intended to appear exotic, bizarre and horrifying, and the effect produced is of an amorphous land out of time in which the Mill Hill Fathers have made a vital intervention as though from on high, an effect only enhanced by the almost hallucinatory final shot of Bishop John Biermans dispensing blessings in full regalia, shaded by a parasol, walking directly toward the camera at a stately pace through a crowd who drop to their knees as he passes.

Francis Gooding March 2010


Works Cited

Etherington, Norman ‘Education and Medicine’ in Etherington ed., 2005,  261-84.

Etherington, Norman ed. Missions and Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Gale, H. P. Uganda and the Mill Hill Fathers (London: Macmillan, 1959).

Hansen, Holger Bernt Mission, Church and State in a Colonial Setting: Uganda 1890-1925 (London: Heinemann, 1984).

Hyam, Ronald Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1991).

Low, D. A. Fabrication of Empire: The British and the Ugandan Kingdoms 1890-1902 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

 O’Neil, Robert Mission to the Upper Nile (New York: Mission Book Service, 1999).



  • St Joseph's Missionary Society Collection: 10: 'Mill Hill Sheds Light on the Dark Places of the Earth: Uganda' (Archive)
Series Title:
St Joseph's Missionary Society Collection

Technical Data

Running Time:
approx 16 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm VHS BetaSP
approx 400 ft

Production Credits

Production Company
Mill Hill Missionary Society
Production Details
See synopsis





Production Organisations